As an enslaved woman, she worked with Isaac Royall for many years until the American Revolution when Royall fled the country and abandoned his property, leaving her with nothing to survive.
Years later, a then 63-year-old Belinda, knowing her value, stood before the Massachusetts General Court to demand her rights.
Her lawyer tendered her written petition to the court with the aim of demanding the compensation she rightly deserved from Royall’s estate.
According to royallhouse.org, Belinda’s petition narrates a tranquil childhood in Africa, her trauma and terror at being taken captive and shipped to America as a young girl, and her utter despair at learning that “her doom was slavery, from which death alone was to emancipate her.”
Writing at the tail end of the Revolutionary War, Belinda lamented bitterly that “Fifty years, her faithful hands have been compelled to ignoble servitude for the benefit of an Isaac Royall, until…the world convulsed for the preservation of the freedom which the Almighty Father intended for all the human Race.”
Her master, who was a loyalist, fled to Nova Scotia and then later to England when war broke out. Belinda requested a pension out of Isaac Royall’s property, an estate which, as the petition pointed out, was partly a product of her own uncompensated labour. The legislature granted Belinda’s request for an annual pension of fifteen pounds and twelve shillings.
But two years on, the state missed a payment and Belinda rose for her right once again; she would not let her money go.
Over a period of 10 years, Belinda wrote five petitions and finally recovered most of what was owed her by her slave master’s heirs.
Two documents from 1785 identify her as Belinda Royall, following a custom of giving the surname of the slaveholder to the enslaved individual.
The Royall House & Slave Quarters Museum adopted the name Belinda alone, choosing to call her as she called herself until more recent information clarified that Belinda Sutton was the name she chose to go by.
Traditionally, local and provincial governments declined to involve themselves in the material support of ageing slaves or ex-slaves.
A Massachusetts law, dating to 1703, made it illegal for a master to free a slave without providing a bond to keep the freed person from becoming a financial burden to his or her town, according to a report by The Royall House and Slave Quarters.
The report adds that the much-talked-about petition of February 1783 was observed to be fundamentally unfair. “What did it avail her, that the walls of her Lord were hung with Splendor…the Laws had rendered her incapable of receiving property—and though she was a free moral agent, accountable for her actions, yet she never had a moment at her own disposal!”
Belinda is mentioned in Isaac Royall Jr.’s will (dated May 26, 1778), written while he was exiled to England. His will states: “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 gets Security that she shall not be a charge to the town of Medford.”
Although Belinda’s resolve to petition Isaac Royall’s estate for a pension is often cited today by some as an early argument in favour of reparations for slavery, her public assertion of her rights has given her a place in history and public memory.
A Stopping Stone Memorial, dedicated on November 19, 2017, honours her life and reminds passersby of her years of slavery in the northern plantation.