Earlier Pandemics More Deadly Yet Instructive

(Note: This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on March 30, 2020.)

The two most lethal pandemics in western history can help us think about the challenges and stakes we currently face with the coronavirus: the Black Death of the 14th century, and the Great Influenza Pandemic of the early 20th century.

Historian John Kelly in his book, “The Great Mortality”, calls the Black Death “the greatest natural disaster in human history.”

By virtue of the increased connectedness of the world from globalization, the coronavirus has spread much more rapidly than the Black Death, which could spread only as fast as the fastest horse or sailing ship. Like COVID-19, the Black Death originated in Asia, however, not in China but in Central Asia with the Mongols. As these fierce warriors came to dominate Eurasia, the subsequent movement of people, goods, and rats helped to spread the disease east to China and west to Europe.

The plague reached Europe in 1347 when merchants from Genoa (Italy) sailed from the Crimean Peninsula (Black Sea) to Sicily and beyond. One contemporary wrote of the sailors infected with the disease: “When the sailors reached these places [Genoa, Venice, and other Christian areas] and mixed with the people there, it was as if they had brought evil spirits with them.” It took the plague five years to spread throughout all regions of Europe.

While the World Health Organization currently estimates the coronavirus mortality rate at 3.4%, the Black Death mortality rate was exceptionally high. European cities lost 20-60% of their populations. In England and Germany entire villages simply disappeared. Between 1347-1351, historians estimate that the European population declined 25-50%.


Reactions to the Black Death varied. With life suddenly so precarious, some indulged themselves. In 1348, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote: “Day and night they went from one tavern to another drinking and carousing unrestrainedly.” Others, seeing the hand of God, sought to repent and cleanse their souls, flogging themselves with whips to win God’s forgiveness. Anti-Semitism rose dramatically as Jews were accused of causing the plague.


The persistence of the Black Death should give us pause. It did not simply burn through Europe in five years and vanish. Rather, there were major outbreaks in 1361, 1369, and then recurrences until the end of the fifteenth century. It was only then that the European population began to recover.

Just over one hundred years ago the world was struggling with what the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) claim was “the most severe pandemic in recent history,” the 1918 Influenza Pandemic.

It was caused by an H1N1 virus with genes originating in birds. A total of about 500 million people worldwide were infected, one-third of the world’s population. At least 50 million people died, with some estimates as high as 100 million; indeed, far more deaths than the fallen in World War I.

The sickness was first identified in the United States in the spring 1918 among military personnel, and it eventually claimed 675,000 lives in the US. It was so severe that in the period 1917-1918, the life expectancy in the US declined about 12 years, to 36.6 for men and to 42.2 for women, according to the CDC. It struck most age groups; however, it was unique in that it hit the 20-40 year age group especially hard.

Historian John M. Barry quoted one person who lived through it: “It kept people apart. You couldn’t play with your playmates, your classmates, your neighbors. The fear was so great, people were afraid to leave their homes. You had no school life, no church life, nothing. It destroyed all family and community life. People were afraid to kiss one another, afraid to eat with one another. Constantly afraid.”

Like Thucydides writing about the plague in ancient Athens during the Peloponnesian War, David Brooks, writing recently in the New York Times, is correct in considering our current situation also through moral-ethical lenses. In examining several historic pandemics and severe epidemics including the Black Death, Brooks concludes that dread “overwhelms the normal bonds of human affection.” He points out that dire situations can even challenge these bonds within families. He quotes Boccaccio who wrote: “…scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate.”

In the course of this current pandemic, we Americans—despite all the wonders of modern medicine and our world-class medical facilities and care givers—will still be challenged with moral-ethical questions. How many provisions and sanitizer bottles do I buy and how much do I leave for my fellow citizen? If the disease spikes, who will get the limited number of beds and respirators, and the use of limited ICU facilities? How should I help the family of a sick or fallen fellow citizen?

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.

Brooks, David. “Pandemics Kill Compassion, Too.” The New York Times, March 13, 2020.
Calfas, Jennifer. “In U.S., Threat Upends Daily Life.” The Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2020.
Kelly, John. The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time. (NY: HarperCollins, 2005).
Spielvogel, Jackson. Western Civilization, Volume I, To 1715, 10th ed. Boston: Cengage Learning, 2018.
Zilian, Fred. “Remembering the Great Influenza Pandemic.” The Newport Daily News, December 17, 2018.

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The Emancipation of the Enslaved in Rhode Island, Part II

(Note: This is the eighth essay—second part—in a series on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on February 26, 2020.)

The process of emancipation of the enslaved began on a colony-wide basis with Quaker manumissions in 1773 and ended with the General Assembly abolishing slavery in 1842.

Change as transformational as the emancipation of a people requires the impetus of new ideas and the will and determination of human agents. The new ideas came from 18 hundred years of Christianity and the 18th century Enlightenment. The human agents of change were led by white Quakers, and white religious ministers and lay people of other faiths who freed their slaves and fought for the abolition of slavery. It also included the many enslaved and free blacks who enlisted and served with distinction in the War for Independence in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (“Black Regiment”).

Of the role that blacks played in the war, historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, writes: “The actions of the enslaved—running away, joining the military, and lobbying for freedom—in conjunction with an emerging abolition movement had torn at the fabric of slavery and challenged the morality and legitimacy of slaveholding in the new democracy.”

During and after the war, the final group of agents who brought about emancipation was the entire enslaved and free black population who—overtly and covertly, little by little, year in and year out, by acts of omission and commission—fought the system of slavery. Clark-Pujara states: “Enslaved northerners ran away in unprecedented numbers, volunteered for military service, and sued for, bargained for, and bought their freedom.” If achieved, freedom may have come quickly or it may have taken decades.

Beginning in the 1750s, these factors began to take effect. During that period, the Quakers began in earnest their criticisms of the trafficking of slaves. In 1769, at a meeting in Greenwich, RI, Quakers appointed a committee to begin manumissions, freeing 49 slaves between 1773 and 1803.

In early 1778, during the War for Independence, the Slave Enlistment Act was passed, providing for the enlistment of former slaves who “presented themselves.” Their masters were compensated between £30 and £120, depending on their age and skills.

In 1779, slaveholders lost the right to sell slaves out of state, a clear sign that slaveholders were losing control of their “property.”

After the War for Independence, the General Assembly—influenced by Quakers and black war veterans—took a major step forward by passing in February 1784, the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. All children born to slave mothers after March 1, 1784, were declared free. However, they would be indentured to the town of their birth for a period of time—18 years for women and 21 years for men. While a significant step, the law freed no one immediately and to those born before March 1, it meant nothing to them personally. Later amendments raised the number of years of indenture for women to 21 and also specified that former masters, and not towns, were responsible for educating and supporting freed children. While it gave freedom to future African Americans, the later legislation was designed clearly to avoid placing burdens on non-slaveholding whites.

Three years later, over great opposition from slave traders, the General Assembly passed the 1787 Act to Prevent, and to Encourage the Abolition of Slavery and Slave Trade. This act not only forbade citizens from the slave trade, it made clear the intimate connection between slaveholding and the slave trade. Public opinion was shifting against the system of slavery.

By 1810, 97% of blacks in Rhode Island were free; however, Clark-Pujara indicates that most were not freed by these laws, which “were not the catalyst for the disintegration of the institution. Instead, these laws further contributed to an environment in which enslaved people could better negotiate for their freedom….”

Regrettably, despite this legislation and the clear shift in public opinion, the slave trade within the state in the decades after the American Revolution increased and transformed. In the period 1789-1793, the slave trade in the state increased by 30%. Newport resumed its slave trading; however, with the city so devastated by the three-year British occupation, more of the trade shifted to Providence and Bristol. In Providence Moses Brown fought against slavery while brother John enriched himself with the business of slavery. During the period 1784-1807, Bristol slave merchant James DeWolf and his family underwrote 88 African slave voyages.

The drive for wealth clearly dominated the rule of law and of conscience.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


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The Emancipation of the Enslaved in Rhode Island, Part I

(Note: This is the eighth essay in a series on Slavery in Rhode Island. It was originally published by the Newport Daily News on February 25, 2020.)

The enslavement of people of color in the colony of Rhode Island began probably with the founding of the colony in 1636. The process of emancipation of the enslaved began on a colony-wide basis with Quaker manumissions in 1773 and ended with the General Assembly abolishing slavery in 1842.

Change of this order requires ideas and agents of change. In this case, the idea of the natural inequality of humans had to be displaced by the idea of their inherent equality and right to freedom. Western civilization recognizes these new profound ideas emerging with force in the 18th century, known as the Enlightenment or the Age of Reason. Its core ideas included the inherent dignity, worth, beauty, and potential of humans and the agency of humans to reform society for the better.

Thomas Jefferson enshrined some of these new ideas in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights; that among these rights are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” He spoke to the agency and role of humans in continuing: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed….”

When coupled to the basic beliefs of Christianity, these ideas became exceptionally compelling to some, even those deeply benefiting from the business of slavery.

To effect such a dramatic change, these ideas needed human agents—white people and people of color—to drive them. For whites, the Quakers took the lead. As historian Christy Clark-Pujara states in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island: “The Quakers were the first European-descended religious group in the Americas to publicly question and eventually prohibit slaveholding among its members; they were also the driving political force behind legal restrictions placed on slaveholding.”

Quakers believed in the spiritual equality of all humans, that they all shared the ability to receive the “inner light” from God, a concept with its roots in the ancient Greek philosophy of stoicism. Their commitment to emancipation evolved. Initially they saw no conflict with slavery. They believed they could remain holy as long as they treated their slaves well. Many educated their slaves and brought them to their Quaker meetings.

However, eventually many Quakers came to believe that slaveholding was “contrary to true Christianity” and tied slaveholding to slave-trading, making both the focus of their actions. Not only did they free slaves under their control, they also became fervent abolitionists, seeking to legislate the end of slavery. They published broadsides, commentary, and homilies roundly criticizing the horrors of slavery. They sent petitions to legislators. They claimed that the slave trade and slaveholding were “the most barbarous” institutions in history, and they declared that God would punish the entire nation because of these sins.

Other Protestant ministers also served as agents of change. Congregationalist minister Samuel Hopkins was exceptional in this regard. Serving as pastor in Newport, 1770-1803, he became a very vocal, resolute abolitionist after his first few years there. As historian Joseph Conforti writes: “For the first time in his life, the backcountry minister confronted the slave trade’s grim reality. Chained Africans were sometimes unloaded in Newport and sold before his eyes.”

Hopkins came to believe that British tyranny was God’s retribution for the slaveholding and slave trading of the colonists. Moved to action, he preached against slavery and sought to convince wealthy slaveholders and other ministers to join the cause.

Once the War for Independence began, the new nation needed soldiers to fill its ranks. By 1778, with the British offering freedom to slaves and with the Continental Congress calling for more battalions, the Rhode Island General Assembly decided to allow slaves to enlist in the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which came to be known as the “Black Regiment.” The 1778 Slave Enlistment Act declared: “That every slave so enlisting shall, upon passing muster …, be immediately discharged from the service of his master or mistress, and be absolutely FREE.” Fighting in Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey, the regiment grew eventually to 226 officers and enlisted—perhaps 110 of the latter being former black slaves.

Christy Clark-Pujara indicates that this was “the first … step in the legal dismantling of the institution of slavery.” Though the act was revoked five months later because of stiff opposition, this act and the performance of the 1st Rhode Island in the war greatly undermined slavery in Rhode Island. Former slaves and free blacks had enlisted and were fighting next to whites against British tyranny and for “unalienable” human rights. Were not enslaved blacks also human and deserving of these same rights? (See “The Emancipation of the Enslaved in R.I., Part II.”)

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.




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Palmer Raids Attack Anarchists, Communists, but Also Rights

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 31, 2020.)

One hundred years ago this month, the second and final set of “Palmer Raids” took place. These government raids, named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, targeted mainly Eastern Europeans and Italian immigrants with ties to radical left organizations. This episode in US history again highlighted a recurrent issue for all liberal democracies like the US: In an emergency, when and to what extent is a government allowed to curtail civil liberties and rights in order to protect lives?

To understand the raids, one must understand the context. During World War I (1914-18), there was a strong nationalistic movement in the US against immigrants suspected of possessing excessive loyalty to their countries of origin. The xenophobia was especially strong against Germans, because the war pitted Germany against the United Kingdom, a country with strong ties to the US, and also strong against Irish, because they were in revolt against the British.

In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson warned against those immigrants who “poured the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.” “Such creatures of passion, disloyalty, and anarchy must be crushed out.”


In the fall of 1917, as WW I continued, the Russian Revolution erupted. The Russian monarchy was dissolved and replaced eventually by a communist government, led by Vladimir Lenin. Rooted in Marxism, communist ideology not only called capitalism an enemy, it also predicted its ultimate demise, spreading fears in Western democracies. One of the reasons that Lenin withdrew Russia from the allied war effort was his belief that workers of all warring countries, inspired by Russia’s example, would place class identity above national loyalty, forcing a peace settlement. This Revolution and its communist ideology gave rise to the Red Scare in the US, the fear of communist infiltration and subversion.

The fears of many in the US were confirmed when Italian radical anarchists (those shunning all government structures) conducted a series of bombings in 1919. In April, 30 letter bombs were mailed to prominent government and law enforcement officials and businessmen, some exploding and causing harm. On June 2, a second wave of bombings occurred. Italian anarchists exploded large package bombs in eight American cities. One damaged the home of Attorney General Palmer in Washington, DC. Accompanying each package were flyers declaring war on capitalism.

In October, the US Senate demanded action. In response on November 7, agents of the newly-formed General Intelligence Division of the Bureau of Investigation, headed by 24-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, executed raids against the Union of Russian Workers in 12 cities. Exceeding the number of official warrants, the arrests made were sometimes indiscriminate and included innocents who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Of 650 arrested in New York City, the government succeeded in deporting only 43.

On January 2, 1920, the Justice Department launched another series of raids, extending over six weeks. The raids, many again indiscriminate, were conducted in over 30 cities and towns and 23 states. At least 3000 were arrested, with some of the arrests and seizures made without search warrants and with the detentions conducted under harsh conditions.

Criticism of the raids eventually erupted. Resigning in protest, Francis Fisher Kane, the US Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania stated: “It seems to me that the policy of raids against large numbers of individuals is generally unwise and very apt to result in injustice. People not really guilty are likely to be arrested and railroaded through their hearings….” Palmer replied that the raids were warranted given the “epidemic” and asserted the government’s “right for its own preservation….” The Washington Post supported him, indicating: “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringement of liberties.”

In May, 1920, the American Civil Liberties Union, established only five months earlier, published a report documenting and criticizing the unlawful and excessive government actions.

In June, a decision by the Massachusetts District Court Judge George Anderson ordered the discharge of 17 arrested aliens and criticized the government’s actions. He wrote: “…a mob is a mob, whether made up of Government officials acting under instructions from the Department of Justice, or of criminals and loafers and the vicious classes.” This decision essentially halted any further raids.

The anarchist bombing campaign continued intermittently for another 12 years.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.


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Young Aware of Danger of Smartphones

(This essay is the second in a series on Technology, Society, and the Human Being. It was originally published on January 18, 2020, in the Newport Daily News.)

It is easy for the Baby-Boom Generation to criticize the younger generations for spending too much time on individual screens; however, maybe there is hope. If my undergrad students are any indication, more and more of them are aware of the downside of smartphones and social media.

Over the past several years, I have watched individual screens come to dominate the lives of some of my grandchildren. In some cases one screen is not enough; they need two. Sitting together in front of a large TV, some are not satisfied. Simultaneously most of them are also busy on their smartphones. Regrettably, smartphones tend to be used inside and while stationary.

On a beautiful, sunny Saturday last September at a beach cottage in Little Compton, after devouring the scrambled eggs I had prepared for them, my four youngest grandchildren returned to their bunkbeds and individual screens rather than bike to the beach, explore the woods, climb a tree, shoot hoops, or explore the neighbor’s blackberry patch. Regrettably, this was not a singular event. They tend to default to the smartphone rather than other activity.

In a survey by the Common Sense Media non-profit, released in October, of 1677 young people, ages 8 to 18, it was found that the average tween, 8-12, spent four hours and 44 minutes daily with entertainment devices. For teens, the figure was an incredible seven hours, 22 minutes. (This did not include time spent in cyberspace listening to music, doing homework, or reading books.)

Since their introduction in 2007, I have been amazed at the places I find people using smartphones: driving a car, driving a lawn mower, riding a skateboard, riding a bike, using the urinal, sitting in a library surrounded by a million books, between sets at the fitness center, and walking out of a college classroom and bumping into me entering.

However, I have found grounds for hope in my Gen Z (born after 1995) college students. For the past four years on their term exam, I have given Salve Regina undergrads in my Western Civilization class the opportunity to write about one “good aspect” and one “bad aspect” of their civilization. I provided a list of possible subjects to choose from, but also encouraged them to choose any subject. For three years from 25% to 33% chose to write about the negative impacts of the new technologies. (Note: In some cases they examined it also as a positive aspect.) This past fall, however, for the first time 50% of my students chose to criticize it.

Over these years, the students made different criticisms of the smartphone and social media. Camille said: “I can honestly say that my phone and other electronic devices distract me. Even when I know I need to focus on something, I can’t if I know my phone is there …” Another student indicated: “…people no longer live in the moment. They are always on their phones.”

Several female students addressed the unrealistic beauty standards set by the internet. Lindsay said: “Media in American society is toxic to adolescents. Media portrays celebrities as perfect human specimens without flaws. This causes adolescents, especially girls, to form unrealistic expectations of physical beauty.” Nicole wrote of the ad pop-ups with “…pictures of beautiful people who make normal people self-conscious.” This can lead people to think they are not “good enough,” leading to mental disorders. Hanna made the same point: Social media makes users “feel inadequate,” “…as if you aren’t living up to a social standard.”

Andrew had another criticism: “Many people use social media to put down others and make fun of people,” adding that “social media can ruin a person’s life.”

Nicole addressed an opportunity cost: Smart phone are “taking over people’s lives…. They do not enjoy nature, or other people’s company …. They miss out on parts of life, human interactions, and the many things outdoors ….”

Carla was apocalyptic: “…I think technology is ruining our generation.” “…it is difficult for the modern person to stay connected to what is real.”

By far the most common criticism was what smartphones are doing to inter-personal communication. This past fall nearly every student who criticized smartphones addressed this point. Ray said it has led to “social disconnect.” Al stated bluntly: “The art of public speaking has been lost in my generation.” Sophia said: “We are so dependent on them, a lot of us cannot have a real conversation with someone. Digital screens have completely taken over our lives….” Ainsley pointed out: “…technology has become something that divides us rather than brings us together. It encourages deception and numbs social interaction.”

Finally, several students took their criticisms to a higher level, speaking to the essence of society and human-ness. Kyle said: “…social media can corrupt a human being…. “[It] is limiting our ability to communicate with others in person, which is essential to our nature.” Kristin stated that because of the dependence on technology, “generations lack what is necessary to live fully.” There is “a loss of depth, meaning, and fulfillment in life’s experience….”

Dan addressed this same point and tied it to a giant of Western Civilization: “Smartphones prevent humans from fully exploring all the possibilities life has to offer. And as the immortal Socrates said: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University and a regular columnist.






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Metacomet: From Heathen Savage to American Archetype

(This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on December 14, 2019.)

One hundred and ninety years ago, the play “Metamora; or, the Last of the Wamponoags” opened in New York City. The play written by John Augustus Stone re-interpreted Metacomet and many events of Metacom’s/King Philip’s War (1675-76). Rather than a brutal barbarian heading a heathen race, Metacomet was presented as a hero. The play also dramatized his death. Rather than dying silently in a swamp, he gave an impassioned monologue ending in a curse on white men.

In 1662, Metacomet became chief sachem of the Wampanoag after the deaths of his father, Massasoit, and his brother, Wamsutta. Unlike his father, he did not strive for peaceful relations with the settlers; rather he became more and more irritated by their increasing numbers and their ways.

Named after Metacomet who had earlier taken the European name of Philip, the war devastated both the English settlers and the Native Americans. About one-third of the towns of New England (Connecticut to Maine) were destroyed. Historian Nathaniel Philbrick in his book “Mayflower” estimates that per capita the war was twice as bloody as the Civil War and seven times as deadly as the Revolutionary War. Plymouth Colony lost about 8% of its adult male population; the Native Americans lost 60-80% of their total population in southern New England. (Aquidneck Island was untouched.)

Metacomet print by Paul Revere, 1772

Granger Collection, NY

By August 11, 1676, the fighting was ending and most colonial forces were disbanded. However, Plymouth militia Captain Benjamin Church and the allied Sakonnets were still searching for Metacomet and his band. An Indian whose brother was killed by Metacomet decided to inform on him. During the early morning of August 12, he guided Church and about two dozen colonists and Sakonnets to Metacomet’s hideout near a swamp at Mount Hope, surrounding it and attacking.

Metacomet leaped to his feet, grabbed his powder horn, bullet pouch, and musket, and began to run into the swamp. He approached Caleb Cook and a Pocasset Indian named John Alderman. When Cook’s weapon failed to fire, Alderman shot Metacomet through the heart.

Church gathered his men and told them of Metacomet’s death. The group cheered “Huzzah!” three times, a common cheer at that time. Church stated that because Metacomet “had caused many an Englishman’s body to lie unburied and rot above ground, that not one of his bones should be buried.” He then directed a Sakonnet to quarter the body, a common treatment for criminals in that era. Church awarded Metacomet’s distinctively scarred hand to Alderman, who later preserved it in rum and exhibited it for “many a penny” for years to come.

On August 17, Pastor John Cotton led his Plymouth congregation in a day of Thanksgiving. Shortly after the service, Church and his men arrived with Metacomet’s head, a great prize of war. For more than two decades, the head remained on a stake as the town’s main attraction.

One hundred years later, as Americans fought for their independence from the British, the image of Metacomet was still negative. Americans generally viewed him and the indigenous peoples as savages who wanted to oppress them, just as the British were doing. As the colonists fought the Indians to live in freedom, so now patriots had to fight British tyranny. In the earlier war they were fighting to remain good English citizens in America; in the War for Independence they fought not to be English, but rather to be American.

In the first decades of the 19th century, Americans were still trying to define themselves. It appears that American writer Washington Irving started the transformation of Metacomet in the American mind with his “Philip of Pokanoket,” first published in 1814. In it, Irving encouraged his readers to see beyond the prejudices of earlier historical accounts of such writers as Increase Mather and John Cotton Jr. He argued that the sachem should be seen as a brave leader who struggled to free his people from the tyranny of colonial authorities.
At opening night, December 15, 1829, Edwin Forrest, one of America’s leading actors and the man playing Metacomet, ended with a curse: “My curses on you, white men! May the Great Spirit curse you when he speaks in his war voice from the clouds! Murderers! The last of the Wamponoags’ curse be on you!”

As Jill Lepore indicates in her book, “The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity,” “…the audience at the Park Theater rose in wild and reportedly ‘rapturous’ applause.” Americans were now looking to the native peoples to help define themselves.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor of history and politics at Salve Regina University.


Lepore, Jill. The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity. NY: Random House, 1999.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. NY: Penguin Group, 2006.
Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians Against the Puritans of New England. NY: Scribner, 2018.

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Legislating Slavery and Race in Colonial Rhode Island

(This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on November 7, 2019.)

The first slaves in colonial Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the conflicts with the colonists in southern New England. The first African slaves entered the colony sometime after 1638, in exchange for Native American slaves.

In the second half of the 17th century, Rhode Islanders were of two minds regarding slavery. On the one hand, only Rhode Islanders among all northern colonies explicitly banned both Native American and African slavery in the 17th century. In 1652 officials in Providence and Warwick prohibited the lifelong enslavement of whites and blacks. In 1676 these same towns prohibited the enslavement of Native Americans. Despite these bans, by 1680 there were 175 slaves in Rhode Island of Native American and African descent.

On the other hand, as the Atlantic slave trade grew and the role of slavery in the economy of colonial Rhode Island expanded in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, town officials and the colonial General Assembly increasingly enacted laws institutionalizing slavery of both Native Americans and Africans. This occurred even though lawmakers never legalized slavery. Historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, states: “white Rhode Islanders just assumed slavery was legitimate, inherited through the mother, and restricted to people of African and Native American descent.” This ensured white, race-based supremacy.

In the first two decades of the 18th century, not only Rhode Island, but also nearly all other northern colonies prohibited Native Americans from moving into the colonies. Viewing Native Americans as undesirable neighbors, hard to keep as slaves and difficult to control because of their intimate knowledge of the terrain, whites wanted them expunged from their communities. In 1715, the colonial General Assembly prohibited the importation of Native Americans. The Newport town council made it illegal to sell firearms of any sort to Native Americans. Portsmouth banished them to “live in the woods.”

While the institution of slavery began as a system for the control of Native Americans, it became more complex and comprehensive as a system for the enslavement of people of African descent. In the first decades of the 18th century, white Rhode Islanders replaced Native Americans, considered “dangerous,” with blacks “strangers,” now easily acquired from the burgeoning Atlantic slave trade. The colonists’ mindset of Native Americans as a heathen, uncivilized, inferior race was evidently applied eventually to people of African descent.


In 1703, the Rhode Island General Assembly wrote race-based slavery into law. “If any negroes or Indians either freemen, servants, or slaves, do walk in the street of the town of Newport, or any other town in this Collony, after nine [o’clock pm] without a [proper] certificate … or some lawfull excuse for the same, that it shall be lawfull for any person to take them up and deliver them to a Constable.” Blacks and Native Americans, free or enslaved, found after curfew were “to be whipped at the publick whipping post in said town, not exceeding fifteen stripes upon their naked backs.” The act also forbade free whites from “entertaining men’s servants, either negroes or Indians, without [the master’s permission].”

In 1708, the assembly forbade whites from socializing with “black slaves” and “Indian servants.” Clark-Pujara observes: “Whiteness was legally endowed with privilege and power, while people of color were legally identified as suspect and in need of supervision.”
In 1714, the assembly forbade an enslaved person from boarding ferries alone, even with the master’s consent, without a certificate of ownership carried by the master or person of authority.

By 1728, people of African descent were assumed to be dependent and burdensome. As part of providing them freedom, masters were required to post a bond of 100 pounds for each freed person to protect the white public from having to support a freed slave in need. The law stated that “no mulatto or negro slave” could be set free “until sufficient security be given to the town treasurer of the town or place where such person dwells … to secure and indemnify the town ….” The law had the obvious effect of discouraging manumission.

In 1750, the General Assembly forbade any person to “sell, give, truck, barter, or exchange …any strong Beer …to any Indian, Mulatto, or Negro servant or slave.” The fine was declared as 30 pounds for each offense. The claim was that liquor made them prone to stealing. The law further stated that free persons of color present at such occasions risked becoming bound servants.

Finally in 1757, the General Assembly allowed slave owners to search private vessels for slaves if they suspected their slaves were on board.

Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University and a monthly columnist.

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