African Presence in Rhode Island

MPCPMP continues the Wednesday series that highlights historic Middle Passage/UNESCO Site of Memory markers that have been installed and those locations where a remembrance ceremony was held since MPCPMP incorporated 9 years ago. MPCPMP is/was involved in the planning for the installation of most of these markers (indicated by an * next to the state name), and other organizations are/were responsible for some.

Rhode Island*

Slavery in the colony of Rhode Island began at the time of settlement (1636) with Native American prisoners of war captured in the two major 17th century conflicts in southern New England, the Pequot War (1636-37) and King Philip’s War (1675-76). After 1638, the first enslaved Africans began arriving, forced to work the land, tend the livestock, and serve the white settlers. The numbers continued to grow. The largest increase in the Black population occurred from 1715 to 1755, a growth that “coincided with the industrial development of the colony and its emergence into the slave trade.”

With ports on the Atlantic Ocean, the newly established settlement soon became a major participant in the Triangular Trade. Rhode Island exported lumber, food staples, and horses and imported cotton, spices, clothing, and iron, but it was the production of rum that drove the trade. The sugar and molasses they imported from plantations in the Caribbean to produce rum in the Rhode Island colony was exported to West Africa in barrels and exchanged for African captives needed to produce more sugar, more rum. In 1652, Rhode Island passed a law that abolished African slavery, but it was never enforced because of the demand for cheap labor and the financial reward of the sugar market and “its related product, rum.” From 1732 to 1764, each year the Colony sent 18 ships bearing 1,800 hogsheads [casks] of rum to Africa to trade for slaves.” It was one of the “most active Northern colonies in importing slaves. Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants sponsored at least 934 slaving voyages to the coast of Africa and carried an estimated 106,544 slaves to the New World.”

Prior to the American Revolution, Newport was the colony’s principal arrival port, importing approximately 59,070 Africans in bondage. Bristol and Providence were also very active ports. The town of Warren was involved in shipbuilding and the transatlantic human trade as well, but unlike other Rhode Island ports, there is no record that captive Africans disembarked there.

Following the Revolution, merchants from the smallest colony in the Union “controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves.” Research has determined that “by 1774, Rhode Island’s 3,761 Blacks were the third highest total in New England. The white population had grown since mid-century, but the colony’s slaves still made up 6.3% percent [sic] of the total population, almost twice as high as any other New England colony.” Because Rhode Island had the highest ratio of enslaved to white, it established very harsh laws to control their movement and activity.

A dominant player in the global system of human trade, Rhode Island was responsible for the largest number of ships that originated from the U.S. mainland and transported enslaved Africans during centuries of the transatlantic human trade. According to research from Brown University, while “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.” Its status as the foremost participant in the trade of men, women, and children continued until 1774, when the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a partial ban on the importation of captured Africans. In part, it stated that: “No Negro or mulatto slave shall be brought in to this colony, and in case any slave shall be brought in, he or she shall be . . . immediately free, so far as respects personal freedom, and the enjoyment of private property.”

In 1784, Rhode Island passed the Gradual Emancipation Act that stated: “Children born to slave mothers were to be considered freeborn citizens. However, to compensate owners for their losses, such children were to be bound out as apprentices until age 21, and their wages paid to their mothers’ owners.” Enslaved people born before 1784, however, would not be freed. Although in 1787 the colony made it illegal for Rhode Islanders to be involved with the trade, this law was ignored nor was it enforced, and traders found ways to circumvent the law, “ . . . often by buying whaling ships and transforming them into slave ships” or selling captured Africans to Cuba before they returned to the U.S. In its 1843 constitution, Rhode Island officially banned slavery in the state; however, slavery continued until just before the Civil War.

On June 20, 2019, the city of Warren dedicated a Middle Passage marker at the Warren Town Wharf to honor African ancestors. Newport has begun discussions to organize a memorial, and Bristol has formed a planning committee. The status of Providence is unknown. Both Newport and Bristol have been designated a UNESCO site of memory associated with the Slave Route Project. Please follow these links to read more about Rhode Island and slavery and find resources for additional information:

https://www.brown.edu/Facilities/John_Carter_Brown_Library/exhibitions/jcbexhibit/Pages/exhibSlavery.html?fbclid=IwAR3jh2Dg8v_qTabbLHms3KR6o_fJVWev1H1-nBS4ysF8uAzzYZvb3qCn_dk

Historic Middle Passage marker, located at the Warren Town Wharf, dedicated June 20, 2019,
Photo Credit: Warren Preservation Society 
Liberty Square, Newport, Rhode Island, future site of the Newport Middle Passage monument
Photo Credit: Dave Hansen, Staff Photographer, newportri.com
Map of the Triangular Trade showing the main commodities traded between Africa, Britain, the Caribbean, and North America
Photo Credit: nationalarchives.gov.uk


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