Abraham Redwood: Antigua and the West Indies Trade

Abraham Redwood: Antigua and the West Indies Trade

An icon for a runaway slave from a page of the Newport Mercury, 1758.

Few Newport merchants knew more about sugar and slaves than Abraham Redwood.

His father, a slave trader and mariner from Bristol, England, had married into the sugar business. On a 1687 voyage to Antigua, the elder Redwood married Mehetable Langford, the daughter of a wealthy planter. Soon after the marriage, Redwood inherited Cassada Garden, a sugar cane plantation worked by slaves.

“From this time on the Redwoods had wealth, dignity and opportunity,” says historian Gladys E. Bolhouse.

Business was good. Dutch traders had first introduced sugar production to the English colonists on Barbados, and by the 1650s it had spread to Antigua and the other nearby islands. Sugar made in the West Indies fetched a higher profit in London than any other American commodity, including Chesapeake tobacco.

Making sugar was messy work. Planters had to clear huge tracts of trees on the low-lying island. And they needed gangs of slaves to plant, harvest and crush the heavy cane.

Men, women and children toiled six days a week in the sticky fields and year-round heat. At harvest time, they did not sleep; they hacked the cane with curved knives, gathered up the stalks and loaded them onto ox carts. Inside the sugar mills, wind- or ox-driven wheels crushed the juice from the splintered cane.

It was dangerous work. If a slave’s hand got caught in a machine, an overseer chopped it off.

“People were getting killed all the time,” says Robert P. Forbes, a research scholar at Yale University. “The planters ultimately worked out an equation. The most efficient use of a slave was to wear him out in seven years and get a new one.”

To meet the steady demand for labor, Antigua planters imported tens of thousands of slaves.

It was never enough.

“One of the great Burdens of our Lives is the going to buy Negroes,” lamented planter Edward Littleton from nearby Barbados. “But we must have them; we cannot be without them.”

* * *

Abraham Jr. was born on the island in 1709.

Three years later, his father hired a plantation overseer and took his family to Newport. It was a smart move. The seaport town, with a 10-year-old public wharf, boasted a decades-old business with the West Indies.

Rhode Island’s trade with the West Indies was started in the mid-1600s, in part, by Peleg Sanford, who would later become governor. Sanford spent two years on Barbados, and two of his brothers stayed in the tropics to act as his business agents.

Sanford shipped horses, peas and beef to slave plantations in the West Indies. In return he got sugar and molasses, which he sold or used to buy British goods.

Later, merchants distilled the molasses into rum, which they used to buy slaves.

Abraham Jr. joined the trade early.

Before he turned 18 he married Martha, the daughter of Abraham Coggeshall, a Newport Quaker. After his brother died in a 1724 riding accident, he inherited the family’s sugar works in Antigua.

Not yet 20, he lost no time exploiting the plantation’s profits.

From England, he ordered a wrought iron gate for his Thames Street town house.

A photo taken of the gates of Redwood Library in 1940 by William King Covell. Blacksmiths Jay Christman and Bob Rotondo, owner of Newport Forging and Welding, restored the gates of the Redwood Library.

From Antigua, “he ordered slaves, among them a young girl, probably for Martha, and sugar and rum from the plantation,” says Bolhouse.

Edward Byam, the manager of Cassada Garden, handled Redwood’s requests.

“Sir, this is to advise You that I have Loaden on board of Sloop Betty . . . two negroes one boy and one Girl,” Byam wrote on Aug. 10, 1727.

Walter Nugent, a trader in Antigua, also sent slaves a few years later. “Worthy Sir, I send you two Negroes; if you like them keep them and give my account credit for what you think they are worth,” he said.

* * *

Antigua lacked springs for irrigation, making droughts a constant problem. “The last year was very dry, and several of your neighbors with plantations larger than yours made little,” wrote Byam.

But droughts were nothing compared to the threat of a slave revolt.

In 1736, the island’s planters grew fearful as slaves gathered at odd times, and blew on conch shells in the dead of night. After interrogating dozens of workers, the authorities said they had discovered a plot “whereby all the White Inhabitants . . . were to be murdered, and a new form of Government . .. Established, by the Slaves.”

Declaring martial law, Antigua officials held a series of private trials and eventually executed 88 slaves in St. John’s, the capital. The leaders were stretched out on a wooden wheel and tortured in the public square. Officials jammed their severed heads on posts near the jail.

Two of Redwood’s slaves – Scipio and Oliver — were among those burned at the stake.

Portrait of Abraham Redwood, wealthy Newport merchant, a founder of the Redwood Library in Newport BY CHARLES BIRD KING, REDWOOD LIBRARY AND ATHENAEUM

It’s unclear how much Redwood knew; existing letters between Byam and Redwood say nothing about the plot. But an account of the executions appeared in a New York newspaper.

The next year, Redwood sailed to Antigua, leaving his young family in Newport.

The island had changed greatly since his father’s day.

The black population had ballooned six-fold in 30 years; soon, slaves would outnumber whites by 7 to 1. Nearly all of the 108-square-mile island had been stripped bare to make room for 150 plantations — “amazingly effective sugar-production machines, manned by armies of black slaves,” says historian Richard S. Dunn.

The “Africanized” white planters spoke Krio, ate exotic fruits and shed their woolen garments for linen suits. When their pipes sputtered out, slaves filled them with fresh tobacco.

Drinking was a major pastime. Frequently visitors were served a rum punch made with lime juice, sugar and nutmeg.

The islands had an unsavory reputation. As early as 1671, John Blackleach was shocked by the “high presumptuous sinning” in Jamaica; Samuel Sewall feared a young relative would lose his religion in the tropics.

Redwood stayed three years.

He ordered a desk and bookcase from the Newport furniture-maker Christopher Townsend. From his new office, he directed the ship Martha and Jane to Africa to buy slaves.

At one point, Redwood asked David Cheseborough, his business agent in Newport, to send four pairs of “fine pumps” for dancing.

Cheseborough did so reluctantly; he worried that Redwood would stay long enough to wear them out. Redwood’s wife, Martha, “was very unwilling they should be sent,” he added.

Quit the African trade, board one of your slave ships and return to Newport, Cheseborough pleaded. “I long to hear from you but more to see you.”

Abraham’s father-in-law urged him to return, too, and in the spring of 1740, the slave owner sailed to Newport. Back in Antigua, a group of his friends and associates spent an evening toasting Abraham. They opened bottles of burgundy and champagne. “Your cousin I think was never drunker in his Life,” noted manager John Tomlinson.

* * *

In his absence, Cassada Garden continued to make money. “Your Mill has binn going night and day this five weeks and has made a great Deel of Sugar,” reported one of Redwood’s agents.

Redwood’s plantation shipped sugar to England, Boston and Newport, and Redwood, now in Newport, used some of the profits to hire a driver for his carriage and dishes for his home.

Newport’s wealthiest merchants built or bought country estates. John Banister owned a country and a town house. And Godfrey Malbone’s country home was deemed “the largest and most magnificent dwelling” in America by Dr. Alexander Hamilton, a 1744 visitor.

Not to be outdone, Redwood purchased 149 acres in Portsmouth, part of the original Coggeshall land. He built both a greenhouse and a hothouse, and paid a gardener $100 a year to tend his grounds, which included a serpentine walk through a green meadow. From the West Indies, he ordered orange trees, fig trees and guava and pineapple roots “with the young fruit upon them.”

When Redwood’s son, also named Abraham, visited London, he toured a number of fine gardens in the city and nearby villages, but none were as neat as his father’s, he said. “I hope you will finish the summer house soon. I flatter myself that I shall spend many agreeable hours with my Father in that pleasant and happy situation.”

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In his middle years, Redwood joined Newport’s Philosophical Society and turned increasingly to the arts and erudite conversation. One of his favored projects was the establishment of a library.

The Redwood Library and Athenaeum, on Bellevue Avenue, Newport, has been in continuous use as a library since its completion in 1750, making Redwood the oldest library in America in its original building.

The 1750 building, which resembled a Roman temple, stood on hilly land donated by Henry Collins. Along with Collins, many of the library’s early officers and members were slave traders or captains.

Redwood donated 500 pounds to buy 1,338 volumes for the new library. The books, bought in London, included William King’s Essay on the Origin of Evil, Samuel Puffendorf’s The Whole Duty of Man, and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Redwood’s gift, it was said, would enable the “bewildered ignorant” to discover true knowledge.

But in a town crowded with Anglicans, Congregationalists, Quakers and Jews, truth was a tricky thing.

The Quakers, as a group, believed slave holding was unchristian.

In 1775, they asked Redwood to free his slaves. By then, however, the stout white-haired merchant “was sixty years old and his whole livelihood as well as the inheritance of his sons depended on the plantation and the plantation could not be run without slaves,” says Bolhouse.

Redwood refused and the Quakers disowned him. Still, Redwood left 500 pounds for a Quaker school when he died on March 8, 1788, at 79.

The Newport Herald praised his accomplishments. “The poor will never forget that he was their constant friend and benefactor,” the newspaper said.

“He was the greatest public and private benefactor of any man I ever knew on Rhode Island,” wrote a friend, Benjamin Waterhouse, “and his style of living and appearance was the best.”

Redwood left his slaves in Newport and Antigua to his children and grandchildren. An inventory of his slaves in Antigua — he owned 238 — was done 22 years earlier. The names of slaves — Sampson, Abby, Jenny and Charles — preceded Redwood’s other assets: 6 mules, 3 stallions, 14 cows and 30 working oxen.

Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.

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