Christine Mitchell is an historic interpreter at the Old Slave Mart Museum in Charleston, South Carolina. She will reveal her research on the buying and selling of people of African descent in South Carolina and display many original documents found during her research. Many describe the relationship between Rhode Islanders and the southern slave markets. Peter Fay of the Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project will introduce her, noting Rhode Island’s large role in the Charleston slave trade.
Ms. Mitchell is also affiliated with the Slave Dwelling Project (http://slavedwellingproject.org/). Mitchell moved from Atlanta to Charleston in 2012 to be near family, and is a third-generation descendant of slaves who lived in the community. “To be here, and to help educate people who are coming here from all over the world, I am giving honor to the ones that never had a voice,” she says.
Beginning in the 1720’s, Rhode Island dominated the American slave trade, carrying over 110,000 Africans across the Atlantic to the British Islands in the Caribbean, and to the mainland, mostly South Carolina and Georgia. After the War of Independence, Rhode Island slavers reached their peak, rushing to cash in on the trade before it was outlawed in 1808.
While no longer landing the enslaved in Rhode Island (except for some illegal landings in Bristol), Rhode Island slavers in Newport, Bristol, Providence, and Warren deepened their ties to the southern slavocracy, both in trading slaves, investing in southern ports, and extending family ties to southern plantations. Every sector of the state’s economy supported, supplied, or benefited from the slave trade.
In his historic study, The Notorious Triangle, Jay Coughtry revealed that almost half of all Rhode Island slave ships delivered their U.S. slaves to Charleston.1)The Notorious Triangle, Jay Coughtry, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1981, p.167.
As part of this trade, Rhode Islanders also placed family members in Charleston to extend their role to all aspects of the business of slave sales. Nathaniel Russell of Bristol, Rhode Island, became the largest purveyor of slaves in Charleston, managing sales to local buyers. Henry DeWolf of Bristol, the nephew of the largest slave trader in America, James DeWolf, also moved to Charleston to cash in on the local slave sale business. According on one historian,
“In 1806 Henry DeWolf formed a partnership with Charles Christian, primarily to enter the lucrative business of supplying slaves to the Charleston, South Carolina, market. Between 1803 and 1807 Bristol firms delivered almost four thousand slaves, and DeWolf and Christian, acting as the family commission agents, handled more than $600,000 worth of business.”2)Debtors and Creditors in America: Insolvency, Imprisonment for Debt, and Bankruptcy, 1607-1900, Peter J. Coleman, Beard Books, Washington D.C., 1999, p.100.
The sale of human beings was commonplace to Rhode Islanders from the very inception of the colony, but Africans were not the only ones enslaved. In fact, enslavement of Native Americans in Rhode Island preceded the African slave trade by decades. Capture and enslavement of Native Americans was widespread.
Today, four centuries later, the casualties and survivors of the Atlantic slave trade are finally being memorialized by the Newport Middle Passage Project. As part of this movement, the Newport Middle Passage Project is also opening a discussion of the trade of enslaved Native Americans in Rhode Island.
Michael J. Simpson, an adjunct faculty member at both Becker College and Bristol Community College, will discuss Native American enslavement in Rhode Island at Newport Public Library Tuesday, November 14th at 6:30 pm. Mr. Simpson is a past research fellow and Visiting Curator of Native American History at the Newport Historical Society and has also worked for both the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan and also at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum in Connecticut.
The Atlantic slave trade dominated every facet of the Americas and the British West Indies in the 17th century. As part of the British Atlantic empire, Rhode Island’s nascent commerce and growth was launched by this same trade from its earliest days.
In August of 1637, in the aftermath of the Pequot War in Eastern Connecticut and Narragansett country, Pequot men, women and children were captured by the United Colonies to be distributed among the victors. More that two-hundred fifty Native American captives were sent to Connecticut and Massachusetts authorities in the summer of 1637 and were sold at auction. Though in public Roger Williams questioned the merit of Native American slavery, the Rhode Island founder privately wrote to John Winthrop of Massachusetts to request a specific enslaved Native American child, one of 50 Pequots captured near Fairfield, Connecticut, the caravan, “another miserable drove of Adam’s degenerate seed, and our brethren by nature” he wrote.1
Four decades later, following King Philip’s War in 1676, Native American captives were again gathered, this time in Rhode Island by Roger Williams and the leaders of Providence, “under a Tree by ye Water side”. One prisoner of war, Chuff, “a ring leader all ye War”, was hastily condemned by a tribunal and “he was shot to Death, to ye great satisfacjon of ye Towne”.2
Remaining men, women and children captives were then transported to Newport and sold at a public auction, overseen by Roger Williams’ son, Providence Williams. Well-established Newport families purchased slaves and took them home to work as in-house servants. The Quaker Peter Easton of Newport, son of the Governor, and Attorney General of Rhode Island at the time, purchased three Indian slaves, including a young boy ‘Tom’ and a man ‘Simeon’ and a woman, ‘Sue.’ Newport’s elite bequeathed Native American men, women and children in their wills, alongside their cattle, bed linen and cutlery. The Eastons passed Native American slaves down as inherited property across more than three generations in their family, and Quaker Walter Easton only freed his last slaves in 1796 – one-hundred thirty years later.
The lasting impact of Native American enslavement can be seen in the many runaway slave adds taken out in Rhode Island newspapers in the 18th century. One poignant advertisement for three runaways in the Newport Mercury of 1765, on the verge of the American Revolution, alerts readers to “two Negro Men, and one Indian Man, Slaves, all born in Tiverton… Whoever shall secure one or more of said Slaves, so that his or their Master or Masters may [secure] him or them again, shall be well rewarded.” Ironically, the banner page of the issue notes the Governors’ proclamation of the 28th of November as “a Day of Thanksgiving to Almighty God”, that “our invaluable Rights, Liberties, and Privileges, civil and religious, may be precious in His Sight”, and on this Thanksgiving, “I do strictly inhibit and forbid any servile Labour to be done thereon”.3
Another runaway ad in 1771, only four years before the outbreak of war, request of any who see “an indented [indentured] Indian Boy… pretty light colour’d”, to “apprehend said Runaway, and deliver him to his Master, or confine him in any of his Majesty’s Gaols [jails], so that his Master may have him again.” Also, “all Masters of Vessels, and other, are hereby forewarned carrying off or harbouring said Boy, as they would answer the same on their Perril.”4
The “master” appears to be none other than John Northup of North Kingstown, a co-signer of the “Protest against Enlisting Slaves to Serve in the Army” in 1778.5 This petition to the Rhode Island Assembly opposed formation of what became the black and Indian companies of the First Rhode Island Regiment in the War of Independence because other states would find it a “contemptible point of view” and “not equal to [their] troops”, and invite “the same kind of ridicule we so liberally bestowed upon [the British] on account of Dunmore’s regiment of blacks; or possibly might suggest to them the idea of employing black regiments against us”.6
Public warnings from “patriot” slaveholders such as Northup (who was a member of the revolutionary Rhode Island “Committee of Safety”7) doubting the worthiness of black and Native American soldiers, and fearing their rising against whites, was in the end belied by the later conduct of these same troops during battle. These deprecations of the character of enslaved nonetheless did not prevent John Northup’s father, Immanuel, from selling two of his slaves to the state for a handsome sum to fulfill the Rhode Island quota of troops promised the Continental Congress.8
Even long after the independence of the United States from Britain had been obtained, and a after gradual emancipation of slaves enacted in Rhode Island, forced labor of Native Americans did not end. A full fifteen years after the 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act, abolitionist and Quaker Moses Brown placed an ad in a Providence newspaper calling for the capture and return to his master of a runaway 16-year-old indentured boy, “his Mother an Indian”. A five dollar reward was offered.9
While most Native Americans were free in early Rhode Island, some still intermarried with enslaved Africans, and some with free Africans. Race did not seem to dominate tribes the way it did life for whites. Non-natives were brought into Native American tribes and traditions and found refuge and community there. Native heritage survived the centuries of assaults on native culture in an often inhospitable world. 10 But in the end, the culture and heritage not only survived, but thrived. And this is evident throughout Rhode Island today.
Many dozens across Rhode Island braved gale-force winds from tropical storm Jose to attend a presentation by Dr. Marcus Nevius on enslaved Virginians escaping to the Great Dismal Swamp in the 19th century. The event was sponsored by the Newport Middle Passage Project and Channing Church of Newport.
Dr. Marcus Nevius of the University of Rhode Island previewed his upcoming book, “City of Refuge” which details the daily lives of numerous men who lived hidden in the swamp. While escaping their owners, they still participated in economic activities alongside other enslaved laborers in work camps harvesting lumber, staves, and producing other goods for the regional economy. This allowed themselves to exchange labor for critical commodities required for survival in a wet, inhospitable environment.
With the advent of the civil war and emancipation, the swamp ceased to be a destination for those seeking self-determination. Yet family folklore and legend continued to live on about the role of the swamp.
Following the presentation, many black participants discussed their family’s emigration from post-civil war Virginia to Newport, Rhode Island, seeking opportunity and employment in the hospitality industry, and small businesses. This community of ex-Viriginians has established a long continuous history of contributions to Newport’s economy, education and in civil rights movements through the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.
Racial relations are deeply rooted in every pore of our four-hundred-year history, both nationally and locally. Three hundred people were enslaved in North Kingstown, and by the turn of the 19th century newly free people of color faced a crossroad. Two woolen mills producing “Negro cloth” would diverge on racial preferences – one hiring skilled black spinners and weavers, the other excluding them.
The debate over integration and equality of labor had life-long consequences for all involved and had repercussions far beyond N.K. The racial choices mill owners made two centuries ago continue to echo in today’s Rhode Island.
“Slave Economy and Petit Marronage in VA and NC from 1790 to 1860.”
Dr. Marcus Nevius
History and Africana Studies at URI
Wednesday, September 20, 6:30 – 8:00 PM
Newport Public Library
Free and open to the public; simple refreshments will be served
Dr. Nevius will speak about his upcoming book on the “hidden” but thriving communities of escaped slaves and others in the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina and Virginia. This program is offered in conjunction with The Newport Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Marker Project.
Painting: “Fugitive Slaves in the Dismal Swamp, Virginia” by David Edward Cronin, 1888
Dr. Nevius new book is under contract with the University of Georgia Press’s Race in the Atlantic World 1700-1900 series. It is a story of petit marronage, a clandestine slave’s economy, and the construction of internal improvements in Virginia and North Carolina during the first half of the nineteenth century.
Petit marronage describes a type of escape in which enslaved people repudiated legal and cultural enslavement by taking flight to remote swamps and forests throughout the Americas. The slave’s economy describes the various clandestine exchanges of goods and provisions that sustained maroon colonies.
In examining these themes in the Great Dismal, “city of refuge” engages the historiographies of slave resistance and abolitionism, highlighting each as they unfolded within the Dismal’s extractive economy. What emerges in “city of refuge” is a close study of the ways that American maroons, enslaved canal laborers, white company agents, and commission merchants shaped, and were shaped, by the complex historical problems of race and economic development in the Early American Republic. This is a story based in primary sources including runaway advertisements; planters’ and merchants’ records, inventories, letterbooks and correspondence; colonial, provincial and state records; abolitionist pamphlets and broadsides; slave narratives; county free black registries; and the records and inventories of private companies.
Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project launches the exhibit, “Makonde: Art and Community” to highlight the stunning Blackwood carvings of the Makonde people of Northern Mozambique and southwest Tanzania.
Since the 1960’s, Makonde carvings have been highly sought after, decorating thousands of living rooms and dozens of museums across Europe and North America. The high demand in western countries for these works of art have even influenced the themes chosen by the carvers themselves, leading some to call it a “blending of African and Western culture”. Nonetheless, deep traditional cultural roots underlie the artwork, which this exhibit reveals.
The Newport Middle Passage Port Marker Project opens this exhibit paying homage to Makonde art with its modern western influence, but at the same time, also acknowledges the much earlier and darker historic influence of the North American slave trade on the Makonde people, especially that of the Newport slave trade.
The Makonde people of Mozambique living south of the Rovumba River and those living north, in Tanzania, occupy the high plateaus. They lived in isolated, sparsely populated hinterland, often purposely to avoid slave traders, but nonetheless lost untold thousands to the holocaust of the 18th and 19th century slave trade. But generations later, their descendants carved these works of art from African blackwood. While some of their ancestors may have sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas as captives, today these sculptures arrive in Newport as homages to Makonde family, community, and cultural regeneration.
“Ujamaa” is the Swahili term for “family” or “unity”, and fittingly, is a frequent theme in the carvings. Also called “Dimoongo” (“tree of life”), it is but one among eight styles of Makonde carving, all of which deliver messages of familyhood, equality and continuity across the time and space separating East Africa and Newport.
The Dimoongo, or Ujamaa style (see image 1) was pioneered by Roberto Yakobo Sangwani, who, like many Mozambicans, migrated north to Tanzania in the 1950s. Originally depicting wrestlers carrying a champion on their soldiers, it later transformed to a family tree, headed by a female figure. Makonde traditionally are matrilineal, with kinship defined by the female. Later, in the 1960s-70s, the art Tanzanian President Nyerere’s Ujamaa Party adopted it as a symbol of national political unity.
Shetani style (image 3) appeared in the 1960s, as distorted or grotesque figures of humans and animal spirits of different forms. Shetani means, “little devil” in Swahili, and these carvings occasionally depict scenes from old Makonde folktales, deeply rooted in Makonde oral tradition.
Giligia is a style initiated by sculptor Chanuo Maundu, based on Makonde traditional beliefs. Deriving from the Makonde word, kuligia, meaning “to be startled”, giligia projects the fear experienced walking in the woods, often depicted by a protruding eye or teeth.
Other styles common in Makonde art incorporate the common rituals of daily life, such as work, and fetching water in the dry climate of the Makonde Plateau. Family ties are deeply ingrained in some pieces, such as women carrying and nursing infants (image 4).
There is a rich tradition of mask making, particularly amongst Mozambican Makonde, including mapiko head masks, breastplates and other traditional masks. One authority notes, “Mozambiquans use a variety of masks during their rituals and festivals; the Tanzanians use a facial mask during their famous stilt-dances but no others.”
Commercial art is also common among Makonde pieces, evident in utilitarian objects such as chairs, jars, pots, and candlesticks.
History of the Makonde
The Makonde people trace their origins from the Bantu-speaking people of south central Africa. They speak variants of the Bantu language group: ChiMakonde in Tanzania, and Shimakonde in Mozambique, as well as Swahili and other languages. The Rovumba River, which marks the border between the two countries, separates the community in two. They share a common history and ethnic origin, but both groups are distinct linguistically and culturally. They are traditionally matrilineal and matrilocal, that is, descent is traced through female lines, and husbands relocate to the wives’ clan when marrying. Women raised crops and made pottery, whereas men have traditionally created carvings. Largely isolated until the 20th century, Makonde resisted European colonialization and Christianity, and practiced traditional African religions, more so than Islam.
While best known today for their modern art, they have in earlier times been famous for their stunning body piercing, tattoos and scarification. These practices have been associated with coming of age rituals for both boys and girls. However, after changes brought by decades of colonial struggle against the Portuguese, a war of independence and recent economic globalization, the traditional practices of matrilineality, piercing and tattooing have become less common.
Newport Ties to Mozambique
The ties between Newport, Rhode Island and the Makonde Plateau of Mozambique are deep and harrowing. Between 1793 and 1806 at least twelve slave ships left Rhode Island for the 8,000-mile voyage to Mozambique, purchasing over 3,000 captives, delivering them to slavery in Uruguay, South America, and Cuba. Almost 500 died on the Atlantic voyage – most of disease, some during insurrections. The familiar names adorning the streets, historic colonial homes, and memorials of Newport and Bristol today were the same names that financed the slave voyages to Mozambique: Caleb Gardner, William Vernon, Peleg Clarke, George deWolf, Jacob Smith and James Brattle. On one voyage, Gardner and Vernon sold 214 slaves for $48,565, which had a value equivalent to $13.4 million today.
The ravages of the East African slave trade put the Makonde people in the cross hairs of the commerce, being on the Rovumba River – a key link in the caravans of captives moving from Lake Malawi down to the coast of Mozambique for sale to Arabs and Europeans alike. Even more than American or Portuguese slavers, the French bought the captives for their plantations in nearby Mauritius and Reunion islands. Slave traders of the Nguni tribe caused the Makonde to scatter to lowly populated areas. Over one million Mozambican captives were drained from the country in the 19th century to feed the slave trade. Ironically, the British closure of the West African slave trade supply in 1807 fueled much of the 19th-century explosion in Mozambique trade, as slavers sought out new supplies. Northern Mozambique, including the Makonde region, was especially impacted during the first half of the nineteenth century.”
Nonetheless, the Makonde people survived and eventually thrived. Today they continue their unique and striking cultural traditions through their carvings and other works of art, sharing it with the world.
 Tore Saetersdal, “Makonde carvings: Cultural and symbolic aspects”, in The Making of a Periphery: Economic Development and Cultural Encounters in Southern Tanzania, edited by Pekka Seppala and Bertha Koda (Stockholm: Nordic Africa Institute, 1998), 285.
 Harry G.West, “Villains, Victims, or Makonde in the Making? Reading the Explorer Henry O’Neill and Listening to the Headman Lishehe”, Ethnohistory, 51:1 (2004): 12.
 Kefa M. Otiso, Culture and Customs of Tanzania (Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2013), 108.
 Jorge Dias, Margot Dias, Manuel Viegas Guerreiro, Os Macondes de Moçambique (Comissao Nacional Para as Comemoracoes dos Descobrimentos Portugueses Instituto de Investigacao Cientifica Tropical, Lisboa), 21.
 David Eltis, “A Brief Overview of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, http://www.slavevoyages.org/assessment/essay (accessed 7/29/2017).
 Eltis, op.cit. For Samuel Brown, merchant of Newport and Boston, see “Guide to the Samuel Brown letter, 1788”, Redwood Library, Nowport.RLC.Ms.570. For James Brattell, captain and shipowner, see Elizabeth Donnan, Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America: Volume III: New England and the Middle Colonies (Washington:Carnegie Institution,1932) , 338, and Volume IV, 523; and “Jonathan Gibbs House”, Newport Restoration Foundation, https://www.newportrestoration.org/preservation/historic_houses/details/49-jonathan_gibbs_house, accessed 7/28/2017; and “Deposition of Col. George Irish in the case of Samuel Freebody vs. James Brattle”, RIHS Manuscripts, Mss 9003, Vol.16, 102. For Jacob Smith, see George Champlin Mason, Annals of Trinity Church, Newport, Rhode Island, Volume 1 (Newport: Evans, 1890), 219, 247, 264, 332.
 Samuel Chace, “Account of Sales of the Ascensions Cargo of Slaves and Buenos Ayres for Account of Messrs. Vernon Gardner & Co.”, 1798, New York Historical Society, nyhs_sc_b-02_f-02_006-001. Dollar conversion from Samuel H. Williamson & Louis Cain, “Measuring Slavery in 2016 dollars,” MeasuringWorth, 2016, https://www.measuringworth.com/slavery.php accessed 7-Aug-2017.
It’s a rare occurrence when newspapers provide historical context for today’s social conflicts, rather than little more than click-baiting headlines. It was therefore a welcome event when journalist Olga Enger of Newport This Week, penned a refreshingly well-researched article on the “long arc” of the history of the Rhode Island slave trade.
Ms. Enger traced this history across two centuries until outlawed in 1807, citing scholar Marcus Rediker’s groundbreaking book “The Slave Ship”. After the eclipse of the “notorious triangle”, Enger noted the long-term impact of radical black reformers like Newport’s own George Downing, associate of Frederick Douglass, who helped put an end to legal segregation of schools in Rhode Island in 1866.
One often forgets whence came the various movements for justice, civil rights, and honoring the anonymous victims of the slave trade. Centuries of struggle against bondage, and for equality before the law preceded today’s efforts to rectify slavery’s hidden past. “The arc of the moral universe is a long one,” Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker observed in 1850, laying down one the oft-quoted phrase used by Martin Luther King, President Obama and others. This arc of history, while at times unbearably long and often invisible to the casual observer, Parker believed “from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice”. If this is true, it bends only from the force of the many thousands of lives across the centuries pushing it toward justice.
After many months of planning, research, organizing and lobbying, the Newport Middle Passage committee presented a resolution to the Newport City Council requesting Liberty Square as the permanent location for a memorial honoring enslaved Africans carried to the new world through the middle passage.
The unanimous approval by city government paves the way for the first public monument in Newport to African-Americans in 320 years since the first recorded middle-passage ship landed on Newport shores, the SeaFlower, in 1696.
Victoria Johnson of the Newport Middle Passage committee noted, “Newport became very prosperous in the triangle trade”, but when growing up in Newport, “we were all told that we were equal, but we never had a history lesson in black heritage”, and this history was not discussed. The planned monument will be an important step in opening up public discussion on African heritage in Newport’s history and memorializing the 106,000 Africans carried into slavery aboard Rhode Island slave ships. It will occupy Liberty Square, a site listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
Newport Middle Passage Committee exhibited manuscripts, photographs and primary source documents to a University of Rhode Island art exhibit on the history of black labor in Rhode Island. The exhibit opened at the URI Fine Arts Center in South Kingstown. Artist Deborah Baronas from Warren unveiled her “Invisible Bodies, Disposable Cloth” textile artwork, while Newport member Peter Fay researched and curated printed material and photos on 19th century textiles, whaling and service trades. Many Newport members participated in discussions and the reception.
While Newport launched the most slave-trading voyages in North America, most ships delivered the captives to the British West Indies, or to the southern colonies or states. These middle passage ports were the second leg in the famed Rhode Island “triangle trade”. Ships then returned to Newport for the final leg, often carrying molasses to make rum.
However, Newport captains also at times carried enslaved people directly from Africa to Newport harbor.
View a slide show of documentary evidence of voyages that left West Africa for the “middle passage” destination of Newport: