A Duxbury Slaver?
by David A. Mittell, Jr.
At a biographers’ group last month a colleague mentioned that she
was having a hard time getting information about an 18’th-century
slave ship she believes was built in the North Shore village of
Bradford on the Merrimack River. I suggested poking around the town of
Essex, where shipbuilding goes on today and where historical memory
This caused eyes to turn my way, as if to say, “Well, Mr. South
Shore wash-ashore, were there slavers built in Duxbury?” I replied
that I had never heard of such a thing but would look into it
An answer came quickly. On Jan. 11, 2011, The Patriot Ledger
reported that the schooner Gustavus — built in Duxbury in 1815 by
Nathaniel Winsor, Jr. – disembarked 26 African slaves, ages two months
to 36 years, in Savannah, Georgia, on October 6, 1821. A facsimile of
the slave manifest is commemorated in a plaque on Savannah’s historic
River Walk. According to the Boston Public Library, the master of the
Gustavus was John Southworth of Duxbury.
The Ledger’s story may have relied too much on an Internet search.
It combines the Gustavus of interest with a vessel of the same name
that plied the passage to Ireland after the potato blight struck in
1845. Duxbury’s Gustavus was a 64-foot schooner built for the coastal
trade, and by simple dint of her unseaworthiness was unlikely to be
carrying slaves from Africa – which was unlawful after 1808 under the constitution.
Patrick Browne, executive director of the Duxbury Rural &
Historical Society, notes that the Gustavus was leased from Nathaniel
Winsor, Jr. He believes the most likely point of embarkation for
Savannah was Baltimore, not Africa. He also notes that the copious
manifests of Duxbury’s greatest shipbuilder, Ezra Weston Jr., “King
Caesar” (1771-1842), show no record of transporting slaves. The
apparent use of the Gustavus was, he believes, unusual if not unique
for a Duxbury-built ship.
Nonetheless, if we exclude evidence that may be spurious, we are
left with money from a leased slaver going into the pocket of
Nathaniel Winsor, Jr. — whose elegant home on Washington St. is the
headquarters and showpiece of the Rural & Historical Society as the
town begins to celebrate the 375th anniversary of its founding.
When it comes to slavery I believe in mainly looking forward to the
country we are still creating. When we look back we should do so with
humility – for none of us can say how he would have acted (we think we
do but we don’t!) – and with steel-clear eyes for the truth.
At this juncture there are more unknowns than knowns. For example,
in the matter of John Southworth, a ship’s master was not the same
thing as a slave-master. Writing a history of Duxbury in 1849, Justin
Winsor records seven children born to Jedediah and Betsy Southworth,
including Capt. Thomas Southworth (b. 1771, “d. at New Orleans 1819”);
John Southworth (b. 1773); and Nathan Southworth (b. 1778, “d. at
sea”). A seafaring family whose middle son was very likely the master
of the Gustavus.
But were crews typically leased with the vessels they had worked
aboard? More likely, a lessee scrummaged a crew from remnants of crews
and from men on the docks. The answer – before placing John Southworth
aboard a slaver along with other Duxbury men we would prefer to
remember as yeomen and patriots — requires a better-qualified
speculator than this writer. The search for truth must go on.
Two points can be made in certainty. First, whether or not Duxbury
men ever encountered the 26 Africans disembarked in Savannah in a way
that was inconvenient for the latter, we and their descendants are
brothers. The country we are building requires us to mutually
understand that, even if too many of our politicians currently do not.
Second, by no means should we look at ourselves as superior to
living Southern brethren who have seen clear to remembering the human
cargo of the Gustavus with a public plaque.
David A. Mittell, Jr. is Senior Editor of The Duxbury Clipper. He’s the webmaster’s pal from Centre Street hangouts and they have been having conversations for years.