Blog Post

“The Cause of Grief”

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

September 14, 2020

Narrative Nonfiction

Author Wendy Warren states that every historian chooses how to frame their argument and that she “deliberately chose a method that makes visible the gaps in my evidence” It is clear that this story about how history is written about in addition to the story of a rape. Other historians explain that when documents directly related to the people, they are researching are gone it is best to look through other sources to show the world they would have lived in and what reactions they would have had to the situation. History cannot be told without partly inserting an ounce of speculation in order to form a cohesive narrative. Warren says “Without imagination, how can we tell such stories? We are not scientists; we cannot test our hypothesis… We make our way among flawed sources, over reliant on written texts…doing the best we can with blurry evidence, sometimes forced to speculate despite our specialized knowledge” Warren describes another author’s similar approach to history as well when they had little evidence. “Davis explained that when documents relating to her characters ran dry, she ‘did [her] best through other sources from the period and place to discover the world they would have seen and the reactions they might have had.’ Davis described the finished project as part ‘invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.” One will be required to fill in some of the gaps like a detective investigating a crime in order to understand a semblance of what may have occurred with so little evidence.

Setting the Stage

The story of the rape of an enslaved woman is captured in a single paragraph in an English merchant’s 17th century travelogue. A man named John Josselyn captured the event that led to this investigation. He encountered an anguished woman after her owner ordered another slave rape her in order to produce offspring. There are only a few certifiable facts, the date, and location. We know who the woman was enslaved by- a man named Samuel Maverick. The only reason one is able to reconstruct her life with any measure of certainty is because she was among one of the first Africans to arrive in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1638. She traveled there on the ship Desire. A fitting name indeed. There are almost no surviving recorded references of African slaves and most are only a line or two. Even if they were mentioned more than once, they most often remain nameless.

However, there is one way to start to demystify this woman’s life and that is by building the world around her. The life of the merchant who wrote about his meeting with the enslaved woman who called out to him is less important than Maverick’s life in order to reconstruct what may have occurred. It is of note however, that the merchant did nothing to help her when she called out to him.

Why Did He Choose Slavery?

Maverick was a man of opportunity. The kind of man who would marry a friend’s widow in order to acquire all of the land he left behind, and he did just that, inheriting an island where he built his mansion. With his five children and a small population pool that already didn’t enjoy his company to hire from, slavery seemed to be the answer. On a trip to Virginia, Maverick spoke to a crew from Barbados where some of the first colonizers of the island hoped to grow tobacco and make a fortune. They had already brought some slaves from the island and any offspring they produced were covered in the original purchase price, so perhaps Maverick cemented his decision to use slaves then. He already knew about slavery from his investments in the Bermuda and Guinea companies that were heavily involved in slavery. He was interested in joining them, so maybe he wanted to own slaves to give himself more prestige.

While his motivations and inspiration for buying slaves are unclear, it is known that by 1638 he owned at least three. One of them most definitely being the rape victim. She lived with another enslaved woman and the male slave who raped her. She labored among with them, along white servants, and perhaps with Maverick’s wife. She probably slept near her owners possibly inside their house. None of this meant familiarity or friendliness, she was only a handful of African’s in Boston and she could not speak English.

How Could This Have Taken Place?

Maverick was clearly in a hurry to buy slaves and expected that owning them would help him on his path to riches. He bought the first slaves on the first ship to arrive in New England after all. According to Josselyn’s paragraph describing the incident, Maverick was “Desirous to have a breed of Negroes,” and compelled his male slave to have sex with the woman, “will’d she nill’d she” whether she wanted to or not. Maverick knew she didn’t want to and gave the orders to the enslaved man after first “seeing she would not yield by perswasions”. Mrs. Maverick would have had more contact with the slaves in the household, so did she order the woman to raped, had she suggested it, and did she know?

It is unclear how the exchange between the woman and her rapist went. It is possible he went under duress to try and persuade the woman to have sex with him, but it is possible that they didn’t even speak the same language. According to Josselyn’s account the woman refused. Warren also states that it is possible that the man didn’t need to be threatened in order to violate her and, “No matter how low his race placed him in New England’s power structure, the woman’s gender placed her a step lower still. Impregnating her may have seemed an excellent way to reassert the sense of self-worth and autonomy his environment consistently denied him”. No matter his motives, the outcome was still the same.

Warren, W. (2007). “The Cause of Her Grief”: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England. The Journal of American History, 93(4), 1031-1049. doi:10.2307/25094595

Translated by Christine Kearney-Ogburn


The scholarly article is by Wendy Anne Warren and is titled, “The Cause of her Grief: The Rape of a Slave in Early New England” It was found in The Journal of American History Volume 93 and published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians in 2007. Wendy Warren is an Associate Professor of History at Princeton University and specializes in the history of colonial North America and the early modern Atlantic World. I introduced Warren and cited her through hyperlinks to add credibility to what was being written instead of the audience having to take my word.