The Misfortunate Life of Fortune and his Bones

The class text Fortune’s Bones life gives 21st-century readers a glimpse into the life of an enslaved man in 18th century Connecticut. Although the details of his life are not entirely clear, we do know that he was mistreated as a result of his position in society. Growing up in the northeast, most of my education on the Civil War was spent on learning about the Confederacy’s oppression of black lives. However, learning about Fortune gave me insight into slavery that proved northern states were just as guilty of contributing towards institutionalized racism. One could argue that Fortune’s master was kinder than the horror stories of slavery we may be familiar with; Fortune’s bones indicate that he was in generally good health throughout much of his life. However, a claim like this seems to be ignorant of the very fact that he was enslaved. Fortune did not enjoy the legal rights or privileges of Dr. Porter’s family, as explained by the Mattituck Historical Society. (MHS)

There were two major events of Fortune’s life that stood out to me: His religious involvement as an enslaved black man and the treatment of his body upon his death. I believe that the former may have influenced the latter event, based on the society he lived in. According to the Mattituck Historical Society, the Congregational and Episcopalian churches in 18th century Connecticut encouraged the education of enslaved races, with the goal being that they would convert to Christianity. When I spoke with one of our class’s Teaching Assistants about this topic, she mentioned that enslaved people brought various religious traditions from Africa during their journey to this continent. In order to continue their religious traditions, she informed me that they often masqueraded their beliefs as Christian ones. This could potentially explain why so many slaves in Westbury were encouraged to adopt Christianity, since religion may be a tool for controlling groups of people. According to MHS, “Slave owners were prominent members of both the Congregational and Episcopal churches; nearly all of the ministers and several deacons owned slaves.” Furthermore, Fortune was reportedly “baptized in the Episcopal church on December 20, 1797; he died in 1798. There is no month or day given for Fortune’s death. He may have died two weeks after his baptism, or a year after.” (MHS) Was this a way of asserting cultural dominance by Fortune’s slave master? The ambiguity surrounding Fortune’s life, along with how his corpse was treated seems to suggest unholy motives on the part of Dr. Porter.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of his life was the scientific experimentation that was performed on Fortune’s body following his death. We may not know much about his life, yet there is plenty of information about his physical body. The record-keeping of black lives throughout American history fails to recognize the complexities of their life, rather it seems that many non-black Americans were invested in using black bodies for medical research.

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