In the year 1797, untroubled by federal and state laws forbidding the trade in human beings, eight Newport vessels sailed the globe, buying 891 Africans, carrying them to the auction blocks in Georgia, Cuba and Uruguay. Of those captives, 105 died in the middle passage.1
The largest of the illegal voyages that year was that of the Ship Ascension, owned by the well-known Newport merchants Caleb Gardner, William Vernon, Peleg Clarke and Samuel Brown. The Ascension landed in Mozambique in Southeast Africa and boarded 283 captives, carrying them to Montevideo, Uruguay in South America, only completing the final leg of the triangular trade back to Newport after almost three years at sea.
William Ellery Channing
The same year, a 17-year-old from Newport, William Ellery Channing, could not avoid noticing the fabulous wealth of these slave traders, accumulated from the sales of the victims of the their own commerce:
“Wealth is a sordid object of pursuit… Should India shake off her chains, or the poor African feel no blood trickling down his back, thousands, now pampered, would either starve, or feed on the bread of poverty.”2
Channing would become the foremost Unitarian preacher in the United States. However, while rejecting slavery, he would also condemn any who dared rise up against it.
The North is bound to frown on all attempts of its citizens, should such be threatened, to excite insurrection at the South, on all attempts to tamper with and to dispose to violence the minds of the slaves. The severest laws, which the Constitutions of the different States admit, may justly be resorted to for this end, and they should be strictly enforced.4
Channing had been influenced as a young man by the abolitionist Congregational preacher Samuel Hopkins of Newport5, who was a continual annoyance to the Newport slave traders, with his fiery condemnations of slavery. While Channing’s views of slavery as a “Southern” problem may well have been palatable to the Northern slave traders, Hopkins’ adamant views, on the other hand, were most certainly not, and had little following amongst the wealthy. In 1800, after a quarter-century of trying to roll the Sisyphean bolder of abolitionism up the hill of Newport, Hopkins in his final days had been left impoverished, isolated, dismissed from the pastorate, and coldly cynical about the prospects of dissuading the Newport elite of trading in humans:
The slave trade, and the slavery of the Africans, in which this town has had a greater hand than any other town in New England… has been the first and chief spring of all the trade and business by which this town has risen and flourished… And there is no evidence that the citizens in general have a proper sense of the evil of this business, of the guilt which has been contracted by it, and of the displeasure of God for it, or that they have a just abhorrence of it; but there is much evidence of the contrary, and that there is little or no true repentance of it.6
It would seem that William Ellery Channing was already quite aware of the impossibility of Newport merchants abandoning the slave trade, having learned the same from his grandfather, William Ellery, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and Collector of the Port of Newport 7, who famously observed,
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.8
It would be many decades before Newport would finally abandon the slave trade, and only then because it could no longer turn a profit at it.