(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.