Buying and Selling Human Beings: Newport and the Slave Trade
On sloops and ships called Endeavor, Success and Wheel of Fortune, slave captains made more than 1,000 voyages to Africa from 1725 to 1807. They chained their human cargo and forced more than 100,000 men, women and children into slavery in the West Indies, Havana and the American colonies.
The traffic was so lucrative that nearly half the ships that sailed to Africa did so after 1787 — the year Rhode Island outlawed the trade.
Rum fueled the business. The colony had nearly 30 distilleries where molasses was boiled into rum. Rhode Island ships carried barrels of it to buy African slaves, who were then traded for more molasses in the West Indies which was returned to Rhode Island.
By the mid-18th century, 114 years after Roger Williams founded the tiny Colony of Rhode Island, slaves lived in every port and village. In 1755, 11.5 percent of all Rhode Islanders, or about 4,700 people, were black, nearly all of them slaves.
In Newport, Bristol and Providence, the slave economy provided thousands of jobs for captains, seamen, coopers, sail makers, dock workers, and shop owners, and helped merchants build banks, wharves and mansions. But it was only a small part of a much larger international trade, which historians call the first global economy.
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Pollipus Hammond was dying.
As a young man in Newport he had sailed wooden sloops and brigs across the roiling Atlantic. Now, at 71, he was curled up in agony.
The Rev. Ezra Stiles was surprised. He had heard that dying men often stretched out. Shortly before midnight in the winter of 1773, Hammond died.
Stiles, a pastor for nearly 20 years at the Second Congregational Church on Clarke Street, closed the dead man’s eyes.
Physically, Hammond was short and thin. But spiritually, he had been a pillar in the congregation, a sober churchgoer for nearly 34 years. A boat builder, mechanic and father of five, Hammond could have turned “his hand to any Thing,” Stiles wrote in his daily journal.
For a quarter of century, Hammond had turned his hand to the slave trade.
Sailing from Newport’s crowded harbor, he purchased hundreds of slaves from the west coast of Africa and chained them aboard ships owned by some of the town’s wealthiest merchants.
Hammond belonged to a group of captains who depended on the slave trade for a living.
He quit the business in the 1750s, when he was in his mid-50s.
He became a devout Congregationalist; he even offered his home for monthly meetings. But he never stopped telling stories about danger, even exaggerating what he had seen and heard on his African voyages along what slavers called the Guinea Coast. It was, Stiles noted in his daily journal, the only “blemish in his character.”
“He was many years a Guinea Captain; he had then no doubt of the SlaveTtrade,” Stiles wrote. “But I have reason to think that if he had his Life to live over again, he would not choose to spend it in buying and selling the human species.”
If Hammond regretted his life as a slave captain, he left no record of it.
When Hammond died on Feb. 5, 1773, Newport’s slave trade was booming.
Nearly 30 captains had sailed to Africa the year before, ferrying away nearly 3,500 Africans to slave ports in the Americas and the Caribbean.
“Our orders to you are, that you Embrace the first fair wind and make the best of your way to the coast of Africa,” wrote merchant Aaron Lopez to Capt. William English. “When please God you arrive there . . . Convert your cargo into good Slaves” and sell them “on the best terms you can,” ordered Lopez, who outfitted four slave ships that year.
The first recorded departure of a Newport slave ship was in 1709, and regular voyages from Newport to Africa were recorded beginning in 1725.
“There’s no Newport without slavery,” says James Garman, a professor of historic preservation at Salve Regina University in Newport. “The sheer accumulation of wealth is astonishing and it has everything to do with the African trade. . . . “
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It’s unclear when Pollipus Hammond, born in 1702, boarded his first slave ship, but Hammond and the trade matured together.
By the time Hammond turned 21, more than 600 ships a year passed through Rhode Island’s busy ports. Many carried New England goods — mackerel, pork, beef, cider, beer, onions, flour, butter, candles, apples, cheese and staves — to other colonies along the Atlantic Coast.
Others carried goods directly to the slave plantations in the Caribbean or in South America. These ships returned to Newport with sugar and barrels of molasses, which distillers turned into rum.
Some of it was sold in New England. But Rhode Islanders soon discovered a new market for their rum: tribal leaders and European traders along the African coast, in regions known as the Slave, Gold and Windward Coasts. In all, Rhode Island ships carried nearly 11 million gallons of rum to Africa during the l8th and early 19th centuries.
Tribal leaders were willing to dicker with Newport captains, turning over prisoners from rival tribes and other natives in exchange for Rhode Island rum. The African captives were then sold in the Caribbean or in the southern colonies for cash or for more sugar and molasses, creating what was known as the Triangular Trade.
Rhode Islanders distilled an especially potent liquor that was referred to as Guinea rum, spirits which quickly displaced French brandy in the slave trade.
As a result, slavers from Rhode Island were often called “rum men.”
In 1733, he sailed the Dispatch, owned by merchant Godfrey Malbone, to Africa. Six years later Malbone, who owned a house in Newport, a country estate and several slaves, hired Hammond again, this time to take 55 slaves to the West Indies aboard the sloop Diamond.
Already, the slave trade was competitive.
In 1736, Capt. John Cahoone told Newport merchant Stephen Ayrault that seven Rhode Island captains and 12 other slavers were anchored off the coast of Africa, “ready to devour one another for the chance to trade” for slaves being held at a handful of British ports. Never “was so much rum on the Coast at one time before. . . . “
Four years later, the colony’s fleet of 120 ships was “constantly employed in trade, some on the coast of Africa, others in the neighboring colonies, many in the West Indies and a few in Europe,” Gov. Richard Ward told the Board of Trade in 1740.
The sugar and slave plantations especially benefited from Rhode Island’s exports.
Plantation owners – too busy growing sugar cane to grow their own food — “reaped great advantage from our trade, by being supplied with lumber of all sorts, suitable for building houses, sugar works and making casks,” Governor Ward noted. The West Indies slave owners dined on beef, port, flour and other provisions “we are daily carrying to them.” Rhode Island horses hauled their cane and turned their sugar mills. And “our African trade often furnishes ’em with slaves for their plantations.”
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For Pollipus Hammond and other slave captains, African voyages posed many risks. The voyages were filthy, laborious and dangerous. “Few men are fit for those voyages but them that are bred up to it,” Dalby Thomas, an agent for the Royal African Company, told his superiors in London in the early 1700s.
These captains must be ready to “do the meanest office,” he wrote.
Africa teemed with killers — river blindness, yellow fever, malaria. One or two captains died each year from disease, violent storms or slave uprisings. Capt. George Scott barely escaped a slave revolt in 1730, when several Africans aboard the Little George murdered three of his men in their sleep. Caleb Godfrey jumped into a longboat after lightning struck his ship, and once was mauled by a leopard.
If a captain survived — and many did not — he “had nothing to lose and a great deal to gain from a slaving venture,” says historian Sarah Deutsch.
In addition to a monthly wage, captains received a 5 percent commission on every slave sold. Many also received a bonus, or “privilege,” of four or more slaves per 104 Africans aboard. The captains were free to sell them or keep them.
Some made enough to invest in later trips to Africa. Many joined the Fellowship Club, a mutual aid society, established in Newport in 1752. When the club received a charter from the Rhode Island legislature, 17 of the 88 members had made at least one voyage to Africa. By the time Hammond died, slaving captains formed a third of the society.
While some captains made enough money to quit the trade and move up socially, Hammond “never left the wheel,” says Jay Coughtry in The Notorious Triangle.
“Lack of capital, ambition, or, perhaps, the lure of the sea” prevented men like Hammond “from rising into the ranks of the merchant class,” he says.
The Rev. Ezra Stiles arrived in Newport to assume the pulpit of the Second Congregational Church in 1755, about the time Pollipus Hammond quit the slave trade.
A bookish man who studied Latin and physics at Yale, Stiles declared Newport “an agreeable Town,” a place of “leisure and books,” and a choice spot to continue “my Love of preaching.”
He drank cider, tea and claret, and planned future books, including a history of the world. In 1761, six years after he arrived in Newport, the minister paced off its streets to map the town.
Evidence of the town’s booming sea and slave trade was everywhere. He counted 888 houses, 16 rum distilleries and 61 shops near the waterfront.
Some of the town’s biggest slave traders belonged to Stiles’ Clarke Street church. Eleven members were either slave traders or captains, including Caleb Gardner,William Ellery and William and Samuel Vernon.
Newport was a far cry from New Haven, where Stiles grew up and attended Yale. While New Haven had been settled by strict religious leaders, Newport had been settled by “men who chafed at the economic, as well as religious, restrictions of Puritan society,” says historian Lynne Withey.
They “wanted to build prosperous towns and personal fortunes out of the wilderness.”
Those attracted to Newport included the Quaker merchant Thomas Richardson, who had moved from Boston in 1712; Daniel Ayrault, a French Huguenot, who arrived around 1700, and Godfrey Malbone, who moved from Virginia at about the same time. William and John Wanton, shipbuilders from Massachusetts, arrived a few years later.
These entrepreneurs — or their sons or in-laws — added slave trading to their business ventures. Yet another group of investors arrived between 1746 and 1757, among them William Ellery, the Champlins and Aaron Lopez.
Stiles read the Bible in the morning and visited some of the slave traders as their pastor in the afternoon.
He socialized with them, too.
He dined often with William Vernon, who bought a mansion three doors down on Clarke Street. An ardent gardener, Stiles wrote his name on an aloe leaf on Abraham Redwood’s country estate. Eventually, the pastor was named librarian of the new Redwood Library.
While he talked philosophy with Newport’s slave merchants, he also ministered to the town’s slaves.
By the mid-1770s, he was preaching to dozens of slaves. Often, he preached to them in small groups in his home. “I directed the Negroes to come to me this Evening,” he wrote in 1771. “I discoursed with them on the great Things of the divine Life and eternal Salvation . . . “
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Three days after Pollipus Hammond died, the temperature plunged to 5 degrees.
Ice clogged the harbor. That winter the spindly trees above the waterfront were “full of crystals or frozen sleet or icy horror,” noted Stiles. It was so cold his window had frozen shut. “I can not come at my thermometer which is usually left abroad all night,” he complained.
Head down, his long nose poking forward, Stiles trudged through Newport’s icy streets to attend Hammond’s burial in the Common Burying Ground, on a hill near the edge of town.
A prominent stone mason had carved a final thought for the slave captain. His headstone, topped with an angel, said, “Here Lieth the Body of the Ingenious Capt. Pollipus Hammond.”
It was Stiles’ habit to visit his church members and their families at least four times a year. Stiles had visited Hammond 10 times before his death.
If the two men discussed slavery, Stiles did not note it in his diary.
Then again, the pastor had written little about his own ties to the slave trade.
His father, Isaac, had purchased an African couple to work in the fields of the family’s 100-acre farm in North Haven.
And a year after he became pastor of the Second Congregational Church, Stiles put a hogshead of rum — 106 gallons — aboard a ship bound for the coast of Africa.
The captain, William Pinnegar, returned with a 10-year-old African boy.
Stiles kept the slave for 22 years, and freed him only after he accepted a job as president of Yale in 1777.
In 1756 Stiles gave the boy a name.
He called him Newport.
Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.