About Prince Boston
Prince Boston, the uncle of Absalom, was born into slavery on Nantucket in 1750, son of Boston and Maria, who were slaves of William Swain, a prominent Nantucket merchant. In 1773 Prince Boston made history by obtaining his freedom from the Swain family through a lengthy court battle. William Swain had freed Prince’s parents in 1760, with the stipulation that each of their children serve the Swain family until age twenty-eight, which for Prince would have been 1778. Through litigation, Prince was able to obtain his freedom five years earlier. This result was consistent with a developing legal principle in Massachusetts and England that allowed blacks access to courts to litigate issues of freedom. (1)
- from "I Will Take to the Water": Frederick Douglass, the Sea, and the Nantucket Whale Fishery. By Nathaniel Philbrick. Historic Nantucket, Vol 40, no. 3 (Fall 1992), p. 49-51.
In 1716 the Nantucket Friends became one of the first groups in America to take a stand against slavery, establishing a precedent that would help create what has been called "the enthusiastically abolitionist atmosphere of the whale fishery," in which sailors of all colors were well paid for their services. In 1770 Prince Boston, a black slave from Nantucket, earned a steersman's lay of 28 pounds for a three-and-a-half-month voyage, which, as the historian Daniel Vickers has pointed out, was equivalent (on a monthly basis) to the wages earned by the captain of a British slaver! A dispute over who should receive the wages—(Boston or his master, John Swain)—resulted in a decision by the Nantucket Court of Common Pleas in 1773 that granted Boston not only his wages but his freedom. When Swain threatened to appeal, William Rotch, one of the leading Quaker whaling merchants on the island, let it be known that he would enlist the services of none other than John Adams to argue Boston's case. "[Discouraged by the feelings of the people and the circumstances of the country," Swain let the matter drop, thus effectively ending slavery on Nantucket Island.
A few years before he was to be granted freedom papers, Maria's son, Prince Boston, signed on as a crew member of the sloop Friendship, owned by the Quaker, William Rotch. When Captain Elisha Folger paid Prince Boston for his wages, an heir of his owner, John Swain, sued Boston to recover the money. The Court of Common Pleas granted Boston his freedom three years ahead of his scheduled manumission. Thus, the island became known as a haven for fugitive slaves who came by way of the Underground Railroad and slave mariners rescued by Quaker captains visiting southern ports. (2)