Rhode Island's Murky Past

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Rhode Island's Murky Past.

A Letter from Africa.

In the mid-seventeenth century both Quakers and Dutch Jews benefited from Rhode Island’s dedication to freedom of conscience and action.
In 1708, the then Governor of Rhode Island reported that in the previous ten years, one hundred and three vessels had been built in the province. Many of these vessels followed a triangular route. They took lumber, fish and rum to the Southern Colonies and the West Indies, crossed the Atlantic to sell their rum in exchange for slaves in West Africa, disposed of their human cargo in the West Indies and the Southern Colonies and brought back to New England a cargo of molasses from the sugar estates of the West Indies. They also carried north the unsalable remnants of their human cargoes. These were relatively small in number: the British Parliament was told in 1709 that Rhode Island’s “only supply of Negroes is from Barbadoes, from whence yearly they have between 20 and 30 Negroes, who are sold from £30 to £40 per Head, if sound.” So it was principally through ship-building and the provision of shipping services that the Rhode Island ports benefited.
There are documentary records of nearly one thousand slaving voyages to Africa originating from Rhode Island. One estimate is that these ships transported over 100,000 Africans across the Atlantic. In the fifteen years immediately before the slave trade became illegal, ships from Rhode Island ports were responsible for nearly 40% of the transatlantic traffic.
At this time, few of the wealthy and respectable merchant ship-owners of Newport, Bristol and Providence, the social and commercial elite, were not actively involved in some way in the slave trade. The vessels they used were generally small craft, single masted sloops, two-masted brigantines and schooners, seldom carrying a burden of more than seventy tons. The construction, fitting out and service of this fleet provided employment for the carpenters, joiners, painters, caulkers, sailmakers, riggers and other tradesmen who, together with sailors, made up the bulk of the population.
By the middle of the century, rum had become the chief manufacture of New England. Massachusetts’ distillers alone consumed some fifteen thousand hogsheads of molasses each year, nearly a million gallons. This rum became the principal commodity which the owners of the Rhode Island vessels bartered for slaves on the Guinea coast.
The ship-owner and the distiller, often one and the same person, had the support of both preacher and philanthropist. The pious church elder who was known for the diligence of his devotions on the Sunday following the return of one of his vessels, must have been one of many.
“We give thanks that an overruling Providence has been pleased to bring to this land of freedom another cargo of benighted heathen, to enjoy the blessing of a Gospel dispensation,” he prayed.
The remarkable capacity of the human spirit for moral self-deception is demonstrated by a typical advertisement in the Boston Gazette at this time.
“Just imported from Africa, and to be sold on board the brig Jenney, William Ellery, Commander, now lying at New Boston, A Number of Likely Negro Boys and Girls, from 12 to 14 Years of Age.”
The trade was hazardous but the potential profits were commensurate with the risks. In 1773, the sloop Adventure, Captain Robert Champlin, carried a crew of ten including two mates, a cooper; a cook, a boy and five sailors. She was equipped with a pair of swivel guns, “12 pr. Hand Cufs (sic) and Shackles,” and twenty six gallons of vinegar which was used to disinfect the slave quarters between decks. Her principle cargo was rum distilled in Newport. Buying slaves at £15 a head and selling them in Grenada at £35 to £39, Champlin made a net profit of £400, or 23%, for the Adventure's owners.
The hazards are illustrated by an Extract of a letter published in The Boston News Letter of October 5, 1732. Capt. Bibbey reported from on board the Mary Galley, anchored off Bonny on the Coast of Guinea.
We have now about 260 slaves on board, and hope to get out of this unwholesome Place about a Month hence; the Captain and Doctor have been very ill, but are now on Recovery. We have buried a Carpenter and six other Hands; and all the people we have left are in a very bad state of health.
A subsequent letter from the same Ship reported the death of “twelve Men and 188 Slaves,” and “that the Captain, Doctor, and Mr. Masters, the Chief Mate, with several of the People and some Slaves are in a very sickly and weak condition, the former having lost the use of his limbs.”
In 1788 both Rhode Island and Massachusetts introduced legislation which imposed heavy penalties on slave traders: but the trade in Africans had long been considered entirely respectable and it would take generations for this to change. Neither the moral arguments of the abolitionists nor the enactments of the legislators proved a major impediment to the activities of the slave traders.
In the three years before 1807, when the British banned the trade, the fifty nine ships owned in Rhode Island which entered the port of Charleston landed more than eight thousand slaves. Bristol vessels led the way with 3914, followed closely by Newport with 3488. Ships owned in Providence contributed 556 and Warren 280. Most of these vessels were brigs and schooners of less than 200 tons.

The slaver Ann, Jonathan Denison master, made a typical early nineteenth century voyage. She carried an outbound cargo of hard liquor, wine and miscellaneous English goods. Her owner was James De Wolf who represented Bristol in the Rhode Island Legislature for nearly thirty years and who was for some years a member of the United States Senate. De Wolf’s family sponsored 85 slaving voyages between 1784 and 1807. Of these James De Wolf was personally responsible for 31. Another of his business activities was the legalized piracy of the times which was dignified with the name privateering.

The names of Gold Coast towns which feature in the Ann 's log will be familiar to today's Ghanaians, though some of the spelling has changed: Axim, Dick's Cove, Secondu, Commenda, Elmina, Cape Coast, Anamboe, Leggo and Acra. Most of the slaves Denison purchased he described as being "of the Fanteen tribe." Their Fante descendants still live in Elmina and Cape Coast and the hinterland. The Ann's cargo of slaves was delivered to Montevideo
The Newport merchant family, the Vernons, dealt with the Irish slave trader, Richard Brew, who operated from Castle Brew at Anomabu, over a period of more than twenty years. Letters from Castle Brew about coast matters, the Ashanti-Fanti troubles of 1765 and the danger of piracy, for example, were published in American newspapers including the Newport Mercury. In 1771 Vernon recommended Brew to a Virginia correspondent, as their ‘Friend’ who shipped ‘perhaps ... more slaves than any one man to the Kingdom.’

Brooks, George E., Jnr., Yankee Traders, Old Coasters and African Middlemen, Boston University Press, 1970.

Crane, Verner W., A Rhode Island Slaver, Providence, 1922 (cited by Dow)

Donnan, Elizabeth, Documents Illustrative of the Slave Trade to America, 4 vols. Washington, 1930-35

Dow, George Francis, Slave Ships and Slaving, Marine Research Society, Salem, Mass., 1927 (particularly Chapter XIV Slaving Voyages by Rhode Island Vessels)

Miller, Randall M and John David Smith (eds) Dictionary of African American Slavery

Priestly, Margaret, West African Trade and Coast Society, OUP, 1969
Also (unseen):

Coughtry, Jay, The Notorious Triangle, Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade 1700-1807 (1981)

Johnston, William D, Slavery in Rhode Island 1755-1776, Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, 1894.

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