Today's guest post comes from Sally Gunning, author of The Widow's War and Bound, which was recently released in paperback. In her "Satucket novels," as Geraldine Brooks has dubbed them, Gunning writes about 18th century Massachusetts. In The Widow's War she wrote about the widow Lyddie Berry, a whaler's wife living in Cape Cod and in Bound she tells the story of Alice Cole, an indentured servant. I identify with Gunning below, when she talks of her fascination with indentured servitude. From the time I learned of this type of slavery in elementary school, I have long been interested in learning more about it and how it worked in 18th century America. A friend of mine recently contacted me to see if Gunning could speak to her book group as they had just read The Widow's War and I thought I'd ask her to write something for all of you, about the background to her most recent novel. The paperback edition of Bound includes several interesting new materials, including the original court documents that inspired the novel: arrest warrants, witness depositions, the jury verdict, and more. Read on to learn how Gunning came to write Bound. Be sure to check out the Bound reading guide, and if you are interested in inviting Sally Gunning to speak to your reading group by phone, email her at bookmail AT comcast DOT net. Be sure to visit her website for more information as well.
Many book clubs ask me what compelled me to write the story of Alice Cole. In the course of some historical research that took me through a number of seventeenth and eighteenth century Cape Cod wills I discovered that slavery was widely practiced and little acknowledged in this part of the country. My there’s-a-book light bulb went off; I felt that this particular part of New England’s history deserved to see the light of day. But as I discussed the subject with my brother he said, “All the slaves weren’t black, you know,” reminding me of a related subject that had long interested me and greatly influenced the make-up of New England: indentured servitude. I also remembered that I’d come across an intriguing story of an indentured servant in researching my previous historical novel, The Widow’s War.
Diarist Benjamin Bangs of Harwich (formerly Satucket, now Brewster) made the following notation in his diary in 1764, referencing a former indentured servant who had given birth to an illegitimate child while alone, and the child died. In that era a single woman in such circumstance was almost always charged with infanticide, the assumption being that she would have killed the child to hide the crime of fornication. The diary passage reads:
[July] 10: Tuesday: wind SW: hot: I went in my chaise with my wife to Bass ponds visited Mrs Kelly and dind then went to see :Hannah: the black girl we brought up: who has had a bastard child alone at tom Ralphs: the [grand] jury brot in that the child died for want help she is in fitts and weak and almost dead an object of pity the sheriff Stone has put a guard over her and intends to put her in goal if she lives She lies lamenting her folly when sencible.
Several things intrigued me about this passage: first, of course, was the fact of the pending infanticide charge, but second, the fact that Bangs refers to this indentured servant as “the black girl we brought up,” as if she were almost a member of his family, even going to visit to her in her time of distress. The literature on indentured servitude is filled with tales of abusive masters, but Benjamin Bangs was clearly of another type.
Even though Hannah was not one of the “white slaves” (Bangs alternately refers to her as “Indian Hannah” or “Black Hannah”) I decided to see what I could find out about her, and was fortunate to be able to locate the files for the case of “Hannah Nutup, a spinster from Yarmouth” in the archives of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The record contained three depositions from the women who arrived at the scene, each almost identical to the one by Sarah Burgess, Hannah’s arrest warrant, grand jury indictment, and trial jury verdict.
In reading the record of Hannah’s trial I knew that this was a story I wished to tell. But as I began to talk to various people about indentured servitude I discovered that although they all knew plenty about the exploitation and enslavement of Africans and Indians, few were familiar with the “white slaves.” I decided I might best illuminate this unknown part of our history by creating as my main character a young white girl who came into service the same way so many of them had: she was bound out by her father in order to help pay for the family’s costly passage to America, a legal practice as long as the child had reached seven years of age.
So Alice Cole was born, and although her life converges with Hannah’s in some of its details, it sometimes diverges dramatically, and in at least one instance to Alice’s greater advantage: her path crosses that of someone the readers of my previous historical novel will recognize: the widow Lyddie Berry.