Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery in the early eighteenth century in one of the Northern states. However, he came out better than most slaves as his owners thought well of him and gave him a good education. Ultimately this contributed to him being America’s first published black poet. Christopher Benedict tells the fascinating story of Jupiter Hammon.
He Being Thy Captive Slave
Sometimes history exists, like those who contribute mightily to it, right under your nose and yet hidden in plain sight.
I have lived on Long Island, with one brief exception, for my entire 44-year lifespan. However, it took until a few months ago for a good friend and fellow history buff to point out the fact that the first black poet published in America was born and buried on an estate a mere seven miles from where I now reside.
Jupiter Hammon was born into slavery on October 17, 1711, his father Obadiah and mother Rose both duty-bound in the indentured servitude of Henry and Rebecca Lloyd on the little peninsula called the Manor of Queens Village.
This title was rather more regal-sounding than the name which preceded it. Horse Neck, derived from the sixteenth century English equestrians from Huntington who stabled their steeds there, displaced the original designation bestowed upon it by the Matinecock Indians, Caumsett (translated as “place by sharp rock”), and would itself be later rechristened Lloyd Harbor as an ode to its 200 year-long residents.
The 1676 acquisition of Horse Neck by James Lloyd, an entrepreneurial Boston-based merchant, preceded its annexation to Oyster Bay of Queens County after he was officially granted its royal patent nine years later. Opting to stay in New England and look after business affairs firsthand, James instead leased this 300-acre plot to local farmers until gifting the neglected property to his son Henry, a 24-year-old shipper until then operating out of Newport, Rhode Island, who relocated and saw to the construction of his post-medieval Manor House (employing slave labor as well as hired hands paid with Bibles, needles, and other tradable commodities) in 1711, the year of Jupiter’s birth.
Firmly Fixed His Holy Word
While Jupiter still remains something resembling an enigma, next to nothing seems to be known regarding his parents, other than that Obadiah was literate and had made a number of unsuccessful escape attempts dating back to 1687 when he and Rose were among those comprising the first delivery of subjugated human cargo to the Lloyd estate.
As far as Jupiter is concerned, his warm feelings toward the Lloyd family were repaid in kind, as he was permitted not only personal living quarters within the Manor, but unfettered access to formal education. He attended classes alongside the Lloyd children and maintained a close enough relationship with the sons that he earned their affectionate nickname “Brother Jupiter”.
Supplementing his fortune by continuing his father’s practice of renting parcels of land to be worked by tenant farmhands, Henry’s import/export business also flourished as never before. It often warranted unaccompanied journeys by the now fully grown Jupiter, working as a clerk when not tilling the fields surrounding the Manor House, into New York City to facilitate trade agreements, such was the unthinkable level of respect and trust established between master and servant.
How Jupiter’s Christian faith germinated is not clear, but it would be fed consistently and fervently throughout the decades, as would his general intellectual pursuits, cross-pollinating then blossoming into a historically significant 88-line poem, the first to be published in the yet-to-be liberated American Colonies by a person of African lineage.
An Evening Thought: Salvation by Christ, with Penitential Cries was printed and circulated as a one-sheet broadside in 1761 and contained the momentous byline, Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760.
As the title suggests, it reads like a hymn with the opening stanza:
Salvation comes by Jesus Christ alone,
The only Son of God,
Redemption now to every one,
That love his holy Word,
Dear Jesus, we would fly to Thee,
And leave off every Sin,
The Tender Mercy well agree,
Salvation from our King.
When you consider other passages, however, innocuous-sounding lines such as:
Ho, every one that hunger hath,
Or pineth after me,
Salvation be thy leading Staff,
To set the Sinner free.
Dear Jesus unto Thee we fly,
Depart, depart from sin.”
trace the written origins of Hammon’s concept of slavery, which he will soon after fill in with explicit detail and later come under scathing attack for, as almost sacramental atonement for misdeeds perpetrated against the heavenly father, the penance for which was subservience to the slave driver.
From Every Sinful Wound
Henry Lloyd died in 1763 and Jupiter, never emancipated, would afterwards live with Henry’s son Joseph, who had a Manor House of his own built on the estate three years later.
Before the British occupation of Long Island, which was made possible by their victory over George Washington’s forces in August 1776, Joseph, a steadfast patriot, fled to Hartford, Connecticut with the other members of the Lloyd family (those who were not Tories) in addition to the Conklins of nearby Huntington.
Jupiter would remain in their company, and with them return once hostilities had ended and true independence won.
An Address to Phillis Wheatley appeared in 1778, in which one is left to wonder whether Hammon’s purpose is to flatter or chastise the “Ethiopian Poetess”.
“Come, dear Phillis, be advis’d
To drink Samaria’s flood,
There’s nothing that shall suffice
But Christ’s redeeming blood.
While thousands muse with earthly toys,
and range about the street,
Dear Phillis, seek for Heaven’s joys,
Where we do hope to meet.”
Wheatley herself wrote glowingly of a nearly evangelical deliverance from her native Africa, which she maligns as a “pagan land”, much as Jupiter’s imagery of “a dark abode” mirrors her sentiments here. Their thoughts of one another, whatever they may have been, are not known, and relegated to the oblique lines composed by Hammon.
The Blessing of Many Ready to Perish
Jupiter was invited to speak before a meeting of the African Society of New York City on September 24, 1786 and delivered an oration which was published the following year under the title An Address to the Negroes in the State of New York.
The pamphlet was prefaced by an editorial assurance “To the Public” from “The Printers” that the following words “wrote in a better Stile than could be expected from a slave” were indeed those of the author, whose hand-written manuscript, they vowed, was “in our possession”.
Though he begins by intertwining the plights of the slaves and the Jews with a quotation from the apostle Paul that “I have great heaviness and continual sorrow in my heart for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh,” he then turns an abrupt about-face.
“When I think of your ignorance and stupidity, and the great wickedness of the most of you, I am pained to the heart.”
It is shocking to read Jupiter’s assertion that, “for my own part I do not wish to be free”, and though he softens the blow with the following sentiment, “I should be glad if others, especially the young Negroes, were to be free”, he comes full circle by resigning to the fact that “many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves.”
Confessing that, “I have had such desires, a sense of my own ignorance, and unfitness to teach others,” Jupiter (at just shy of 75 years of age) nonetheless says that he feels obliged “to call upon you, with the tenderness of a father and friend, and to give you the last, and I may say dying advice, who wishes your best good in this world, and the world to come.”
In the 250 years since Hammon’s writings have been available for public consumption and examination, Jupiter’s accomplishments as an educated slave and published poet have been eclipsed, particularly in the eyes of contemporary critics, and dimmed considerably by the ignominious upbraiding of his fellow, far less fortunate, slaves during this address.
The first point belabored during his presentation is “Respecting obedience to masters,” elaborating that, “we cannot be happy unless we please them. This we cannot do without muttering or finding fault.”
The second “particular I would mention is honesty and faithfulness,” Hammon continued. “We have no right to stay when we are sent on errands any longer than to do the business we were sent upon. All time spent idly is spent wickedly, and is unfaithfulness to our masters.”
Refraining from profanity, specifically taking “God’s holy name in vain”, Jupiter insists will enable those overseen by slave drivers in this world to slip the chains of Satan in the next and “sit with God in his kingdom as Kings and Priests, and rejoice forever and ever.”
Even sexual gratification occurs to Hammon as an evil deed, as “the carnal mind is not subject to the law of God.”
Jupiter submits that “If God has put us in bad circumstances, that is not our fault and he will not punish us for it. If any are wicked in keeping us so, we cannot help it, they must answer to God for it. The same God will judge both them and us.” That said, he also professes, “If God designs to set us free, he will do it in his own time and way.”
To Taste Things More Divine
Both Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley have been taken to task for their beliefs (some may say apologies) of slavery being exercised upon African Americans as a biblical trial, out of which only the most virtuous will arise to reap Heavenly reward. Linked together as colonial sell-outs, if Phillis Wheatley was castigated as the Civil Rights movement’s “Aunt Jemima”, Jupiter Hammon became their “Uncle Tom”.
It is important to bear in mind that their personal experiences were unusual, if not unique, and differed drastically from the common hell on earth shared by many (mostly Southern) bondsmen and women. Neither Phillis nor Jupiter, both slaves of the Northern colonies, knew the weighty burden of shackles and chains, the mistrust or disgust of their masters, the sight and perhaps taste of their own blood drawn by the fist or the whip. While these conditions surely did not erode their capacity for empathy, it was a compassion channeled through a heavy current of pity rather than a true sense of commiseration.
And, as far as Jupiter’s seemingly condescending address is concerned, you will recall that Frederick Douglass likewise cautioned against woeful and wasteful pastimes, writing in his Narrative of the Life, “instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings.”
Not only is he buried in an unmarked grave on the Lloyd estate, but the year of Jupiter Hammon’s death was not recorded and, thus, open to historical speculation placing it most likely in 1806 (making him 85 at the time), but possibly as early as 1790.
In February 2013, Julie McCown, a student of Cedrick May’s English class at the University of Texas Arlington’s College of Liberal Arts, was given an archival research assignment centered around Hammon’s Address to the Negroes in the State of New York, during which she and her professor would make a startling discovery.
McCown and May exhumed from the Yale University Manuscripts and Archives Library a never-published and thought-lost manuscript of An Essay on Slavery, written in Jupiter’s own hand. Dating to 1786, the 25-stanza poem is all the more remarkable for the somewhat more somberly defiant overtones not present in the address delivered that same year and conspicuously absent from his first published work a quarter of a century earlier.
Our forefathers came from Africa
Tost over the raging main
To a Christian shore for to stay
And not return again.
Dark and dismal was the day
When slavery began
All humble thoughts were put away
Then slaves were made by man.
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