We know very little about many people enslaved and brought to the United States. Few systematic records were kept, and when the formal system of slavery slowly fell apart in the wake of the 1862 Emancipation Proclamation and the ratification of the 13th Amendment at the end of the Civil War in 1865, some of those deeply involved and invested in the slave trade destroyed additional records. But one formerly enslaved person we do know something about is Belinda Sutton.
Belinda is believed to have been born in what is now Ghana around 1713. She was kidnapped as a child and forcibly brought first to Isaac Royall’s plantation in Antigua, and then to the United States to work in the Royall family home in Medford, Massachusetts, from 1737-1781.
On account of being loyalists, the Royall family fled to Nova Scotia and then to England at the beginning of the American Revolution. Belinda and others enslaved by the Royalls went to Boston where they lived in unofficial freedom. When Massachusetts abolished slavery in 1783, Belinda petitioned the Massachusetts General Court for a pension from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr. Remarkably, the legislature approved an annual pension of fifteen pounds twelve shillings, making Belinda perhaps the first formerly enslaved person to receive reparations for enslaved labor. She subsequently petitioned the legislature twice more.
Belinda’s petition was used as an abolitionist tool both in the United States and in England. A dramatized first-person version of her petition also circulated in the 19th century.
In recent years, scholars have uncovered evidence that Belinda married (changing her name to Belinda Sutton), had two children and lost her husband. She died in 1799. While researchers continue to search for the lost details of her later life, her petition remains an invaluable record of one woman’s story of enslavement and activism.