(Note: This is the third essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on January 26, 2019.)
The histories of colonial Newport and of slavery in the New World are intimately connected.
The first slaves in the colony of Rhode Island were Native Americans, prisoners of war from the two major Indian wars in southern New England in the 17th century—the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s/Metacom’s War (1675-76).
Sometime after 1638, the first African slaves entered Rhode Island. They were sparse in the colony throughout the 17th century, with only 175 total slaves in 1680. The first record of Rhode Islanders buying slaves directly from Africa came on May 30, 1696, when 14 enslaved Africans were bought from the ship Seaflower in Newport “for betwixt 30£ and 35£” (British pounds).
From this beginning, Rhode Island slave traders by 1730 came to dominate the American trade in slaves, and Newport became the most important slave-trading port of departure in North America, according to historian Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work. Slaves were one commodity in the greater Atlantic trading system. Newport, Bristol, and Providence merchants, with their proximity to and affinity for the sea, engaged in commerce with West Africa, the West Indies (Caribbean), and North American port cities, exporting lumber, beef, pork, salt cod, butter, cheese, onions, cider, candles, horses and rum; and importing sugar, molasses, cotton, ginger, indigo, linen, woolen clothes, Spanish iron and slaves.
In his 1740 report to the British Board of Trade, Rhode Island colonial governor Samuel Ward described the many goods Rhode Island ships provided to “neighboring governments” and also the West Indies—rum, sugar, molasses, lumber, beef, pork, flour, horses, “and our African trade often furnishes them with slaves for their plantations.”
Newport today is dotted with the names of many of the merchants who took part in this commerce: Malbone, Banister, Gardner, Wanton, Brenton, Collins, Vernon, Channing, Champlin, and Lopez.
Between 1761 and 1774, Aaron Lopez and father-in-law Jacob Rodriguez Rivera, among the many ships they launched, sent 14 slave ships to the west coast of Africa. Their first voyage contained flour from Philadelphia, beef from New York, and 15,281 gallons of rum from Newport distilleries. Over the 14 year period it is estimated that their ships brought over 1100 slaves from West Africa to the West Indies and the southern colonies of America. The trade with the West Indies was key because this is where the molasses was acquired for the Newport rum distilleries. Lopez personally owned five slaves, and Rivera owned twelve.
The sloop Adventure, owned by Christopher and George Champlin, sailed from Newport in 1773, outfitted with slave shackles, vinegar, pork, beef, sugar, molasses, wine, beans, tobacco, butter, bread, flour, and 24,380 gallons of rum for the purchase of slaves. Enslaved women cost at the time an average of 190 gallons of rum, while men averaged 220 gallons.
Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, Philip Greenwood circa 1750. Public domain. Depicts various notable Rhode Islanders, including (all seated at the table): Nicholas Cooke, Esek Hopkins, Stephen Hopkins, and Joseph Wanton (passed out, being doused with vomit and punch).
Many of the trades and occupations in Rhode Island during this period were somehow related to slavery. Slave traders kept busy shipbuilders, sailors, caulkers, sailmakers, carpenters, rope-makers, painters, barrel-makers, and dock workers. Clerks and warehouse managers administered the system. In addition to these tradesmen, additional crew members were needed to control the enslaved during the voyages.
In his book, African Americans in Newport, Richard Youngken reports that Newporters prior to the Revolution took a total of 59,067 individuals from the West Coast of Africa, a small number compared to the total 10-15 million slaves taken to the New World. He estimates that only about 2% were actually brought to Newport and sold to Newporters. The rest were sold in the West Indies and southern American ports.
Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, summarizes data from several sources on the black population in 18th century Newport. In 1730, the African American population represented 14% of the population (1649 individuals) and in 1748, African Americans represented 17% of the population (1105 individuals). The African American population peaked in 1755, representing 18% of Newport’s population (1,234 individuals). The population dropped to 14% of the population (1,246 individuals) by the time of the first census (1774) that gave figures for both enslaved and free African Americans. Of the 1,246 African Americans in the census that year, 145 individuals, approximately nine percent, were listed as “Free”.
Youngken indicates that during the middle decades of the 18th century about 30% of white families in the city owned slaves. Clearly slave auctions must have been normal in Newport, and enslaved people must have been common throughout the city.
In Newport, enslaved women worked primarily as domestic servants while the men worked in candle-making, rum distillery, husbandry, metal-smithing, sailing, whaling, and manual labor. It is tragic irony that many of the enslaved worked in the very business of slavery.
Merchants from Newport paid significant taxes and duties to the city, which allowed public works projects. Clark-Pujara concludes: “The streets of Newport were paved and its bridges and country roads mended through the duties collected on slave imports. In many ways, the business of slavery literally built Rhode Island.”
Two projects now exist to raise our level of awareness of slave history in Rhode Island, making it more complex and comprehensive. The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project, led by Victoria Johnson, seeks to remember, honor and commemorate the contributions of those Africans who perished in the middle passage journey and to acknowledge those survivors who helped build Newport and the Nation economically and culturally. (www.Newportmiddlepassageproject.org )
The Rhode Island Slave History Project, led by Charles Roberts, has as its mission increasing public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website.
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University and is a monthly columnist for the Newport Daily News.