Home > Uncategorized > Why New England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade matters – posted 3/5/2023

Why New England’s role in the transatlantic slave trade matters – posted 3/5/2023

New England has a reputation as a historic, progressive and culturally rich region. Probably no area in the country can match our colleges and universities. In the 19th century New England played a prominent role in the movement to abolish slavery. As a region, we have tilted undeniably blue.

So it was with shock that I recently learned much more about New England’s significant role in the transatlantic slave trade. The Legacy Museum in Montgomery Alabama, set up by Bryan Stevenson and his organization, Equal Justice Initiative, presents a detailed chronology of the evolution and history of the transatlantic slave trade. They present an overview of the East Coast’s regional areas’ participation in the slave trade.

New England’s role is little understood and has been minimized. It has largely escaped scrutiny because most conventional historians begin their inquiries with the years around the American revolution. History before that gets little attention as has been pointed out by the 1619 Project. I also think New Englanders like to maintain the conceit that we are much better than the South. The history of abolitionism dictates a pass for the early history.

That posturing gets in the way both of looking at the actual history and thinking about how it affects us today and what we can do about it.

Starting back in the 15th century, European powers sent ships and troops across the ocean to exploit new lands for wealth and profit. Quite a few European powers including England, France Spain and Portugal sought to extract wealth in the New World and wherever they could.

In the process, between 1501-1867, 13 million African people were kidnapped, forced into European and American ships and trafficked. Two million died in the Middle Passage. The Legacy Museum, through sculptures and visual representations, forces a reckoning with the dehumanizing brutality of the Middle Passage and slavery.

Barbaric conditions were the norm. Slaves were stowed away below deck like sardines, “locked spoonways” together, naked, shackled and forced to lie in urine, feces and blood with little to no fresh air. During the journey across the ocean, the Africans were chained and manacled for weeks, unable to stretch or stand except during limited time on deck.

The Middle Passage lasted roughly 80 days on ships that ranged from small schooners to massive slave ships. For the enslaved, the Middle Passage followed traumatic removal from family which must have been both disorienting and extremely distressing.

Initially the Europeans tried to utilize indigenous people to supply labor but massive numbers died from disease or were killed. Because that was largely unsuccessful, colonists in New England resorted to enslaving Africans.

Slavery existed long before the formation of the United States. In 1641, Massachusetts became the first North American colony to legalize slavery. New Hampshire followed in 1645. The enslavement remained legal in Massachusetts for 140 years until 1783. The New Hampshire legislature didn’t officially eliminate slavery until 1857.

Slavery was justified on a narrative of racial difference that categorized black people as sub-human. Part of the justification was the idea it was not wrong to take the Africans because they were being Christianized and saved. By 1640, enslavement was codified as a hereditary and permanent legal status that all the New England colonies followed.

The slave trade grew dramatically and New Englanders profited from the kidnapping and trafficking of African people. The buying and selling of black people included many New England business owners, not just large firms. New England docks, especially in Rhode Island and Boston, were critical for the traffickers. Equal Justice Initiative writes:

“In what became known as the “Triangle Trade”, New England traders imported sugar and molasses produced by enslaved people on Caribbean plantations and manufactured rum that they shipped to West Africa, where it was exchanged for enslaved Africans, who were sold to Caribbean plantations for more sugar.”

Until the American revolution, rum production was New England’s largest manufacturing business. Massachusetts and Rhode Island taxed the traffickers for each person they kidnapped and brought to the colonies through 1732. New Hampshire declined to impose a tax on the traffickers in order to lure more ships to its ports.

Along with rum production, other New England industries were also reliant on enslaved labor. Between 1790 and 1860, 300 textile mills opened in Rhode Island alone. They relied on cotton harvested by slaves who worked on Southern plantations or in the West Indies. New England merchants profited enormously not just from trafficking humans and using their labor but also from trading raw goods produced by enslaved people.

Until the 1850’s, insurance companies in Connecticut issued policies to enslavers and shipowners that promised to pay enslavers hundreds of dollars for each enslaved person who died on board or while laboring. The scheme incentivized murder. In one case in 1781, shipowners threw 133 sick Africans overboard the slave ship Zong so they could collect on the insurance.

Slavery was integral to the building of much New England infrastructure. There was no cash crop in the region and the number of enslaved people was much smaller than in the South but enslaved people were a backbone of the economic system that did emerge.

The history I cite has not been integrated into most accounts of American history. I would suggest that the stories we tell ourselves about our history matter. It is about honesty and intellectual integrity. We all benefit from a more informed and thoughtful understanding of race-based slavery.

Experiencing the Legacy Museum made me wonder about questions like: how much are racial hierarchy and economic inequality rooted in the transatlantic slave trade? And how long does the obligation to right historical wrongs persist? And what would righting those wrongs mean?

I would say that like most of America, New Englanders have buried this important discussion rather than embracing it. We could do much more to acknowledge the history and to think about what rectification would mean. A different understanding of the past would very likely dictate a different political and economic agenda for the future.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. steveacherry
    March 5, 2023 at 3:17 pm

    Good piece bro. I knew that Bristol RI where Ruth grew up was a major center for the skate trade. Mansions on Hope St. we’re bought and paid for on the backs of kidnapped black Africans

    Sent from my iPhone

    • March 5, 2023 at 3:20 pm

      I was surprised how big a role Rhode Island played. Newport, Providence and Bristol all played a big role.

  2. jlewandohotmailcom
    March 8, 2023 at 6:34 pm

    Thank you again! I think an excellent outcome from a more complete knowledge of our history would be to stop feeling fearful or antagonistic toward those who have been so essential to the literal building of the nation and start feeling appreciative.

  3. Sue DeWitt-Burns
    • March 9, 2023 at 12:20 pm

      Thanks Sue! I do know some but not that much. My trip really opened my eyes more.

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