New England colonies and the British Caribbean slave colonies

The British North American colonies, including the West Indian islands, were part of a larger British Empire economy that was interdependent but with internal rivalries. Separate parts of the Empire had different interests but were dependent on the other colonies. In particular, there was a very close economic relationship between the New England colonies and the West Indian slave-based sugar economy. The Caribbean islands found it more profitable to devote all their land to sugar production and import foodstuffs and other staples, while the New England colonies needed a Caribbean export market so that they could purchase manufactured goods from England. 28

The Puritans’ Royal Charter

The perceived right of New Englanders to take over the lands of Indigenous Nations was implicit in the Puritans’ Royal Charter, which granted authority for

planting, ruling, order, and governing of New England in America, and to their successors and assignees forever‘. 29

When the so-called ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ arrived in 1620, they did not bring any slaves with them, but they did bring the biblical justification for slavery. Slavery, they maintained, was established by the law of God in Israel and, regarding themselves as the Elect of God, New Englanders looked upon the enslavement of the Indians and Negroes as a “sacred privilege Divine Providence was pleased to grant His chosen people”.33 Were not ‘Negroes’ and ‘Indians’ infidels beyond the pale of civil and spiritual rights as heathen people whose souls were damned to eternal perdition?34

African enslavement and New England

The first reliable reference to African enslavement within New England is in 1638, when the governor, John Winthrop speaks of the return to Boston of Captain William Pierce in the Salem ship, Desire. It had gone to Providence Island in the Caribbean with a cargo including some captive Pequot people from the war of 1637 who he had sold into slavery there. The Desire returned with a cargo of ‘salt, cotton, tobacco and Negroes’.35

Article 91 of the Massachusetts ‘Body of Liberties’, 1641, established the first British Colonial slave law in the Americas. 36

In 1645, Emanuel Downing, in a letter to his brother in law, Governor John Winthrop, urging a war with the Narragansett people, wrote:

If upon a Just warre the Lord should deliver them into our hands, wee might easily have men woemen and children enough to exchange for Moores … I suppose you know verie well how wee shall mayneteyne 20 Moores cheaper than one Englishe servant. 37

In New England, the African slave population was small compared to the slave-based plantation system that developed in Southern mainland and Caribbean colonies. However, numbers fluctuated and included periods in the 18th century where substantial slave plantations thrived in areas such as Rhode Island. But Rhode Island in the 18th century was better known as a shipping centre for the slave trade, mostly carrying slaves between Africa and the Caribbean. New England slave trading and related financial and trading activities had grown from small beginnings in Massachusetts in the late 1630s. The establishment in the New England colonies of slave populations was initially through enslavement of Indigenous people captured in war or trapped by legal manipulation. Some Indigenous slaves were not kept in the region but were exported to the slave markets of the Caribbean.

While there was a shortage of labour in New England, the land was not generally suitable for the kind of cash-crop agriculture to which slavery is most suited, although, the Narragansett area of Rhode Island developed its own plantation system, using slave labour on estates dedicated to raising horses, cattle, and dairy cows. There were at least ten plantations in Narragansett that ranged in size from 1,000 to 5,000 acres, each employing between ten and twenty slaves. 38 But this was not the norm, and slavery in New England was a predominantly small-scale, urban institution and, at the first census of New England’s population in 1715, there were 158,000 Europeans to 4,150 Africans. 39 Some of the European population were indentured labourers, working within a system of unfree labour that caused them to be bound by a contract to work for a particular master for a fixed time period. There were 18 such indentured labourers on the Mayflower and 180 were sent over to the Massachusetts Bay colony at its foundation. Slavery and other forms of unfree labour were to disappear in New England not because of any exalted moral objection to the holding of human beings as chattel, but because it did not pay. One of the first settlers in Barbados was Henry Winthrop, son of the future Governor of Massachusetts Bay colony, John Winthrop. In 1628 Henry had sent a crop of tobacco back to his father in London. But the tobacco from Barbados was of poor quality and the transformation of Barbados into a sugar plantation economy would have to wait until the 1640s.44 The Winthrop family correspondence goes a long way to explaining the early English colonization project in the Americas. Certainly, Puritan religious principles were important, but these did not in any way inhibit the desire or ability to make a profit, and slavery was the most profitable way to do so. In 1645, John Winthrop’s nephew wrote to his uncle from Barbados to say that the island’s planters had bought

a thousand Negroes; and the more thay buy, the better able they are to buy, for in a year and a half they will earn (with God’s blessing) as much as they cost‘.45

New England and the Slave Trade

While the actual practice of chattel slavery was not a success in New England, slavery in the West Indies became essential to the economy of the North American colonies.

Richard Vines, a Puritan doctor from New England who was working in Barbados wrote to John Winthrop in 1647:

Men are so intent upon planting sugar that they would rather buy foode at very deare rates than produce it by labour, soe infinite is the profitt of sugar‘.46

While New England produce was expensive, it was still cheaper and more reliable than imports from Europe. By the late seventeenth Century, the West Indian trade had become the cornerstone of New England commerce involving half the ships entering and leaving Boston.

This trade, aided by co-religionist and family contacts, led Boston and the nearby town of Salem, along with Newport on Rhode Island, to embark on an ambitious programme of ship-building; a 300-ton ship was built in Salem as early as 1641. John Winthrop himself financed the construction of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s first ship, the Blessing of the Bay, launched in 1631. By 1700, Boston and nearby towns were turning out 70 ships a year – the most in number and tonnage in the Western Hemisphere.

American-built ships not only dominated the West Indian and Coastwise trades, where they accounted respectively for 96 percent and 93 percent of the ships, but were even important in the shipping coming directly from Africa. On this route, they accounted for 44 percent of the ships, with English-built ships making up the rest.48

Triangular Trades

Trade with the colonies in North America was an important market for British manufactured goods while, in turn, the New England economy evolved so that these purchases of British manufactured products were financed by the trade with the West Indies. It is common to talk of the Slave ‘Triangular Trade’ involving Old England and the Caribbean. However, it is probably more accurate to talk of the ‘Triangular Trades’, plural, as an important triangle went from New England to West Africa with rum, which could be traded for captives in Africa. These slaves could be exchanged for molasses in the West Indies to supply the rum distilling industry in New England. A slave, who could be purchased in Africa for an amount of rum that cost £2 or £3 to produce in North America, could be sold for between £30 and £80 in Barbados or the southern mainland colonies.49 These enormous quantities of alcohol had the added advantage, from the slave-traders’ point of view, of setting in train a destabilising epidemic of alcoholism in Africa that vastly increased levels of violence, broke down traditional relationships and thereby facilitated slave-taking. As Boston, Salem and Nantucket became the pre-eminent slaving ports in the region, the distillation of millions of gallons of rum for the slave-trade made this the largest manufacturing industry in New England. By the Eighteenth Century, Rhode Island had thirty distilleries and Massachusetts had sixty-three, producing five million gallons of rum a year. 50

The first slave trading vessel from New England to Barbados landed in 1643 and the 18th century saw the rise of the New England Colonies as slave- carriers rather than direct exploiters of slave-labour.

Subsequently, however, the slave trade of Rhode Island outstripped that of Massachusetts. This not only played a vital role in maintaining and enabling the expansion of the slave-based plantation system in the British Caribbean, but also underpinned the creation of a New England mercantile oligarchy through the fortunes which this commerce generated. It also funded the foundation of many prestigious universities. A recent book published by Rutgers University outlining the relationship between the university and slavery, calls colleges ‘tools of empire’, part of the colonial garrison. 52

This reliance on the slave trade and the West Indian slave economy persisted up to the 13 colonies’ struggle for independence in the latter part of the 18th century.

The effects of this slave trade were manifold. On the eve of the American Revolution it formed the very basis of the economic life of New England; about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her industries. The vast sugar, molasses and rum trade, shipbuilding, the distilleries, a great many of the fisheries, the employment of artisans and seamen, even agriculture – all were dependent on the slave traffic. 53

The Declaration of Independence

One of the many factors behind the declaration of Independence by the 13 North American colonies was the way in which the proposed duties on molasses and sugar in the Sugar Act of 1764 would “ruin fisheries cause the destruction of the rum distilleries and destroy the slave trade“. The Massachusetts merchants asserted that the

destruction of the Negro commerce would throw 5000 seamen out of employment and would cause 700 ships to rot in idleness on their wharves“. 54

The Rhode Island merchants made similar claims. Even allowing for exaggeration, this demonstrates the importance of slavery to the New England economy at the time of the War of Independence.55

At the outbreak of the US War of Independence, Rhode Island controlled two-thirds or more of the colonies’ slave trade with Africa. When the trade resumed after the war, Rhode Island resumed its predominance, shipping nearly 50,000 new slaves in less than twenty years.56

Though New England’s slave population was relatively small, African American and Indigenous American slaves were part of the North Eastern states for well over a hundred years from the late 17th century. Moreover, slave trading through ports in New England from then to the late 18th century, though small compared with elsewhere in the Americas, was substantial.

From the earliest European settlement until the final end of slavery, New England was enmeshed in slavery, albeit at arms’ length. The selling of Pequot prisoners of war into Caribbean slavery, was merely the first move in the process. Food and other supplies from New England were essential to the profitability of West Indian sugar slavery, and New England rum became one of the main ‘currencies’ in the transatlantic slave-trade. The attributing of the Pilgrim Fathers as the originators of the democratic tradition of the United States, on deeper examination demonstrates that US and British political traditions are soundly founded on slavery, racism and genocide.


Link to related article

African Slavery and the Mayflower Story



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