(Note: This essay was originally published on February 28, 2019, in the Newport Daily News. It is the fourth essay in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.”)
Enslaved African Americans of colonial Newport lived and worked, and even sometimes prayed and played next to their white masters; however, without basic human and civil rights, without ownership of their own bodies and destinies, their lives were always less than whole.
It is a challenge to obtain a genuine understanding of the lives of any enslaved people because of the sparseness of original documents. Slave masters certainly did not see any value in documenting the lives of their property and most of the enslaved did not have the education, wealth or certainly the luxury of time to create documents and images of themselves for posterity.
Of the 10-15 million slaves taken to the New World, Richard Youngken, in his book African Americans in Newport, estimates that only about 2% were actually brought to Newport and sold to Newporters. The rest were sold in the West Indies (Caribbean) 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 city’s population (1649 individuals) and in 1748, 17% (1105 individuals). The African American population peaked in 1755, representing 18% of Newport’s population (1,234 individuals). By the time of the first census in 1774, which was the first to give data on both enslaved and free blacks, it dropped to 14% of the population (1,246 individuals). Of these, 145 individuals, approximately nine percent, were listed as “Free.”
In colonial Newport, the enslaved—generally referred to as “servants” rather than “slaves”—lived and worked probably throughout the city. Whites and enslaved blacks must have lived near each other, with the enslaved living primarily in the attics, kitchens, or perhaps out-buildings of their masters.
It was primarily enslaved women, children, and elderly who worked as domestic servants. The males worked in rum production, barrel-making, wharf-warehousing, and ship-building and all its associated trades. In the maritime trades the enslaved worked as pilots, sailors, divers, linguists, porters, stewards, cooks, cabin boys, and riggers. Males were also employed in animal care, teamster and livery services, blacksmithing and silversmithing, candle-making, masonry, wood-working, furniture-making, and printing. It is tragic irony that many of the enslaved worked in trades connected to the very business system responsible for their enslavement.
Enslaved men were regularly “rented out.” Newport merchant John Banister regularly did this. In 1747 “Negro Mingo” and “Negro Toney” were rented out to help prepare the Swan for a voyage to the West Indies. “Negro Anthony” was rented six times in a two-year period to help outfit merchant ships.
Slavery corrupted and distorted the marriage and family life of the enslaved. Marriages of course had to be approved by both masters, and married slaves only rarely resided together. As property of their masters, husbands and wives could not live the normal lives of married couples by Western or African standards. The reality of slavery laced through their marriage vows. This can be seen in the “Form of a Negro Marriage” used by Rev. Samuel Phillips of Andover, Massachusetts. The vow was made contingent: “so far as shall be consistent with ye Releations [sic] which you now sustain, as a Servant.” It also included a warning: “…both of you, bear in mind, that you Remain Still as really and truly ever, your Master’s Property….”
Caesar Lyndon, the secretary and purchasing agent of Gov. Josiah Lyndon, was the rare enslaved person who kept a journal which is available to us. He was certainly well off compared to other enslaved. A successful businessman, he bought and sold items to whites and blacks, lent money, and had enough leisure time and means to go on a “pleasant ride out to Portsmouth” with friends on August 12, 1766. Their picnic included roast pig, wine, bread, rum, green corn, limes for punch, sugar, butter, tea, and coffee. Upon his death in 1826, his obituary in the Newport Mercury praised him as “well known in this town as a man of color of remarkable attainments.”
Headstone cut by Pompe Stevens for brother Cuff Gibbs
(Fred Zilian, 3-14-19)
Pompe Stevens was a slave of John Stevens, who owned a stone carving and masonry shop on Thames Street. Pompe would have laid bricks and built foundations, chimneys, steps and walks. In Newport’s Common Burying Ground stands the headstone he carved and signed for his brother, Cuff Gibbs, who died in 1768.
The enslaved Newport Gardiner, originally Occramer Marycoo, arrived in Newport in 1760 from the African coast. His master’s wife urged him to learn English, French, and western music. Oral history on him indicates he taught music in a rented room on Division Avenue in the late 1700s. He eventually became a leader of the African-American community, and founded and became first president of the African Union Society.
Two local organizations 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 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 Medallions organization seeks to increase public awareness of the state’s slave history by marking pertinent locations with medallions linked to a dynamic, informative website. (RISHM.org)