Belinda Royall also known as Belinda Royal or Belinda Sutton, was a Ghanaian-born woman who was enslaved by the Royall family in Massachusetts. She was abandoned by her master, Isaac Royall, when he fled to Nova Scotia at the beginning of the American Revolution.
Belinda Royall, whose name appears in some documents as Royalle, was born in 1712 in Ghana, Africa. She was kidnapped from her home near the Volta River when she was 12 years old.
Most of what we know about her life comes from a remarkable 1783 petition to the Massachusetts General Court, in which she recounted her life story and claimed a pension from the estate of Isaac Royall Jr. Her public assertion of her rights has given her a place in history and public memory.
Her description of her abduction captured in a 1783 petition vividly describes the horror of the slave trade when she recalls “an armed band of white men, took many of [my] countrymen in chains.” Isaac Royall, an Englishman, bought her, and she served as a slave in the Royall home in Massachusetts. Isaac Royall, a Tory, flew to Nova Scotia when the American Revolution began.
The revolutionary discussions of freedom and liberty no-doubt inspired Belinda Royall to challenge the status quo. When Isaac Royall left for Nova Scotia, he abandoned his slaves, forcing them to find ways to survive on their own. Belinda Royall, who was 63 years of age at the time, asserted what she saw as her right to compensation for her years of service to her former master. She petitioned the General Court (legislature) of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on 1783. Her petition, presented by her lawyer, contained few legal arguments and instead describes her childhood happiness in Ghana nurtured and supported by the love of her parents. It contrasted her childhood with her later legal status as an enslaved person. The argument persuaded the General Court to award her an annual pension of fifteen pounds and twelve shillings.
Although the 1783 petition had long been known to scholars, it was only in 2015 that the launch of a comprehensive database of Massachusetts antislavery petitions brought to light additional petitions that allow us to track her persistent efforts to ensure that she received the pension confirmed by the legislature. A history of missed payments meant that Belinda would renew her claim five times over the course of a decade.
The petitions that came to light in 2015 also informed us for the first time of her marriage. In her 1783 petition and earlier records, Belinda Sutton had been identified simply as “Belinda.” But in a 1788 petition, she described herself as “Belinda Sutton of Boston in the County of Suffolk Widow.” We do not know who her husband was, or when they married. She signed as Belinda Sutton again in a 1793 petition.
Two documents from 1785—one a petition, the other a receipt—identify her as “Belinda Royal,” in accordance with the common practice of assigning a slaveholder’s surname to formerly enslaved individuals. Since her first petition was made public in 1783, she has been commonly referred to as “Belinda Royall.” Until the subsequent petitions came to light in 2015, however, our museum chose to call this strong African woman “Belinda,” the name she called herself in the petitions of which we were aware. With new knowledge of her married name, we now refer to “Belinda Sutton,” as we believe this is the closest, she came to having a name of her own choosing.
The first known documentation of Belinda appears in the Medford, Massachusetts, church records for 1768, when her son Joseph and daughter Prine were baptized.
The next mention is in Isaac Royall Jr.’s will, dated May 26, 1778, and written during his exile to England. He notes in a codicil: “I do also give unto my said daughter [Mary Royall Erving] my negro Woman Belinda in case she does not choose her freedom; if she does choose her freedom to have it, provided that she get Security that she shall not be a charge to the town of Medford.”
Royall instructed his friend Willis Hall, Medford’s town clerk who served as the executor of his will, to pay Belinda “for 3 years, £30,” and presumably this payment was made when Royall died in 1781.
In February 1783, Belinda presented a petition to the Massachusetts General Court, the new state’s legislative body, requesting a pension for herself and her infirm daughter—assumed to be Prine—from the proceeds of Isaac Royall’s estate. Willis Hall was first witness to the petition and his son was second. Belinda Royall signed the petition—and all the subsequent legal documents we have from her—with an X, indicating that she was unable to write or, probably, to read. Scholars speculate that Prince Hall, an acknowledged leader of Boston’s black community at the time, is likely to have written the petition.
The Massachusetts legislature approved an annual pension of fifteen pounds and twelve shillings, to be paid from Royall’s estate, but just one payment was made, and in 1785, she petitioned the legislature for payment of the amount previously authorized. (We also know that she received two pounds two shillings from the stepson of Mary Royall Erving in December of that year; we have no way of knowing whether this reflects a gift or payment for work performed.) Belinda again petitioned the Massachusetts legislature in 1787 and was again granted one year’s allowance.
Belinda Royall petitioned for three years’ back pension in 1788, now identifying herself as widow Belinda Sutton. In 1790 Willis Hall refused to make another payment “without a further interposition” from the legislature, which appointed a committee to investigate and ordered resumption of the payments, but Belinda’s 1793 petition—signed again as Belinda Sutton—shows that this did not occur.
The 1793 petition is the last documentation of her life available. In 1799 Willis Hall requested the balance of the estate from the state treasury for distribution to Royall’s heirs, stating that the last of “two family servants who were left behind” was now dead.
Belinda Sutton ’s eloquent petition of 1783 is among the earliest narratives by an African American woman. It has inspired poets and fascinated historians. It has been seen by some commentators as the first call for reparations for American slavery. And it opens a rare window onto the life on an enslaved woman in colonial North America.
In addition, Belinda Sutton ’s eloquent petition was the inspiration for this poem by Rita Dove, U.S. Poet laureate from 1993 to 1995.