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Cotton Mather Summary and Analysis

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898

Chapter 1

The Great Hurricane of 1635 wrought considerable havoc on Puritan colonies in the Jamestown area. The minister Richard Mather, then aboard the ship James, prayed to God for deliverance from this storm. The ship arrived safely in Boston. Mather had been persecuted in England for his beliefs; in New England he rejoined his friend John Cotton, who had arrived several years before. Cotton and Mather began to preach the “New England Way,” and their ideology helped form the intellectual and ethical foundations of the eight colonial colleges, beginning with Harvard. The Puritans drew from Aristotelian teachings: just as Aristotle thought Greeks superior to non-Greeks, Puritans felt superior to Native Americans, Africans, and all non-Puritans.

In the Greek world, peoples were believed to be divided into “slaves and non-slaves,” but while ethnic, religious and color prejudice existed, concepts of race as such did not. John Cotton's first constitution of New England legalized slavery on Aristotelian terms—that some people are lesser than others—but specified “negroes and Indians” as peoples who could be sold. Trading in Black people was thus allowed to begin.

North Africa was in fact a powerful trading area at this time and had been for centuries. In the thirteenth century, the Islamic writer Ibn Battuta wrote about the greatness of these civilizations, but other Islamic writers, such as Khaldun, felt threatened by this, writing instead that “the negro nations” were “submissive to slavery” and subhuman. Khaldun justified racist ideas by specifying that Black peoples were genetically inferior. These ideas then proliferated in Europe and were inherited by the Puritans.

Chapter 2

In the 15th century, Prince Henry of Portugal, determined to cut out the Islamic “middle man,” embarked upon a lifelong mission to seek out the source of the African slave trade firsthand. Gomes Eanes de Zurara chronicled Henry's life and slave-trading exploits in a 1453 book which marks the first defense of slave-trading and the first modern European book on Africans; the text cemented a number of racist policies and ideas. Zurara described Henry's slave-trading ventures as if they were “missionary expeditions.” Where once many Slavs had also been traded, this had ceased by the mid–1400s, such that Europeans began to see slaves as purely black. Zurara described the black Africans as “beasts” and suggested that Henry was freeing them. By 1481, the Portuguese had built a mine in Ghana to acquire gold, and this soon became the largest slave-trading post in Africa. 

When Columbus arrived in Cuba and then America, his sailors felt entitled to enslave and massacre the native peoples with impunity. A group of Dominicans objected, later, to the treatment of the Native Americans; their leader, Las Casas, suggested instead that Africans should be imported, because they were “strong,” whereas the Native Americans were “weak.” Las Casas led the drive towards the passage of new laws which would allow better treatment for Native Americans and the use of Africans as slaves. When he read Zurara's book, however, he regretted this, for he saw the slave trade for the horror it was, but it was too late.

Around 1510, an educated Moroccan, Al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi, was enslaved; he was presented to Pope Leo X, who freed him and renamed him Leo. Leo the African, as he became known, wrote a scholarly survey of Africa's etymology, geography, languages, cultures, religions, and diseases. Despite being an African himself, he described the Africans as “beastly” and “destitute” and his works were widely consumed, proliferating myths about African hypersexuality and irrationality.

British contact with Africans began in the mid–sixteenth century. The writer and traveler Robert...

(This entire section contains 1898 words.)

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Gainish applied “climate theory” to explain the differences in skin tone across the world. But when George Best arrived in northeastern Canada, he felt the theory was inadequate, as the Canadians he encountered were also dark-skinned despite the cold temperature. He suggested instead that their dark skin was the result of “Ham’s curse,” a racist interpretation of the story of Noah’s Ark. The Curse theorists and Climate theorists opposed each other; Curse theorists believed dark-skinned people were naturally inferior and could not improve, whereas climate theorists felt they could become white if they were taken to cooler climates.

Chapter 3 

Richard Hakluyt and William Perkins were key figures in the English movement towards spreading Christianity and “civilization” across the globe. Perkins in particular portrayed slave-master relationships as loving familial bonds, an idea that Puritans in New England would later use. Travel writers, translators and playwrights of this era all ushered in the “British age of adventure.” Shakespeare portrays the black Aaron in Titus Andronicus, in 1594, as lascivious and evil. The eponymous Othello is educated but despises his own blackness. Ben Jonson's The Masque of Blackness (1605) suggests that Blacks can become “beautiful” if brought to Britannia. 

It was against this backdrop that King James colonized Virginia. John Smith became a hero through his writings of his own journey to America and his interaction with the princess Pocahontas, and this narrative encouraged migration to America. Smith shared existing ideas about the “devilish” nature of Black Africans, and when in 1619 a group of pirates snatched sixty captives from a Spanish slave ship, they were sold to the Jamestown colony, the first black Africans to arrive in America. These Black slaves were put to work harvesting tobacco and were ranked as distinct from white servants (although both were considered essentially goods to be willed upon death). In 1630, there is record of a man being whipped for having “defiled” his body by lying with a negro, underlining the distinction.

Shortly after the English Civil War, the case of Elizabeth Key, a mixed-race woman who was enslaved, troubled Virginian planters: the case established that because she was a Christian, she could be freed. But this undercut existing racist ideas which justified slavery. From 1660, laws were passed to state that white servants must not interact with Black ones and that children would be stamped according to the “condition of the mother.” Black women were painted as hypersexual to excuse the white men who raped them. Richard Ligon also wrote of an important distinction between “making a Christian a slave” and “a slave a Christian,” suggesting that slaves, already naturally docile, should and could be legally Christianized. This became perceived as a divine duty which Richard Mather’s grandson took to be his life’s work.

Chapter 4 

Cotton Mather was born in New England in 1663. He believed it was his duty to convert Africans into Christians. Mather was influenced by the missionary Richard Baxter, who depicted slavery as a kindness. The philosopher John Locke used the language of whiteness to describe the “unblemished” mind of a child as he emphasized that slavery was just and that African women had once conceived children with apes, suggesting that Africans were actually a different species.

Around this time, abolitionist ideas began to circulate. William Edmundson, the founder of Quakerism, began to feel that his missionary works were being hampered by the existence of slavery. The Mennonites in Philadelphia said that Africans were being “oppressed” for their skin color as they had been for their religion. However, these arguments were soon dismissed by slaveholders.

When King Philip, or Metacomet, a Native American war leader, was killed, it was Cotton Mather who detached his jaw from his skull. Meanwhile in Virginia, another war was ongoing with Native Americans. Landless white men intervened and declared “liberty to all Servants and Negros,” with their leader, Bacon, burning down Jamestown. However, when Bacon died, the rebellion was put down, and plantation owners became aware that they needed to separate white servants from Black slaves more distinctively. They did this by creating more privileges for white men.

Cotton Mather was admitted to Harvard at the age of eleven. He graduated at fifteen, and he and his father founded the Boston Philosophical Society, just as Bernier published his theory that Europeans were the “first” race. 

Chapter 5 

Alongside his father, Cotton Mather became co-pastor of the North Church in Boston just as a royal governor was installed for New England. Cotton’s father, Increase, protested to the liberal James II. When James was overthrown by William and Mary in the Glorious Revolution, New England revolted. At Cotton’s home, merchants and ministers plotted to force the royalists in New England to surrender. Mostly without bloodshed, the Puritan group achieved this, but the population remained unruly. Mather wrote of the Puritans as “the English Israel” and described them as bound to instruct slaves and children. Africans, he said, had “white souls” in need of instruction; Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko (1688) similarly suggested that “a Negro can change color.”

Cotton's writings in favor of religious instruction and against witchcraft were timely: the Salem witch hunt was about to begin. Many of the witches described a “Black Devil” man who had compelled them. Mather became compelled by the idea that Africans through slavery could be “washed White” and distanced from this sort of evil. His writings spread through the colonies. However, many were still reluctant to Christianize their slaves.

Chapter 6 

In 1700, judge Samuel Sewall wrote that slavery could not be “natural” and that New Englanders should do away with it. He was attacked. Bostonians preferred John Saffin’s idea that Blacks and whites were completely distinct. The enslaved continued to agitate, so interracial relationships were made illegal and Blacks were forbidden from holding office. “White” came to be synonymous with “Christian.” In response, Mather wrote a pamphlet emphasizing that “the Negro” could be Christianized and thus improved. In 1712, a group of slaves set fire to a building in New York; they were all publicly executed. As a result, Blacks were stripped of still more rights.

One of Mather’s slaves told him he had been essentially inoculated against smallpox. Mather interviewed multiple Africans and became an early believer in inoculation. As Mather became more famous, his ideas that Christianization could help slave owners to subdue slaves became more widespread. This would enable “equality” and also preserve the hierarchy slaveowners depended on. By the time Mather died in 1728, the idea of the white ruling class subordinating their Black slaves through “kindness” was nearly universal.

Analysis 

This section of the book is vital in that it establishes the racist ideologies which underpinned the rise of slavery in the Americas. While this section is named for Cotton Mather, Mather is depicted as representing only the culmination of centuries of developing ideas about race, hierarchy, and the extent to which people of different colors are fundamentally different to one another in terms of intellectual capacity and “nature.” It also demonstrates the damage that can be wrought through the use of language: Cotton uses “white” to mean not only literal whiteness, but also cleanliness, goodness, and salvation. 

Moreover, Cotton seems genuinely to believe that he is doing good for the Black peoples of the Americas by converting them to Christianity and “whitewashing” their souls, but his intentions do not make his actions any less racist or damaging to subsequent generations of Black people in America. His ideas about Christianization are simply a new formulation of earlier beliefs—hinging on the existence of different castes of people with different capabilities—which had been used to justify slavery since the time of Aristotle. The idea of slavery as a kindness is simply another means of making palatable what would otherwise seem to Christians to be the brutality it truly was.

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