Mortlake: Plantation Slavery in Colonial Connecticut

Ellen B. Larned

 The following article is excerpted from Ellen D. Larned, History of Windham County, Connecticut, vol. 2 (Worcester, MA: Charles Hamilton, 1880).

[Israel] Putnam’s return to Pomfret [following the French and Indian War] was nearly contemporary with the advent of another distinguished personage of very different character and proclivities – Godfrey Malbone, of Newport. An aristocrat by birth and sympathies; a loyalist, devoted to the Crown and Church of England – untoward fate brought him to finish his days amid the rude, rebel yeomanry of Pomfret, [CT,] in the same neighborhood with the great champion of popular rights and liberties [Israel Putnam]. Colonel Malbone was a man of varied experience and accomplishments. He was educated at King’s College, Oxford, had traveled much and moved in the first circles of Europe and America. Inheriting a large estate from his father, he had lived in a style of princely luxury and magnificence. His country-house, a mile from Newport state-house, was called “the most splendid edifice in all the Colonies.” Completed at great cost after long delay, it was destroyed by fire in the midst of house-warming festivities. Colonel Malbone’s financial affairs had become seriously embarrassed. His commercial enterprises had been thwarted by the insubordination of the Colonies. His ships had been taken by privateers, and his property destroyed by Newport mobs, and now that his elegant edifice was consumed, he refused to battle longer with fate and opposing elements, and, early in 1766, buried himself in the wilds of Pomfret. Some three thousand acres of land, bought from Belcher, Williams and others, had been made over to him at the decease of his father, well stocked with cows, horses, sheep, swine, goats and negroes. These slaves[,] according to common report[,] were a part of a cargo brought from Holland who helped repel a piratical assault, and were retained for life and comfortably supported. Amid such rude, uncongenial surroundings, Malbone made his home, exchanging his palatial residence for a common tenant-house, and renouncing all business interests but the cultivation of his land and the utilization of his negro forces. With the town’s people he held as little intercourse as possible. They belonged to a class and world of which he had a very imperfect conception. Such gentlemen as called upon him were received with politeness; poor people asking aid were relieved; town and church rates were paid without demur or question, but all without the slightest personal interest. Of their schools and churches, their town government and projected improvements, he knew or cared nothing. Their political aspirations and declamations he looked upon with scorn beyond expression.

It was not till he discovered that these insignificant country people were concerting a project very detrimental to his own interests that Colonel Malbone was roused from his lofty indifference. Brooklyn Society was bent upon a new meeting house. Putnam’s removal to the village had given a new impetus to the movement. With such a famous tavern and troops of fine company, how could the people condescend to attend religious worship in an old shaky house, with patched roof and boarded windows. Again, in the autumn of 1768, a meeting was called to consider this important question. Great efforts were made to secure a full vote, and as an argument for a new building it was currently whispered that the Malbone estate, now rising in value, would pay a large percentage of the outlay. So ignorant was Colonel Malbone of neighborhood affairs that he did not even know that such a question was pending. “A strange sort of notification” affixed to the public sign-post had for him no significance. He paid no heed to town or society meetings, and the vote might have been carried without his participation or knowledge had not one of his tenants thought it his duty to apprize [sic] him on the very day preceding the meeting. Alarmed by the tidings he at once waited upon Mr. Whitney, whom he had ever treated with respect due to his position and character, and represented to him the imprudence as well as inexpediency of such a step at a juncture when every one complained of the great hardships of the time and extreme scarceness of money. To convince him of its necessity Mr. Whitney took him to the meeting-house, which he had never before deigned to enter, but though joined “by an Esquire, Colonel and farmer,” (probably Holland, Putnam and Williams), all their arguments were ineffectual. The primitive meeting-house seemed to him quite good enough for the congregation, a few trifling repairs were all that was needed, and if really was too small its enlargement was practicable. So much uneasiness was manifested at the latter suggestion, and such determined resolution to build at all events that Colonel Malbone saw clearly that the measure was likely to be carried, and without returning home galloped over to Plainfield to consult with the only churchman of any note in the vicinity – John Alpin, Esq., a lawyer lately removed from Providence, a staunch loyalist, greatly embittered against the colonists. He assured Malbone that as the laws stood he could not possibly help himself; that if those people had a mind to erect a square building this year and pull it down and build a round one the next, he must submit to the expense unless they had a church of their own, or got relief from England. Convinced of the necessity of vigorous opposition, Colonel Malbone next day attended the society meeting, “debated the question with the Esquire in very regular fashion,” and had the satisfaction of seeing it thoroughly defeated – “the odds against building being very great when put to vote.”

Opposition only made the minority more determined. They continued to agitate the matter both in public and private, and were “so extremely industrious and indefatigable, promising to pay the rates for those who could not afford it,” that they gained many adherents. In September, 1769, another society meeting was called, when Colonel Malbone again appeared with the following protest:

  1. I deem the present house with very trifling repairs altogether sufficient….
  2. If the building had been really necessary it would be prudent to postpone it rather than to burden the inhabitants at this distasteful season….
  3. I was born and educated in the principles and profession of the Established Nation Church, and determine to persevere in those principles to the day of my death; therefore, decline from entering into so great an expense – a full eighth of the whole charge – wherefore, in presence of this meeting, I do publicly repeat my dissent and absolutely protest.

Upon putting the question to a vote a majority of one declared against building; but as three of the prominent advocates were absent at a funeral the point was virtually carried. Elated with the prospect of success, the friends of the new house now indulged in some natural expressions of triumph. That Malbone’s opposition had increased their spirit and determination is quite probable. While he esteemed his country neighbors as boors and clowns, characterized by “cant, cunning, hypocrisy and lowness of manners,” they had sufficient acuteness to detect and reciprocate his ill opinion, and resent his attempt to thwart them in their dearest legal and local privilege. His scornful contempt was now repaid by downright insolence, and these canting clowns did not hesitate to say in the most public manner, “that as churchmen had made them pay in other places, they had the right and would make use of it to make churchmen pay here,” and “that by selling off a few of his negroes to pay his building rate, the damage would not be very great.” These “insults” added to the “intended oppression” roused the high spirited Malbone to immediate resolution and action. For nearly thirty years his estate had paid for the support of religious worship in this society. Although as non-resident Episcopalians they might have obtained exemption from government, yet as the tax was comparatively light, the value of the property enhanced by the maintenance of this worship, and father and son exceedingly liberal and open handed, they had paid it without protesting. Removing to Brooklyn, Malbone still disdained to question it till confronted by this large impost. As a resident of the parish he would be compelled by law to pay it unless he could attend public worship elsewhere. To help those who had thus insulted him, to yield the point to his opponents, to be instrumental in erecting “what some called a schism-shop,” was wholly repugnant to him. the church at Norwich was practically inaccessible. Relief might be obtained by appealing to the King, but this implied negotiation and delay. A more instant and effectual remedy was needed and devised. Malbone was an ardent royalist, devoted heart and soul to the interests of the British Government. The English Church was one with the Crown. By establishing Episcopal worship in his own neighborhood, he could not only secure himself from taxation and discomfit his opponents, but strengthen the hands of his King and country, and bring new adherents to their cause. These considerations were too weighty to be rejected. They appealed to the strongest and deepest sympathies of his nature, and with characteristic impulsiveness he emerged from his retirement and devoted himself with all his energies and resources to the establishment of the Church of England on the very land purchased by Blackwell for a Puritan Colony.

Followers soon rallied around him. The few Tories in the neighborhood were eager to join him. Dr. Walton, who had made himself obnoxious by his political course and was now “debarred from church privileges for rough speaking,” came out boldly for Episcopacy and Malbone. Aplin of Plainfield, was ready with aid and counsel. Brooklyn, like other parishes, had its malcontents, its aggrieved rate-payers, ready to avenge old wrongs and forestall future assessments by uniting with a new organization. A paper circulated by Dr. Walton procured the signatures of nineteen persons, heads of families, agreeing to become members of the Church of England when church edifice and missionary should be provided. To provide these essentials was a matter of great difficulty. Every argument urged by Malbone against the building of the Brooklyn meeting-house applied with greater force to his own project. Times were hard, money scarce, his own pecuniary affairs embarrassed, his proselytes mainly of the poorer classes. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts, indignant at the growing insubordination of the colonies, had “determined not to make any new missions in New England.” But Malbone had friends and influence abroad, and a ready wit and pen of his own – “himself a host,” able to overcome all opposing obstacles. In graceful letters admirably adapted to the various recipients he told his story. To former boon companions, who might “reasonably be surprized [sic] that he had undertaken to make proselytes and build churches,” he would not pretend that he was induced to this by religious motives merely. That would “border very near upon that damnable sin of hypocrisy and falsehood, from the schools of which he was endeavoring to bring over as many as he should be able by the utmost pains and assiduity.” To them he dwelt mainly upon the unpleasantness of his personal position, and the folly of this ridiculous vain people “of Brooklyn, who, from a ridiculous spirit of pride and emulation, were about to demolish a structure as sound and good as when first finished, that they might build one newer, larger, and probably yellower that a monstrous great unformed new one that looked like a barn, painted all over a very bright yellow, recently erected in Pomfret.” To clerical friends he expressed his repugnance to saddling his estate already too much encumbered with an expense of perhaps two hundred pounds – and for what – to build an Independent meeting-house! to furnish money for what could only be a considerable prejudice to the cause of their religion, and begged their utmost assistance from principle. Presbyterianism, he averred, so abhorrent to the true principles of the English Constitution that he considered the man who endeavored by every mild and moderate method to propagate the worship of the Church of England, as aiming at a very great national service. In a very able letter addressed to the Bishop of Bangor — his former classmate at Oxford – he declared that “the ministry could not take a more effectual step to humble the overgrown pride of the Independents in these Colonies (who, notwithstanding their much vaunted loyalty, would very gladly exchange monarchy for a republic, so very compatible with their religious system), than to encourage the growth of the church,” and he adjured all having any influence with Bishops or dignitaries to endeavor to procure an order from his Majesty, exempting all churchmen “from the shameful necessity of contributing to the support of dissenting worship.” These pleas and representations secured from the Venerable Society the promise of aid in the support of a minister, and various sums of money for the church edifice. A hundred pounds was given by Malbone, ten pounds by Dr. Walton and smaller sums by others. An eligible building site on the Adams tract, south of Malbone’s land, was given by Azariah Adams. So expeditious were the movements of the churchmen, that before the middle of November, Malbone had already executed a plan for a building, and made arrangements for providing materials.

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The Malbone Church, as it was commonly called, was completed in advance of its rival. It was a neat, unpretentious structure, closely copying its namesake – Trinity Church, of Newport – in its interior arrangement. To prepare his proselytes for participation in the church service, of which he avowed “they were so ignorant as so many of the Iroquois,” Malbone himself invaded “the sacred office of the priesthood,” conducting worship in his own house till the church was ready. The novelty of the service attracted many hearers, The Rev. John Tyler, church missionary at Norwich, ever ready to forward the work of church extension in Eastern Connecticut, preached in Ashcroft’s house, in February, to a number of most attentive hearers. April 12, 1771, he officiated at the public opening of the new church edifice….

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