Peter Faneuil and Slavery

"With the net proceeds of the same purchase for me, for the use of my house, as likely a strait negro lad as possibly you can, about the age from twelve to fifteen years." This letter, written in February of 1738, was not written by a wealthy Virginia planter, or a small time southern slave owner, but from Peter Faneuil, one of the wealthiest merchants in 18th century Boston, Massachusetts. The man responsible for gifting Faneuil Hall, the location of Boston's town meeting and nicknamed "The Cradle of Liberty" during the American Revolution, was an owner and trader of African slaves.

Owning slaves in 17th and 18th century Boston was not unusual. A French prospector visiting Boston stated in a 1678 report "You may own Negroes and Negresses;there is not a House in Boston, however small may be its means, that has not one or two."Peter Faneuil's economic prosperity though, gave him the means to own a greater number of slaves. According to the appraisal inventory taken of Faneuil's estate after his death, Faneuil had five slaves valued at £620, equivalent to $123,679.68 U.S. dollars today. The fortune of Peter Faneuil, which allowed him to own five slaves, was amassed through a combination of the inheritance of the majority of his uncle's estate and trade. Goods involved in his trade included fish, tobacco, produce, rum and molasses;but, like many merchants of the time, Faneuil was also involved in the exchange of human cargo.

An example of Faneuil's involvement in the slave trade is the voyage he planned to Guinea in 1742 with his ship the Jolly Bachelor. In 1743, the ship returned from the Guinea coast with "twenty negroes" amongst its cargo, but Faneuil, who died in 1742, did not live to see the completion of the journey. Though Peter Faneuil lived a short life, his keen eye for business made him a successful merchant, which gave him the finances to donateFaneuil Hall to Boston. There is some irony to be found in its nickname however, because a portion of the money used to fund "The Cradle of Liberty" came from the buying and selling of African slaves.

Last updated: January 16, 2015

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