Half the History: Belinda's Petition

Jennifer Burton


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Belinda was born in 1712 in Ghana, Africa. Kidnapped at the age of 12, she was enslaved by the family of Isaac Royall for five decades.
During the Revolutionary War, British Loyalist Isaac Royall fled to Canada.
Belinda subsequently petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature for a pension from the Royall estate, becoming part of the vibrant petition movement of the period. The movement included activist Prince Hall, who likely wrote down the words of her petition.
With the success of her petition, Belinda is often considered the first American to receive reparations for slavery.
After her exchanges with the legislature, Belinda disappeared from the historical record.
Her story survives through these words of her petition, seen here in the very house where she was enslaved, which still stands preserved in Medford, Massachusetts, as a concrete memory of our history.
BELINDA (v.o.): To the Honourable the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled.
The Petition of Belinda an Affrican, humbly shews:
That seventy years have rolled away, since she on the banks of the Rio de Valta received her existence.
The mountains covered with spicy forests, the valleys loaded with the richest fruits, spontaneously produced;
Joined to that happy temperature of air to exclude excess;
Would have yielded her the most complete felicity, had not her mind received early impressions of the cruelty of men
Whose faces were like the moon, and whose bows and arrows were like the thunder and the lightning of the clouds.
The idea of these, the most dreadful of all enemies, filled her infant slumbers with horror, and her noontide moments with evil apprehensions!
But her affrighted imagination, in its most alarming extension, never represented distresses equal to what she hath since really experienced – for before she had twelve years enjoyed the fragrance of her native groves, and e’er she realized, that Europeans placed their happiness in the yellow dust which she carelessly marked with her infant footsteps
Even when she, in a sacred grove, with each hand in that of a tender parent, was paying her devotions to the great Orisa who made all things – an armed band of white men, driving many of her countrymen in chains, ran into the hallowed shade!
Could the tears, the sighs and supplications, bursting from tortured parental affection, have blunted the keen edge of avarice, she might have been rescued from agony, which many of her country’s children have felt, but which none hath ever described.
In vain she lifted her supplicating voice to an insulted father, and her guiltless hands to a dishonoured Deity!
She was ravished from the bosom of her country, from the arms of her friends – while the advanced age of her parents, rendering them unfit for servitude, cruelly separated her from them forever!
Scenes which her imagination had never conceived of – a floating world – the sporting monsters of the deep – and the familiar meetings of billows and clouds, strove, but in vain to divert her melancholy attention, from three hundred Africans in chains, suffering the most excruciating torments; and some of them rejoicing, that the pangs of death came like a balm to their wounds.
Once more her eyes were blest with a continent – but alas! how unlike the land where she received her being! Here all things appeared unpropitious – she learned to catch the ideas, marked by the sounds of language only to know that her doom was slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her.
What did it avail her, that the walls of her lord were hung with splendor, and that the dust troden underfoot in her native country, crowded his gates with sordid worshippers.
The laws had rendered her incapable of receiving property – and though she was a free moral agent, accountable for her actions, yet she never had a moment at her own disposal!
Fifty years her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until, as if nations must be agitated, and the world convulsed for the preservation of that freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human race, the present war was commenced
The terror of men armed in the cause of freedom, compelled her master to fly – and to breathe away his life in a land, where, lawless domination sits enthroned – pouring bloody outrage and cruelty on all who dare to be free.
The face of your petitioner, is now marked with the furrows of time and her frame feebly bending under the oppression of years, while she, by the laws of the land, is denied the enjoyment of one morsel of that immense wealth, a part whereof hath been accumulated by her own industry, and the whole augmented by her servitude.
Wherefore, casting herself at the feet of your honours,as to a body of men, formed for the extirpation of vassalage, for the reward of virtue, and the just return of honest industry she prays, that such allowance may be made her out of the estate of Colonel Royall, as will prevent her and her more infirm daughter from misery in the greatest extreme, and scatter comfort over the short and downward path of their lives – and she will ever pray.
Boston, 14 February 1783.
PRINCE HALL: Will you make your mark?
My mark.
For more on the Half the History project, see www.fivesisters.com
You can read Belinda's petition and other primary documents at the Royall House website, www.royallhouse.org
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