In colonial Rhode Island, slavery played pivotal role

Trade with slave-based economies implicated New England colonies

This article originally ran in the April 18 edition of The Herald.

Brown Confronts Slavery, Second in a series.

Though the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice was expected to submit its report to President Ruth Simmons this spring, it is unclear when the report will be submitted or whether it will be released publicly before summer. In this, the second in a series on the committee and its work, The Herald examines the context of slavery in colonial Rhode Island and some of the committee’s educational undertakings.

Though North American ships represented a relatively small portion of the global slave trade, Rhode Island was the epicenter of the North American slave trade. At least two-thirds of North American slave-trading voyages each year were from the colony.

Before the American Revolution, Newport was the chief slaving town in Rhode Island. Afterward, it was replaced by Bristol largely because of the DeWolf family, which owned a plantation in Cuba and was the biggest slave-trading family in the nation. The infamously cruel slave trader James DeWolf got his start as the captain of a ship owned by the Brown brothers’ father, according to James Campbell, associate professor of history and chair of the committee.

About 1,000 Rhode Island ships completed the Triangle Trade Route between North America, the West Indies and Africa, but an estimated five to six times as many made the bilateral trade route to the Caribbean. Rhode Islanders depended on industries related to sugar production because of the paramount role rum played in the early economy of the colony. There were 22 rum distilleries in Newport in 1770, according to Campbell.

Prosperity in colonial Rhode Island was generated primarily through trade with slave-based economies, not through the slave trade itself. Trading on a routine basis with the West Indies, one could make three voyages in the same time it would take to go to Africa and back, according to Stanley Lemons, professor of history at Rhode Island College. While the return was lower for these trips, it was almost guaranteed.

“While the vast majority of merchants never engaged in the slave trade, they made their money trading with slave-based economies. Historians all agree that the economic development of New England would have gone a lot slower if it weren’t for trade with these slave economies,” he said.

In addition to trade with slave-based economies in the West Indies, many farmers who were opposed to slavery still benefited from a national market that sold products like horses, mules and corn in the South, according to Lemons.

“It’s like the world economy today. The nature of economic systems is that you end up having to trade with people who do things you don’t like because they have stuff you want or need, or they’re your market,” he said.

Though the Rhode Island General Assembly made it illegal for Rhode Islanders to be involved in the African slave trade in 1787 – ironically, passing the first law of its kind in America – this ruling was ignored. Abolitionist Moses Brown ultimately pressed for his brother John to be prosecuted under the federal Slave Trade Act of 1794.

At the time of the creation of Moses’ abolition society, John Brown wrote an angry letter to the Providence Gazette, complaining the society was “created not to ruin only one good citizen but to ruin many hundreds within the United States” who were involved in slavery or the slave trade.

In 1800, John Brown voted against a bill in Congress to strengthen the same federal act under which he had been prosecuted.

Moses Brown turned to textile manufacturing, only to be reminded by his brother that the cotton for his cloth would be harvested by slaves. Moses’ textile factory was also responsible for what was known at the time as “Negro cloth,” a cheap, coarse material sold to southern plantations for slave clothing, Campbell said.

A mission to educateOne of the committee’s primary focuses has been education, according to Campbell. In conjunction with the Choices Program at the Watson Institute for International Studies, members of a student Group Research Project overseen by Campbell have published “A Forgotten History: The Slave Trade and Slavery in New England,” a curriculum for Rhode Island elementary schools. Students usually study Rhode Island history in fourth or fifth grade, but the realities of Rhode Island’s implications in the slave trade are often skimmed over in history books, according to Morgan Grefe Ph.D. ’05, director of the Center for Education and Public Programs at the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Members of the GRP have also created a traveling exhibit about the failed voyage of the Sally, which is currently touring libraries in Rhode Island and will be on permanent display in the gallery at the John Brown House.

“(The Browns) were an extraordinary family in terms of their wealth and their position for hundreds of years – but at the same time, their stories are very much a part of the American story,” Grefe said.

“If (we aren’t) studying things like slavery to understand the responsibility we have in making choices now, then why are we really studying it at all?” she asked. Grefe said one of her goals in educating children about slavery is to get them to think about the meaning of one person being so many different things – a lover of education, a supporter of the arts and a slave trader.

The discussion about slavery is “a conversation most Americans don’t even know how to begin to have,” Campbell said. He stressed the need to look at America’s history “with new eyes – not regret for the past, which is inevitably self-congratulatory, but comparing it to issues in our own time.”

“One hopes that the report is the beginning of a conversation, not an end,” he said. “This can’t be exhausted in a (series of presentations). What we’re trying to do is bring forward a set of questions, not a set of answers, (so that) debate will unfold on more historic ground.”