by Douglas Harper

The effects
of the New England slave trade were momentous. It was one of the
foundations of New England’s economic structure; it created a wealthy
class of slave-trading merchants, while the profits derived from
this commerce stimulated cultural development and philanthropy.
–Lorenzo Johnston Greene, "The Negro in Colonial New England,
1620-1776," p.319.

Whether it was officially encouraged, as in New York and New Jersey,
or not, as in Pennsylvania, the slave trade flourished in colonial
Northern ports. But New England was by far the leading slave merchant
of the American colonies.

The first systematic venture from New England to Africa was undertaken
in 1644 by an association of Boston traders, who sent three ships
in quest of gold dust and black slaves. One vessel returned the
following year with a cargo of wine, salt, sugar, and tobacco,
which it had picked up in Barbados in exchange for slaves. But
the other two ran into European warships off the African coast
and barely escaped in one piece. Their fate was a good example
of why Americans stayed out of the slave trade in the 17th century.
Slave voyages were profitable, but Puritan merchants lacked the
resources, financial and physical, to compete with the vast, armed,
quasi-independent European chartered corporations that were battling
to monopolize the trade in black slaves on the west coast of Africa.
The superpowers in this struggle were the Dutch West India Company
and the English Royal African Company. The Boston slavers avoided
this by making the longer trip to the east coast of Africa, and
by 1676 the Massachusetts ships were going to Madagascar for slaves.
Boston merchants were selling these slaves in Virginia by 1678.
But on the whole, in the 17th century New Englanders merely dabbled
in the slave trade.

Then, around 1700, the picture changed. First the British got
the upper hand on the Dutch and drove them from many of their
New World colonies, weakening their demand for slaves and their
power to control the trade in Africa. Then the Royal African Company’s
monopoly on African coastal slave trade was revoked by Parliament
in 1696. Finally, the Assiento and the Treaty of Utrecht (1713)
gave the British a contract to supply Spanish America with 4,800
slaves a year. This combination of events dangled slave gold in
front of the New England slave traders, and they pounced. Within
a few years, the famous "Triangle Trade" and its notorious
"Middle Passage" were in place.

Rhode Islanders had begun including slaves among their cargo
in a small way as far back as 1709. But the trade began in earnest
there in the 1730s. Despite a late start, Rhode Island soon surpassed
Massachusetts as the chief colonial carrier. After the Revolution,
Rhode Island merchants had no serious American competitors. They
controlled between 60 and 90 percent of the U.S. trade in African
slaves. Rhode Island had excellent harbors, poor soil, and it
lacked easy access to the Newfoundland fisheries. In slave trading,
it found its natural calling. William Ellery, prominent Newport
merchant, wrote in 1791, "An Ethiopian could as soon change
his skin as a Newport merchant could be induced to change so lucrative
a trade as that in slaves for the slow profits of any manufactory."[1]

Boston and Newport were the chief slave ports, but nearly all
the New England towns — Salem, Providence, Middletown, New London
– had a hand in it. In 1740, slaving interests in Newport owned
or managed 150 vessels engaged in all manner of trading. In Rhode
Island colony, as much as two-thirds of the merchant fleet and
a similar fraction of sailors were engaged in slave traffic. The
colonial governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York,
New Jersey, and Pennsylvania all, at various times, derived money
from the slave trade by levying duties on black imports. Tariffs
on slave import in Rhode Island in 1717 and 1729 were used to
repair roads and bridges.

The 1750 revocation of the Assiento dramatically changed the
slave trade yet again. The system that had been set up to stock
Spanish America with thousands of Africans now needed another
market. Slave ships began to steer northward. From 1750 to 1770,
African slaves flooded the Northern docks. Merchants from Philadelphia,
New York, and Perth Amboy began to ship large lots (100 or more)
in a single trip. As a result, wholesale prices of slaves in New
York fell 50% in six years.

On the eve of the Revolution, the slave trade "formed the
very basis of the economic life of New England."[2] It wove
itself into the entire regional economy of New England. The Massachusetts
slave trade gave work to coopers, tanners, sailmakers, and ropemakers.
Countless agents, insurers, lawyers, clerks, and scriveners handled
the paperwork for slave merchants. Upper New England loggers,
Grand Banks fishermen, and livestock farmers provided the raw
materials shipped to the West Indies on that leg of the slave
trade. Colonial newspapers drew much of their income from advertisements
of slaves for sale or hire. New England-made rum, trinkets, and
bar iron were exchanged for slaves. When the British in 1763 proposed
a tax on sugar and molasses, Massachusetts merchants pointed out
that these were staples of the slave trade, and the loss of that
would throw 5,000 seamen out of work in the colony and idle almost
700 ships. The connection between molasses and the slave trade
was rum. Millions of gallons of cheap rum, manufactured in New
England, went to Africa and bought black people. Tiny Rhode Island
had more than 30 distilleries, 22 of them in Newport. In Massachusetts,
63 distilleries produced 2.7 million gallons of rum in 1774. Some
was for local use: rum was ubiquitous in lumber camps and on fishing
ships. "But primarily rum was linked with the Negro trade,
and immense quantities of the raw liquor were sent to Africa and
exchanged for slaves. So important was rum on the Guinea Coast
that by 1723 it had surpassed French and Holland brandy, English
gin, trinkets and dry goods as a medium of barter."[3] Slaves
costing the equivalent of £4 or £5 in rum or bar iron
in West Africa were sold in the West Indies in 1746 for £30
to £80. New England thrift made the rum cheaply — production
cost was as low as 5½ pence a gallon — and the same spirit
of Yankee thrift discovered that the slave ships were most economical
with only 3 feet 3 inches of vertical space to a deck and 13 inches
of surface area per slave, the human cargo laid in carefully like
spoons in a silverware case.

A list of the leading slave merchants is almost identical with
a list of the region’s prominent families: the Fanueils, Royalls,
and Cabots of Massachusetts; the Wantons, Browns, and Champlins
of Rhode Island; the Whipples of New Hampshire; the Eastons of
Connecticut; Willing & Morris of Philadelphia. To this day,
it’s difficult to find an old North institution of any antiquity
that isn’t tainted by slavery. Ezra Stiles imported slaves while
president of Yale. Six slave merchants served as mayor of Philadelphia.
Even a liberal bastion like Brown University has the shameful
blot on its escutcheon. It is named for the Brown brothers, Nicholas,
John, Joseph, and Moses, manufacturers and traders who shipped
salt, lumber, meat — and slaves. And like many business families
of the time, the Browns had indirect connections to slavery via
rum distilling. John Brown, who paid half the cost of the college’s
first library, became the first Rhode Islander prosecuted under
the federal Slave Trade Act of 1794 and had to forfeit his slave
ship. Historical evidence also indicates that slaves were used
at the family’s candle factory in Providence, its ironworks in
Scituate, and to build Brown’s University Hall.[4]

Even after slavery was outlawed in the North, ships out of New
England continued to carry thousands of Africans to the American
South. Some 156,000 slaves were brought to the United States in
the period 1801-08, almost all of them on ships that sailed from
New England ports that had recently outlawed slavery. Rhode Island
slavers alone imported an average of 6,400 Africans annually into
the U.S. in the years 1805 and 1806. The financial base of New
England’s antebellum manufacturing boom was money it had made
in shipping. And that shipping money was largely acquired directly
or indirectly from slavery, whether by importing Africans to the
Americas, transporting slave-grown cotton to England, or hauling
Pennsylvania wheat and Rhode Island rum to the slave-labor colonies
of the Caribbean.

Northerners profited from slavery in many ways, right up to the
eve of the Civil War. The decline of slavery in the upper South
is well documented, as is the sale of slaves from Virginia and
Maryland to the cotton plantations of the Deep South. But someone
had to get them there, and the U.S. coastal trade was firmly in
Northern hands. William Lloyd Garrison made his first mark as
an anti-slavery man by printing attacks on New England merchants
who shipped slaves from Baltimore to New Orleans.

Long after the U.S. slave trade officially ended, the more extensive
movement of Africans to Brazil and Cuba continued. The U.S. Navy
never was assiduous in hunting down slave traders. The much larger
British Navy was more aggressive, and it attempted a blockade
of the slave coast of Africa, but the U.S. was one of the few
nations that did not permit British patrols to search its vessels,
so slave traders continuing to bring human cargo to Brazil and
Cuba generally did so under the U.S. flag. They also did so in
ships built for the purpose by Northern shipyards, in ventures
financed by Northern manufacturers.

In a notorious case, the famous schooner-yacht Wanderer, pride
of the New York Yacht Club, put in to Port Jefferson Harbor in
April 1858 to be fitted out for the slave trade. Everyone looked
the other way — which suggests this kind of thing was not unusual
— except the surveyor of the port, who reported his suspicions
to the federal officials. The ship was seized and towed to New
York, but her captain talked (and possibly bought) his way out
and was allowed to sail for Charleston, S.C.

Fitting out was completed there, the Wanderer was cleared by
Customs, and she sailed to Africa where she took aboard some 600
blacks. On Nov. 28, 1858, she reached Jekyll Island, Georgia,
where she illegally unloaded the 465 survivors of what is generally
called the last shipment of slaves to arrive in the United States.


1. Hugh Thomas, "The Slave Trade," N.Y.: Simon &
Schuster, 1997, p.519.
2. Lorenzo Johnston Greene, "The Negro in Colonial New England,
1620-1776," N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1942, p.68-69.

3. ibid., p.26.
4. "Brown University committee examines historical ties to
slavery," Associated Press, The Boston Globe, March 5, 2004

* * * *

Douglas Harper is a historian, author, journalist and lecturer
based in Lancaster, Pa. He is the author of "If Thee Must
Fight:" A Civil War History of Chester County, Pa."
(Chester County Historical Society, 1990); "An Index of Civil
War Soldiers and Sailors from Chester County, Pa." (Chester
County Historical Society, 1995); "The Whitman Incident:
Revolutionary Revisions to an Ephrata Tale" (Lancaster County
Historical Society Journal, 1995); "West Chester to 1865:
That Elegant & Notorious Place" (Chester County Historical
Society, 1999).

Harper is a graduate of Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pa., with
a degree in history and English. He has been featured in a BBC
production on the Welsh settlements in America, and has been interviewed
as a source for historical articles by the Philadelphia Inquirer,
Washington Post and many magazines.