Eye-opening exhibit

The M.V. Museum tells an Island story of enslavement, indenture, and incarceration.


History is typically written by those in power, and museum exhibitions often focus on people at the top of the social pyramid with the ability to be the master of their own fate. The Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s newest exhibition, “Unfreedom: Enslavement, Indenture, and Incarceration on Martha’s Vineyard,” uses its archives to travel back in time to explore those at the other end of the social strata — bringing to light people who were profoundly unfree on the Island. 

The show is handsome, but the subject is in no way pretty. It is, however, critical to see that the Vineyard has not been immune to these issues. The museum’s research librarian, Bow Van Riper, who assisted the exhibition’s guest curator, Dan Elias, explains the show’s origins: “In the aftermath of the events of 2020, we were looking for ways to bring a Vineyard historical perspective to racism and inequality in America. The idea was to use ‘unfreedom’ to explore the experience of being on the receiving end of a legal system that allows some individuals to have power over another. And in a broader sense, to get at what it was like to be a person on the Vineyard without power, autonomy, the ability to shape your own life as you wish.”

The first section is devoted to enslavement. It is chilling to read an original bill of sale of a 10-year-old boy, Peter, being sold by Zachheus Mayhew of Edgartown for £150, that spells out in black and white the nature of those who were enslaved for their life — and that of their children, ad infinitum, to the owner and his ensuing heirs. 

In an estate inventory, it is sobering to see a human being listed as a “negro boy” between the listing of a pole and one horse. Elias says, “We recognize that these are really explosive documents, and will be painful for a lot of people to look at. But it will be interesting to learn that slavery was alive and well in this colony through the beginning of the colonial period, and up through the Revolution.”

Perhaps the most unnerving item is a ship’s manifest from 1799, well after slavery was effectively outlawed in Massachusetts in 1783. We see not only the listing of the number of children, women, and men — including how many died on the trip from Africa to Havana — but how much each was sold for in stark numbers. The company responsible for hiring the ship and captain and arranging the sale in Havana was Fales and Athearn. The principal George Athearn was from the Vineyard, and an important person as a member of the state legislature, a judge, lawyer, and significant landowner. This handwritten document reveals that even 15 years after slavery was no longer legal, Athearn was still making significant money in the slave trade, but just not on American shores.

There are items illustrating different forms of servitude, some voluntary, some more punitive, and others court-mandated. Indigenous Americans here on the Vineyard were not frequently enslaved the way African-heritage people were in most of the colonies, and later in the early history of the U.S. Yet, Elias explains, “Often they were asked to conform to a set of laws that they had no part in writing, about ownership of land and livestock, and borrowing money, which by and large was a new concept to them. They would get into financial trouble, with fines levied against them, or having to pay loans back.” They would end up violating all of these systems created by the white male power structure. Elias continues, “Because they would end up needing to pay a fine or have to return the money, they would have to work off the debt or fine by being indentured — working for someone else for no money for a certain term of time.” Usually, there was a contract spelling out the details, such as the indenture document for Wampanoag woman Beck Pocknossom, who owed 25 shillings to Paine Mayhew. Because she could not pay the debt, Pocknossom was indentured to someone for four months, and the wages that otherwise would have been paid to her were paid to her creditor.

Another item reflects the indenture of apprentices. Before organized vocational schooling existed, if you wanted to be a weaver, mariner, carpenter, or miller, you needed to apprentice to a master. In the end, you came away with knowledge of a profession and two suits of clothing — one for everyday and another for Sunday. Although the apprentice might have been willing, Elias says, “It’s stark when you see they had to indenture themselves for seven, eight, or nine or more years.”

A harsher form of indenture was where impoverished children were taken — sometimes at a very young age, and often offered up by their families — to be indentured for a long period of time, typically until the age of 21, as a servant to a wealthier family. This system worked in lieu of a social safety net. Ellis shares, “What happens is that the wealthy, white, privileged families on the Island ended up with free labor for many years at the cost of providing food and shelter and some education to youngsters in a precarious economic situation.” While not nearly as bone-chilling as the chattel slavery that was practiced earlier, indenture carried on into the early 20th century.

Elias also dissected information from Edgartown Jail logs covering the period from 1789 to 1862. This area of the exhibit, which includes haunting leg shackles, delineates the number of whites versus people of color for each reason for incarceration. Among many revealing statistics is that among the imprisoned, one-third were people of color, while their population on the Island as a whole was only 12 percent. 

Elias says he hopes that it’s fulfilling for people of other groups to see their potential ancestors talked about on the walls of the museum, and know that these stories are being told, honored, and remembered. He concludes, “What I really hope somebody walks out with is a sense of what it might be like on the streets in an earlier decade, and the failures of the system to treat them as human beings.”

“Unfreedom” is on view at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum through Feb. 12, 2023.