(Note: This essay is the fifth in a series on “Slavery in Rhode Island.” This essay was originally published on July 19, 2019, by the Newport Daily News.)
In the 18th century the colony of Rhode Island came to dominant the slave trade in British North America, explaining why the colony had the highest percentage of slaves of all New England colonies. These enslaved African Americans 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.
So they resisted, with multiple motives and means. Some sought freedom by escaping on foot or on a water vessel; others wanted revenge and justice by burning their masters’ property or even killing them. Others simply wanted community and social connection, perhaps denied them by their masters.
In 1707, an unnamed “negro” man from Newport reportedly murdered his master and drowned himself rather than be captured. The colonial General Assembly’s reaction to this is shocking to us today; however, it was clearly at the time morally and legally sound. It ordered “that his head, legs, and arms be cut from his body, and hung up in some public place, near the town [Newport] to public view: and his body burnt to ashes, that it may, if it please God, be something of a terror to others from perpetrating of the like barbarity for the future.”
In many cases in the colony, the enslaved had easy access to waterways. Therefore, stowing away on a ship or simply paddling away must have been an attractive option, especially for a young enslaved man. In 1728, Jethro, an enslaved “negro,” stole a canoe from his master in North Kingstown and paddled to Martha’s Vineyard to live with the Native Americans.
In 1714, it was reported that a “mulatto” man ran away from Newport, depriving his owner of his work. Such actions must have been a great concern to the government because in 1714 the RI General Assembly forbade enslaved from boarding ferries alone. In 1757 the Assembly continued its attempts to control the enslaved by passing a law allowing slave masters to search private ships in search of runaways.
The resistance to slavery is also indicated by the publicized attempts by masters to find runaways. According to Christy Clark-Pujara, in her book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, RI slaveholders during the colonial period placed one hundred runaway slave ads (92 men and 8 women) in local and regional newspapers.
She also states that the vast majority of runaways were young men and that about 29% of the runaways in the colonial period were from Narragansett Country (South County), about 19% from Newport, and 11% from Providence.
Despite the laws to control the social lives of the enslaved, they resisted. Throughout New England the enslaved had annual celebrations usually in June called Negro Election Days, great celebrations with much dancing and music. As part of these celebrations, they would even elect a “governor” or “king,” a position that came to hold great prestige within the enslaved communities.
Anthropologist Akeia Benard, in her forthcoming book, Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI, indicates that such celebrations occurred in Newport, with elections being conducted through a formal ballot system. By 1756, elections took place at the head of Thames St. It appears that slave owners competed to have the best dressed slaves providing clothing, jewelry, wigs, horses, and carriages. Having a “governor” or “king” for a slave evidently gave a certain amount of prestige to the slave owner.
As fully feeling human beings with the range of human emotions and desires, the enslaved sought sexual intimacy, for which permission was evidently needed. Clark-Pujara states that in 1673, “negro servants” Maria and George were found guilty of fornicating and sentenced to “fifteen stripes.”
It is clear that the enslaved resisted, not only passively but also actively. They resisted the attempts by their masters to reduce them to simply cold, unfeeling property, like a chair, a horse, a fence post. The enslaved were fully human beings, with yearning hearts, minds, and souls, and they demonstrated this.
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)
Fred Zilian (zilianblog.com; Twitter: @FredZilian) is an adjunct professor at Salve Regina University, RI, and a monthly columnist.
Benard, Akeia. Strangers and Outcasts in a Strange Land: The Early African American Community of Newport, RI. (forthcoming)
Clark-Pujara, Christy. Dark Work, The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island. NY: New York University Press, 2016.
Crane, Elaine F. A Dependent People: Newport, Rhode Island, in the Revolutionary Era. NY: Fordham University Press, 1992.