RI Slave Trade History

Article Written by Marco McWilliams

Beginning in the early 18th century Rhode Island’s merchant-class, primarily situated in Providence, Newport, Narragansett, and Bristol, quickly became central figures in the North American slave trade. “Throughout the eighteenth century, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves.” writes Jay Coughtry, a noted scholar of Rhode Island slave trading history. After the American Revolution, Rhode Islanders assembled the most dominant slave trading business alliance in American History. Historian Dr. Christy Clark-Pujara, in her ground-breaking book, Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island, states, “During the colonial period in total, Rhode Islanders sent 514 slave ships to the coast of West Africa, while the rest of the colonist [combined] sent just 189.”

Jay Coughtry, observed that “In Rhode Island ... the fortunes of individual merchants and whole towns were intimately bound up in the slave trade.” For example, if you lived and worked in the town of Bristol -- perhaps your employment, whether in banking, shipping and dock labor, at an insurance company, even a textile mill, or rum distillery, possibly a bank -- your labor was linked to the slave trade. Why? Because a single family in Bristol, led by James DeWolf and his brothers, were the major employers in the town and the most active slave trading family in North American history, as Dr. Clark-Pujara explains in her book. Thus, one cannot understand the economic and political history of Rhode Island without contextualizing slave trading as the primary business engine of the colony, and later of the state. “From 1725 to 1807,” Coughtry continues, “what has been called the ‘American slave trade’ might better be termed the ‘Rhode Island slave trade.’” By 1807, the moment of congressional abolition of the importation of slaves, Rhode Island merchants were responsible for no fewer than 934 documented Atlantic slave crossings. This meant that Rhode Island’s economy would become inextricably linked to what has been called America’s “original sin”. 

Rhode Island is undeniably tethered to its horrific history as the central player in the creation of America’s slave society. However, the most prominent feature of a slave society — or in our case, a slave state — is not the intergenerational white wealth and power it managed. Rather, it is the transformative curation of movements toward freedom by those Africans shackled by an endless relation of exploitation. These stories of freedom do not often situate themselves within a neat narrative of abolitionist practice.

“In 1703,” Clark-Pujara writes, “the Rhode Island General Assembly wrote slavery and racism 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 of the clock of the night, without a certificate from their masters, or some English person of said family with them, or some lawful excuse for the same, that it shall be lawful for any person to take them up and deliver them to a Constable.’”

Translation: After nine o’clock at night, all white folks became the police. Here we can observe the legal legitimization of white supremacist practice in Rhode Island. By the time the nation arrives at the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act (a law which essentially empowered federal agents to compel white people to participate in the capture of escaped slaves -- or free black people alleged to be so -- and provided a penalty upon their refusal), one can imagine a clear ideological genealogy of antiblackness forming in the Ocean State.

As all-encompassing as slavery was in Rhode Island, it could not undermine the ways in which free and enslaved Africans curated movements toward freedom. Sometimes that freedom was love:

Maroca was a proud African woman. She was enslaved on a farm in Narragansett, but she still dreamed of freedom ... everyday. Part of her freedom dream was love. Although her master, James MacSparran, a minister, circumscribed her body, she refused to allow him to curtail her will to love. So, against MacSparran’s vile wishes she continued to sneak away to visit her lover, Mingo, another enslaved African who lived on a neighboring farm. Resisting her master’s order to end the relationship Maroca and Mingo did the unthinkable — they brought forth black life in the very midst of ordained death. They had not one, but two children together. This was her love marronage. MacSparran had seen enough. He devised a plan to both punish Maroca and turn a profit. He sold her youngest child.

The next time you find yourself in Narragansett, if it rains, do not reach for your umbrella. Instead, allow Maroca’s tears to wash over you.

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