A black king of New England, Nero Brewster, introduced a bill to gain his freedom to the General Assembly in 1779. It became law 234 years later, a fitting, if tardy, tribute to an extraordinary man.
Black King Nero had been born of royal lineage in Africa early in the 18th century. As a child, slavers captured him, took him to the American colonies and sold him to a wealthy tavern owner in Portsmouth, N.H. In that busy seacoast town he reclaimed his royal status as the acknowledged leader of the region’s black community.
For many years, Nero won the annual Negro Election and presided over an informal black government that mirrored the white polity.
Historians identified Nero as one of at least 31 elected black kings and governors throughout New England from about 1750 to 1850.
Portsmouth's African-Americans would elect Black King Nero every June, during Portsmouth’s 'Negroes Hallowday,' or 'Election Day.' The most important day of the year, it was held annually on the same day the white men of New England’s towns and cities gathered to vote for their leaders.
Black men elected their leaders not just in Portsmouth, but throughout the colonies. The Massachusetts towns of Salem and Lynn had 'Negroes Hallowday.' So did Newport and Narragansett in Rhode Island. So did Hartford, Norwich and Derby, Conn., and at least a half dozen other cities and towns.
In the royal colonies where the Crown appointed the governor – New Hampshire and Massachusetts – black men elected black kings.
In the charter colonies where white men could elect their own governor – Rhode Island and Connecticut – black men elected black governors. (For a list of known black governors of Connecticut, click here.)
For New England’s African slaves, Election Day meant more than a rare break from toil and a chance to have fun. They could express pride in their African heritage and rehearse for their role as free citizens.
And they could also elect black kings and governors to rule over the black social order as magistrate, spokesman, negotiator and leader.
Rum, Gingerbread and Election Cake
Election Day began with the Puritans as a jolly secular holiday. The colonists traveled to town in spring or early summer to elect their local leaders. Some had to travel quite far, and might stay overnight.
Important families hosted election-day celebrations, with rum and gingerbread and thick, fruit-studded election cakes.
The masters let the slaves take Election Day off or brought them into town. According to Salem minister William Bentley, African bondsmen and servants 'were too restless at home to be of any use till (the election holidays) were over.'
And so the Africans started organizing their own elections and their own celebrations, first in Newport and Hartford and then throughout New England.
In Connecticut, an enslaved African named London served as the first black governor known to history. London, who belonged to Capt. Thomas Seymour, was elected Connecticut governor in Hartford in 1755.
As Connecticut Colony's population grew, black residents began to elect leaders who lived nearby. Historians know of black governors in Derby, Durham, Farmington, New Haven, New London, Norwich and Seymour.
A Real Black King
Like Black King Nero, some of the black kings had royal African blood, and the Negroes Hallowday owes much to the Africans’ tradition of honoring their own royalty. Even before the Negro Election began in Lynn, African immigrants honored a prince of Africa named Pompey. Slavers had captured and sold him, but his master freed him when he grew too old to work.
Pompey then moved to a little glade near the Saugus River, where every year he hosted a holiday for the African bondsmen from nearby towns. He served as host, guest of honor and master of ceremonies. Women picked flowers to crown old King Pompey, and the men sat and talked about happier times on the Gambia River in West Africa.
A Monarch Held in Esteem
Black King Nero had dignity and stature. When he died in 1789, his obituary described him as, “A Monarch, who, while living, was held in reverential esteem by his subjects consequently, his death is greatly lamented.”
Similarly, black kings and governors throughout New England commanded respect -- because of their achievements, their strength or their ability.
Hartford’s Black Governor Peleg Nott, described as 'a first rate feller,' had traveled far, having driven a provision cart during the American Revolution. Black Governor Tobiah of Derby, Conn., was “a man of tact, courage and unusual intelligence.”
Black Governor Guy Watson of South Kingston fought in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment at the battles of Red Bank and Ticonderoga.
And black Governor Quosh Freeman of Derby, Conn., was a “man of herculean strength, a giant six-footer.”
Like all of the black kings and governors, Black King Nero’s rank reflected his master’s stataure. Col. William Brewster owned the Bell Tavern in Portsmouth, a well-known gathering place for patriots during the Revolutionary War.
Black King Nero embraced the revolutionary ideals of equality and freedom discussed so ardently within the tavern walls.
On each Election Day in June, Black King Nero dressed in his finest clothes to lead a procession of slaves and freedmen from Portsmouth and neighboring towns. His honor guard, perhaps decked out in feathers, flowers and ribbons, accompanied him.
The parade started with the crack of a gunshot. Down Middle Street they marched, and out Middle Road to a flat open area called Portsmouth Plains. They borrowed swords, guns and even horses from their masters for the festive parade.
Marchers made a happy racket with many African languages, more gunshots and music from tambourines, banjos, fiddles and drums. All the slaves wore their best clothes, often hand-me-downs from their masters. But they altered the outfits imaginatively with an African flair.
We can glean an idea of what their costumes looked like from a description of a runaway slave. He wore a Saxon blue jacket with bright green baize lining, slash sleeves and small metal buttons, a brown sleeveless jacket and scarlet breeches.
In Portsmouth and elsewhere, bondsmen deliberately played the fool in their gaudy Election Day costumes. White people looked on with enjoyment, belittling the slaves’ deportment and clothing as “fantastic.”
Today, historians note the white onlookers didn’t understand the black celebrants were making fun of their stiffness and pretensions. They also mocked the white people's obtuseness in not grasping they were laughingstocks.
Historians view their antics as a form of self-preservation. They didn’t want white people intimidated by their claim to participate in government.
The slaves' bitterness and contempt for their masters does show clearly in a written document signed by Black King Nero and 19 others in 1779.
Haranguing and Socializing
When the marchers reached the Plains, Nero and his opponent harangued each other as the crowd socialized and celebrated. Women, who couldn't vote, lobbied for their favorite candidates. The revelers reunited with friends and family who lived far away, and exchanged news and opinion about the white people they served.
More than a hundred took part, for in 1767 Portsmouth alone had 124 male and 63 female slaves, according to Brewster’s Rambles. (The total population of Portsmouth, one of the biggest cities in the colonies, reached 4,466 that year.)
After about three hours of electioneering and merriment, men voted and then declared Nero the black king. He subsequently announced his court: Viceroy Willie Clarkson, Sheriff Jock Odiorne and Deputy Sheriff Pharoah Shores. All came from Africa.
Who ran against Black King Nero, the acclaimed leader of Portsmouth’s African community? One wonders if it was ever Prince Whipple, the literate servant of William Whipple, who lived in the Moffatt-Ladd House.
Prince Whipple, born a prince of Africa, was sold into slavery as a child. He served as General Whipple’s bodyguard during the Revolutionary War, and he stood with the general at the Battle of Saratoga and at the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
According to legend, Prince Whipple accompanied George Washington during his famous crossing of the Delaware.
In the 1851 painting by Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze, some identify the black oarsman as Prince Whipple. A version of the painting now hangs in Marblehead’s Abbot Hall.
Regardless of whom he defeated at the polls, Black King Nero led the raucous procession back to his master's house for a victory party. As at the other Negroes Hallowdays, Nero’s master paid for the meal, though the black slaves and freedmen prepared it.
The black elections could get expensive for the masters. In Narragansett, R.I., the E.R. Potter’s slave John was elected governor. Potter, a state and federal legislator, told John that one of them would have to give up politics or the expenses would ruin them both. John stepped down.
The Black King and His Court
At his victory party in Portsmouth, Black King Nero served as host, master of ceremonies and guest of honor. He and his so-called Negro Court were toasted indoors, while games were played and athletic competitions held outside.
At the end of the day the celebrants moved to the slave quarters, where they.danced energetically to fiddle tunes of West African origin or influence.
Throughout the next year, Black King Nero served as leader, spokesman, arbiter and magistrate. He meted out judgments and punishments to slaves accused of petty crimes.
The shadow court system worked well for the white population as well as the black.
Trial and Punishment
In 1859, Portsmouth columnist C.W. Brewster described one trial in a typically condescending (for whites) account. A slave named Prince Jackson reportedly stole an ax. The black sheriff, Jock Odiorne, seized him and summoned the court.
Black King Nero sat for the examination in which evidence was submitted. He found Prince guilty and condemned him to 20 lashes on the bare back at the town pump.
The slaves gathered at the pump. Then, wrote Brewster,
...the Sheriff, after taking off his coat and tying up the convict to the pump, hands the whip to his deputy, Pharaoh Shores, addressing the company, "Gemmen, this way we s'port our government" - turning to his deputy - "Now, Pharaoh, pay on !" After the whipping was over, the sheriff dismissed the prisoner, telling him that the next time he is found this side Christian Shore, unless sent by his master, he will receive twenty lashes more.
Prince did not reform. Shortly afterward he was found guilty of larger thefts and taken to the white people's court.
“Here, we feel a just equality”
The festivities and satire of Negroes Hallowday belied a serious purpose. In the same way, the operation of the Negro Court throughout the year did not signify the slaves’ acceptance of their inferior status.
During the Revolutionary War, Black King Nero led at least one meeting of 20 black slaves to discuss their freedom. He may well have held more.
Inspired by revolutionary ideals and hatred of their miserable servitude, they drew up a petition demanding their freedom. They may have borrowed some of the language from the fervent patriots who talked of revolution at the Bell Tavern. They certainly took some language from the Declaration of Independence, which, one of the petition signers – Prince Whipple -- had witnessed.
The petition ensured that history remembered Black King Nero better than his master.
The men, seething with anger at their bondage, wrote a bold and bitter document. It drips with contempt for the pious Christians who enslaved them.
As in the Declaration, the signers list their grievances and denounce their enemies:
...thro' ignorance & brutish violence of their native countrymen and by similar designs of others, (who ought to have taught them better) & by the avarice of both, they, while but children, and incapable of self defense, whose infancy might have prompted protection, were seized, imprisoned, and transported from their native country, where (tho' ignorance and inchristianity prevailed) they were born free to a country, where (tho' knowledge, christianity and freedom, are their boast) they are compelled, and their unhappy posterity, to drag on their lives in miserable servitude. . . .
The Dignity of Human Nature
The bondsmen emphatically reject any idea that they are inferior to white people: 'here, we feel the passions and desires of men, tho' check'd by the rod of slavery! here, we feel a just equality!'
And they end with a prayer, 'that the name of SLAVE may no more be heard in a land gloriously contending for the sweets of freedom.'
They submitted the handwritten petition for freedom to the General Assembly in Exeter on Nov. 12, 1779. According to Black Portsmouth, the original manuscript has disappeared. No one knows whether the men signed their own names or used a mark.
It was read in the House of Representatives on April 25, 1780, and ordered published in the New Hampshire Gazette. The newspaper printed it that summer, with a disclaimer that it was intended “for the amusement “ of its readers.
The House then took up the petition on June 9, 1780, but decided to table it until “a more convenient opportunity.” No other legislative action would be taken on it for 234 years.
Black King Nero’s plea wasn’t the only petition in New England and it wasn’t the first. Two years earlier in 1777, eight Boston black men, mostly free, signed a petition to the Massachusetts Legislature to abolish slavery. A committee killed the petition, but the court abolished slavery in Massachusetts five years later.
In the spring of 1779, Connecticut black men in the towns of Stratford and Fairfield signed a petition asking the general assembly in Hartford if slavery wasn’t inconsistent with 'the present claims of the united States.'
And some Connecticut slaves petitioned for freedom because they’d became the property of the state after their Tory masters fled.
Six of the signers of the New Hampshire petition, including Prince Whipple, gained their freedom after the Revolution. Black King Nero died a slave, and possibly the last black king of Portsmouth. Historians haven’t unearthed any evidence that any other black kings were elected after he died.
In 2013, state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth declared that Nero Brewster and the other 19 captive Africans deserved some closure. She filed a bill before the Legislature to posthumously free the remaining 15 slaves. The bill passed, and Gov. Maggie Hassan signed it into law. She granted King Nero Brewster his freedom, on Friday, June 7, 2013.
“The bill is now law,” she declared, as the room full of supporters for the bill broke into cheers.
Prince Whipple died in 1796 at age 46 and buried in Portsmouth’s North Cemetery. In 1908, local military veterans placed a stone on his grave.
In October 2003 a “Negro Burying Ground” was rediscovered under Portsmouth’s Chestnut Street.
Connecticut Colony paid for the first documented election cake (roughly £3), in Hartford, Conn. And the first known recipe appears in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery in 1796, the first cookbook for an American market. For a recipe for Election Cake from the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, (1911, orig. 1896), click here.
This story about black kings and governors was updated in 2018.