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  William Vassal: A Biographical Sketch

Back in the colonies, Robert Child was kept prisoner for some time and his wealth was confiscated. When freed, he moved to Ireland, and, while he tried to regain his fortune, he never did. Dand was also imprisoned, though I do not know his ultimate fate.

Edward Winslow never returned to New England. Leaving Susannah and his family behind, he stayed in England during the revolution and was appointed by Cromwell to head an expeditionary force which captured Jamaica in 1655. On the way back to England, he died at sea.

William also left family and considerable estates behind in the colonies. But it was clear by now he could not return. Besides his "problematic" political and religious convictions, he would almost certainly have been arrested and possibly hanged as a traitor. He removed to Barbados, which had a reputation for religious toleration. It was 1648, and he purchased lands in St Michael's Parish (whereabouts now unknown). We don't know if his wife Anna was still alive at this point and if she joined him. Other members of the Vassall extended family had estates in Barbados, and there are records of travel back and forth by the cousins.

In one of the ironies of the story, William probably had an estate run by slave labor. Other Vassalls in Barbados certainly did.

In another irony, Edward Winslow stopped at the island on his way to Jamaica in 1654 and the old neighbors'/adversaries' paths crossed again. "It is a curious fact that Winslow had been recommended on November 22, 1650 to be appointed governor of the island. If the recommendation had gone through, Vassall would have found Edward Winslow his governor once again on faraway Barbados! The forces of the expedition of Penn and Venables spent many months at the island, quartered in the houses of the planters, eating their food, recruiting their servants. There was obvious rejoicing when they finally left."

William died in Barbados between 1655 and 1657. He bequeathed to his son John one-third of all his estate and split the remainder among his daughters. His estate in Scituate was sold at the behest of his children in 1656. Consisting of about 120 acres with house and barn, the estate brought £120.

The Vassall family as a whole was involved with both freedom movements and the employ of slave labor in the Caribbean. Judith appears in several of the documents asserting dissenting religious views during the Scituate schism, while her husband Resolved does not. Some of Judith and Resolved's children ended up in Barbados—none stayed in Scituate. Judith's cousin John (son of Samuel) bought land in Jamaica in 1655, setting up a large plantation which flourished until emancipation. He and his cousin Henry (still in England) supported a colony in Cape Fear, promising the vote and freedom of religion. They secured some aid from the Massachusetts Bay colony but the experiment failed.

It is clear from the historical record that William Vassall was a man of vast intelligence and integrity. While Winslow castigated William in his various letters and tracts against him, William never stooped that low. He focused on the issues at hand, and, while passionate in defense of a point, he was cool-headed enough to navigate the treacherous waters he chose to swim. A dual biography of him and Winslow would make fascinating reading. I also wonder, had Winslow not been present in Plymouth Colony, if William would have been able to come to some understanding with Governor William Bradford. While conservative, Bradford was never as nasty or hardcore as Winslow or the Puritans to the north. Steeped in the tolerance of John Robinson from an early age, Bradford may have been able to find common ground with William Vassall over time.

What is also fascinating to speculate on is the impact all these doings had on the families involved, particularly Judith and Resolved White, and Resolved's mother Susannah. Susannah's son by Winslow, Josiah, joined Vassall's Scituate church, so she had family members on all sides of the issue. She also had the added challenge of raising her family without her husband, who was busy excoriating William and, later, building his position with Cromwell. Judith and Resolved's children were living in Massachusetts when the Salem "witch" trials occurred, and one can only speculate as to what their views were.

What is made clear by the story of William Vassall's life is that oppression doesn't just "happen." It grows bit by bit, and if it is not swiftly resisted, it can too easily take hold and grow. And while, at the time, it may have looked like his life's work was a failure and Winslow's was the success, America has accepted Vassall's view in the long run and it is he who comes out the hero. Like many dissenters, he took enormous risks and paid the price for an unpopular point of view. But he had the consolation of having remained true to his principles. While his views on slavery were probably indicative of his surroundings, his views on religion were far ahead of his time. And his courage, intelligence, and passion remain a light for us to be guided by.

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