Friday, July 07, 2017

On Martha's Vineyard: Rebecca of Africa and William Martin

When I visit Martha's Vineyard island off Massachusetts, my trail runs often take me by the plaque commemorating the life of Rebecca, Woman of Africa. The marker is nestled well into the woods on the way to Vineyard Sound near Great Rock Bight Preserve.

The island African American Heritage Trail's description of what is known about Rebecca's life includes that she was abducted from Guinea, West Africa and lived out much of her life as the "the property of Cornelius Bassett of Chilmark [MA]." She bore three children while enslaved, Pero, Cato and Nancy. Available records don't seem to tell who the father(s) were. They were sold away by Colonel Bassett. At one stage Rebecca lived with a native American man, Elisha Amos, to whom she was recorded as married, although she also lived at the Bassett property. When she died in 1801, the town recorded that she owned a plot of land near the present preserve.

The institution of enslavement in New England seems to have been ambivalent. It certainly existed on Martha’s Vineyard as it did elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. There is evidence to suggest that Rebecca was “allowed” to have some freedom as witnessed by the relationship between her and Elisha Amos, and under Massachusetts law she was entitled to inherit property. The property she inherited from Elisha Amos was for her lifetime only, but the stipulations of the will suggest that Mr. Amos did believe that Rebecca could live in his dwelling house.

Rebecca's great grandson was William Martin, the island's only African American whaling captain.

A young William Martin was known in town because of the dubious behavior of his mother and grandmother.

“They would have known him. He did go to school in Edgartown and became a skilled writer,” Weintraub said. “In those days, there were classes for girls on how to sew sails and for boys on maritime navigation.”

Martin was accepted early on in the community because of his natural abilities on the ocean and his writing skills.

“You see, Edgartown then wasn’t the Edgartown of today,” she said. “It was a raucous town of sailors from all over the country and Europe.”

After Martin began finding some early success in the maritime industry as a ship’s log keeper, he also found love. An American Indian woman named Sarah Brown caught his eye. She had been a live-in maid in Edgartown.

In 1857, Martin returned from a successful voyage aboard the Edgartown vessel Europa and he and Sarah married. Between voyages, Martin lived with Sarah and her family on Chappaquiddick on land designated for American Indians called the Chappaquiddick Plantation.

... “He walked between two worlds really,” Weintraub said. “It was a balancing act. Both Sarah and William Martin would work and live for sometime away from home on Chappaquiddick. He would be on voyages and she would work for families in Edgartown.”

Martin died in 1907 and is little remembered today.

On this island where celebrities and tech moguls buy boutique farms and build McMansions amid the greenery, it's good to be able to learn that African Americans and natives have been part of island life as long as Europeans.

No comments:

Related Posts with Thumbnails