SLAVERY in RHODE ISLAND
Black slaves were in Rhode Island by 1652, and by the end of that century Rhode Island had become the only New England colony to use slaves for both labor and trade. After overtaking Boston by 1750, Newport and Bristol were the major slave markets in the American colonies. Slave-based economies existed in the Narragansett plantation family, the Middletown crop workers, and the indentured and slave craftsmen of Newport.
Little Rhode Island generally had a smaller population of black slaves than its neighbors, Massachusetts and Connecticut, but with a very small white population as well, Rhode Island's blacks made up a higher percentage of the total population than elsewhere in New England. In the mid-18th century, Rhode Island had the highest proportion of slave-to-white of any colony in the North. This tended to make slave laws more severe in Rhode Island.
As early as 1708, slaves outnumbered white indentured servants in the colony almost 8 to 1. The biggest increase in black population fell in the years from 1715 to 1755, which coincided with the industrial development of the colony and its emergence into the slave trade. Commercial success bred a wealthy class that became a slaveowning aristocracy. Rhode Island's black population tripled from 1715 to 1730, and almost tripled again by 1755.
From 5.9% in 1708, black slaves rose to account for 11.5% of the colony's population by 1755. 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 of the total population, almost twice as high as any other New England colony.
In Narragansett County, conditions favored large-scale farming, and here more than anywhere else in the North a system began to emerge that looked like the Southern plantation colonies. In parts of "South Country" (as Narragansett also was called), one-third of the population was black work force by the mid-18th century. That's comparable to the proportion of slaves in the Old South states in 1820. Narragansett planters used their slaves both as laborers and domestic servants. William Robinson owned an estate that was more than four miles long and two miles wide, and he kept about 40 slaves there. Robert Hazard of South Kingstown owned 12,000 acres and had 24 slave women just to work in his dairy. The Stantons of Narragansett, who were among the province's leading landowners, had at least 40 slaves.
In keeping with the usual pattern, a higher percentage of blacks meant a more strict control mechanism. South Kingstown had perhaps the harshest local slave control laws in New England. After 1718, for instance, if any black slave was caught in the cottage of a free black person, both were whipped. After 1750, anyone who sold so much as a cup of hard cider to a black slave faced a crushing fine of £30.
Rhode Island, of course, was among 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. From 1732-64, Rhode Islanders sent annually 18 ships, bearing 1,800 hogsheads of rum, to Africa to trade for slaves, earning £40,000 annually. Newport, the colony's leading slave port, took an estimated 59,070 slaves to America before the Revolution. Bristol and Providence also prospered from it. In the years after the Revolution, Rhode Island merchants controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the American trade in African slaves.
As a Rhode Island historian writes, "All together, 204 different Rhode Island citizens owned a share or more in a slave voyage at one time or another. It is evident that the involvement of R.I. citizens in the slave trade was widespread and abundant. For Rhode Islanders, slavery had provided a major new profit sector and an engine for trade in the West Indies." Slaves that were not auctioned off were put to work aboard merchant ships. By 1807, black seamen made up 21% of Newport crews.
The Browns, one of the great mercantile families of colonial America, were Rhode Island slave traders. At least six of them -- James and his brother Obadiah, and James's four sons, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses -- ran one of the biggest slave-trading businesses in New England, and for more than half a century the family reaped huge profits from the slave trade. "When James Brown sent the Mary to Africa in 1736, he launched Providence into the Negro traffic and laid the foundation for the Brown fortune. From this year until 1790, the Browns played a commanding role in the New England slave trade." Their donations to Rhode Island College were so generous that the name was changed to Brown University.
Rhode Island's government jealously protected its slaves. The runaway law of 1714 penalized ferrymen who carried any slave out of the colony without a certificate from their masters. Such laws existed in neighboring colonies, but Rhode Island's was particularly severe in its penalties, and in the zeal with which the machinery of state was put to work in recovering human property, which was reminiscent of the hated Fugitive Slave Law of a later day. "The intrenched position of the slaveholders is clearly seen in this law, for all public officers of the colony and all citizens as well were charged with arresting, securing the slave, and notifying his master."
The law against thefts by slaves in Rhode Island was, again, the severest in New England, carrying a sentence that could be 15 lashes or even banishment from the colony -- a particularly dreaded punishment, as it usually meant deportation and sale to the merciless sugar plantations of the West Indies. Masters had the right to search any ship they suspected of harboring a runaway, under a 1757 law.
As in other New England colonies with many slaves, masters had to be prevented by law from turning out their old and feeble slaves. Rhode Island's 1729 ordinance required a master to post bond of £100 before manumission, to insure the ex-slave would not become a public charge.
During the Revolution, Quaker abolitionists and the powerful Newport shipping interest clashed over slavery. In February 1784 the Legislature passed a compromise measure for gradual emancipation. All children of slaves born after March 1 were to be "apprentices," the girls to become free at 18, the boys at 21. As with other Northern instances of gradual emancipation, this gave slaveowners many years of service to recoup the cost of raising the children.
No slaves were emancipated outright. The 1800 census listed 384 slaves, and the number fell gradually to 5 in 1840, after which slaves were no longer counted in the censuses for the state. And, in an essential element of the 1784 compromise, the right of Rhode Island ship-owners to participate in the foreign slave trade was undisturbed.
Legislation against slave-trading proved difficult to enforce in Rhode Island. John Brown, a merchant, state representative, and powerful slaveholder, was tried in 1796 for violating the federal Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited ships destined to transport slaves to any foreign country from outfitting in American ports. He was found not guilty. The acquittal convinced many that the new legislation was useless against the wealthy and powerful. A year later, he saw his ship, the "Hope," confiscated for violations.
As was the case throughout the North, Rhode Island, having ended slavery, also sought to make it difficult for blacks to remain in the state or move there. In the early 19th century, Rhode Island towns especially turned to the old New England custom of "warning out" strangers to purify themselves racially. The custom continued to have as a stated goal the removal of poor and undesirable strangers from a community. But blacks were increasingly its targets, out of proportion to their numbers and without regard to whether they were long-term residents or not.
A study of Rhode Island records showed that only 5 percent of the transients warned out in the 1750s were identifiable as black. This rose sharply after the end of slavery, however. The figure was up to 22 percent by the 1790s, and 50 percent by 1800. Providence, after 1785, apparently made wholesale evictions of blacks who were deemed "liable to become chargeable." Yet of the records examined between 1782 and 1800, some 37 percent had been in the town five years or longer, and 26 percent had been there for 10 years or longer. Reports of the city's overseers of the poor from the early 19th century show no great disproportionate burden on taxpayers for care of indigent blacks.
1. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, The Negro in Colonial New England, 1620-1776. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.30n.