The Washington Post
Sons of Providence: The Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolutionby Charles Rappleye
Sons of Providence paints a vivid portrait of Colonial life as we follow these founding brothers in their rise to the heights of American commerce and power and from revolution to nationhood. See more details below
Sons of Providence paints a vivid portrait of Colonial life as we follow these founding brothers in their rise to the heights of American commerce and power and from revolution to nationhood.
The Washington Post
"Reading Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence, a biography of Moses and John Brown, gave me the same kind of jolt I felt when I learned that twelve of America's presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, were slave owners. Rappleye's book provides vivid testimony to the painful fact that the Browns and the tiny state they helped form were indeed all too much like America, fractured between the ideal of liberty and the reality of chattel slavery.... Rappleye skillfully details the complex relationship between these brothers, whose differences over slavery tested but never destroyed their friendship." -- David S. Reynolds, The New York Times Book Review
"Rappleye is a diligent researcher...and a fair-minded, unjudgmental chronicler of the Browns' complicated story.... Sons of Providence is more than the story of two privileged and disputatious men, and it should be read with an eye to its larger implications." -- Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post Book World
"Eloquent and riveting.... Rappleye narrates with verve and insight, creating a wonderfully engaging glimpse into a key epoch in Rhode Island -- and American -- history." -- Edward J. Renehan, Jr., The Providence Journal
"Through this profoundly moving story of two brothers -- one a slave trader, the other an abolitionist -- Rappleye brings to vivid life the history of a formative period in our nation's life. It is a terrific story and a splendid work of history." -- Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln
"Sons of Providence is a landmark book. One learns things about the American Revolution and the early Republic that amaze." -- Thomas Fleming, author of Washington's Secret War: The Hidden History of Valley Forge
"In his inspired choice of the Brown Brothers, Charles Rappleye makes human the division between slave owners and abolitionists that haunted the American Revolution and left consequences that plague us still. Sons of Providence is an epic story of greed, rebellion, and moral courage." -- A. J. Langguth, author of Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution
"Charles Rappleye has unearthed the fascinating story of two founding brothers on opposite sides of America's bitter battle over slavery and the meaning of a nation conceived in liberty. This powerfully told narrative sheds new light on the Revolutionary era and one man's impassioned struggle to end slavery before it was too late." -- Henry Wiencek, author of An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves,and the Creation of America
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Sons of ProvidenceThe Brown Brothers, the Slave Trade, and the American Revolution
By Charles Rappleye
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2006 Charles Rappleye
All right reserved.
Chapter 3: The Sally
In September 1764, as the heavy heat of the New England summer finally began to lift, John and Moses Brown sailed with their brother Joseph from Providence to Newport to supervise the final preparations for the voyage of the ship Sally. Usually the Browns put their vessels out from their own wharf at Providence, but in this case the primary cargo would be rum, and the quantity they were shipping made Newport the only logical point of departure. Besides, the Sally was putting out for Africa, and with so much at stake, the brothers wanted to be sure everything was in order.
Nicholas stayed behind, tending affairs at the countinghouse, as was his wont. John and Moses were the natural candidates for the assignment. A square-rigged brigantine, the Sally was larger than the sloops and schooners that made up the rest of the family fleet, and finalizing her inventory required all the deal-making acumen the young merchants could muster. Joseph's presence at Newport was a bit unusual, as he generally took a backseat in business affairs. But the Sally was being custom fitted for thisexpedition, with the chains and barracoon and other trappings of the slave trade, and Joseph may have been indulging his mechanical curiosity. More simply, Joseph may have taken the opportunity to visit Newport. It was the commercial capital of the colony and a jewel of a town, one of the great sights of the colonial seaboard.
Newport would fall during the course of the Revolution, and would rise again to become a summer resort for the rich and powerful, but this was its first heyday. The town was built around a quiet, deepwater harbor lying on the west-facing shore of Aquidneck Island, which stretched more than ten miles north and east, to the inland waters of Mount Hope Bay. The harbor was sheltered on three sides from Narragansett Bay, and by the rocky foot of Aquidneck from the angry gales of the Atlantic.
Within the harbor itself, the waterfront was sculpted for commerce, with scores of private wharves bisected by the Long Wharf, a public dock that jutted out two thousand feet, with a drawbridge leading to an inner mooring for smaller craft. The town itself stood close by, with brightly painted wood-frame houses clustered around an open cobblestone parade, dominated at the south side by a great stone marketplace and on the far end, to the east, by the Colony House, the model for Providence's own government seat. Farther back, windmills crowned the peaks of the rolling Aquidneck hills.
Larger and richer than Providence, Newport was more cosmopolitan, home to a handsome library -- endowed by Quaker shipping magnate Abraham Redwood -- and to the Touro Synagogue, the first of its kind in America. Newport was also home to the colonial slave trade, which had grown steadily since the early part of the century and drew the interest and engagement of all the great shipping families of the town -- the Redwoods and the Malbones, the Vernons and the Ellerys, and the Browns' friends the Wantons.
Once their fortunes were secure, these merchant princes retired to elegant country estates encompassing thousands of acres in the dales and meadows on the outskirts of town. But there was no mistaking the influence of the Guinea trade on every facet of life in Newport. The very streets of the town were paved with proceeds from a duty on imported slaves. Aside from shipping, the leading industry was distilling rum from molasses, with at least a third of that product wheeled directly to the docks and loaded onto ships bound for Africa. Return cargoes of chained and miserable slaves were a common sight on the docks and at the main market, just off the waterfront. The early Quaker abolitionist John Woolman was shaken by the scenes from the waterfront during a visit to Newport in 1760, recording in his journal, "My appetite failed, and I grew outwardly weak."
The Brown brothers suffered no such revulsion during their visit to Newport. Years later, Moses proposed that it was John who "drew his brothers with him" into the expedition, driven by "his love of money and anxiety to acquire it." But there is no record of objections raised by any of the other brothers at the time. Indeed, unlike most of their joint enterprises, each signed on to this venture individually, and as equal partners.
The first evidence that the Browns were contemplating a move into the slave trade crops up in an exchange of letters with Carter Braxton, a Virginia slaveholder and petty customs official who raised tobacco at a plantation on the Pamunkey River. A shrewd businessman, Braxton traded in a wide variety of goods, and he wrote Nicholas Brown & Co. in February 1763 to offer his services and selling commodities at 5 percent commission. More intriguing, Braxton knew there was a "great traid carried on from Rhode Island to Guinea for Negroes," and he wondered if he could find a partner in that business.
The brothers answered that fall, when they sent another cargo southward down the coast. They would take him on as an agent, they said, but at half the rate he sought. As for slaves, they would entertain that collaboration as well. "It's very likely if its agreeable to you to be concerned that we may fitt a proper vessel for Guiney in the Spring, and as a considerable quantity of tobacco will answer there, you'll advise us in your next whether you could send a quantity of tobacco clear of duty by our vessel." Thus the brothers would acquire a partner and a key ingredient of the cargo in a single transaction.
Braxton answered promptly. He would accept the brothers' commission terms, and would sell their cargo of slaves to boot. "The prices of Negroes keep up amazingly," he enthused. Weeks after receiving that letter, the Browns sent another sloop to Virginia, this time with a slave aboard, perhaps as a test of Braxton's mettle, to be sold "for the most he would fetch." But here the trail dies out. Braxton, the plantation owner and aspiring slave trader, later turned up as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but never again appears in the Browns' correspondence.
The loss of a possible partner set back the Browns' plans to enter the slave trade, but only temporarily. Young and ambitious as they were, and hemmed in by the postwar depression, their move to join such a profitable traffic seems almost inevitable.
Braxton was correct when he referenced a "great traid" between Rhode Island and Africa. In the years since James Brown had sent his brother Obadiah to Africa, few Providence merchants had followed his lead, but Newport had increased steadily in the trade, even as the shippers from the other colonial ports, primarily Boston and New York, had dropped out. By the time of the French and Indian War, vessels from Newport carried more than 70 percent of the American traffic in slaves; while colonial carriers remained a small fraction of the European ships bringing Africans to New World, the American trade was located almost exclusively at Newport. And with the end of hostilities with France, departures from Newport surged. From a low point of six clearances to Africa in 1759, the number of slavers setting out from Newport more than doubled in 1761, matching the prewar peak of fifteen. By the time the Browns dispatched the Sally, three years later, that figure would increase again, to twenty-seven.
Stephen Hopkins emphasized in his Remonstrance to the Board of Trade the crucial role played by rum and slaves in the fortunes of the colony:
This little colony, for more than thirty years past, have annually sent about eighteen sail of vessels to the [African] coast, which have carried about eighteen hundred hogsheads of rum, together with a small quantity of provisions and some other articles, which have been sold for slaves, gold dust, elephants' teeth, camwood, etc. The slaves have been sold in the English islands [of the Caribbean], in Carolina and Virginia, for bills of exchange . . . ; and by this trade alone, remittances have been made from this colony to Great Britain, to the value of about 40,000 pounds yearly. . . .
From this deduction of the course of our trade, which is founded in exact truth, it appears that the whole trading stock of this colony, in its beginning, progress and end, is uniformly directed to the payment of the debt contracted by the import of British goods; and it also clearly appears, that without this trade, it would have been and always will be, utterly impossible for the inhabitants of this colony to subsist themselves, or to pay for any considerable quantity of British goods.
While the logic of the colonial economy was driving the Browns to enter into the African trade, there was little in the way of moral stricture to hold them back. At that time, in the years before the Revolution, the idea that there was something wrong with trafficking in humankind was still just a glimmer on the ethical horizon. True, John Woolman and several other Quaker visionaries were just then beginning to raise their voices against slavery, but they were a tiny faction even within their sect, and had yet to be heard in the broader body politic. Among the Quakers themselves, the question was usually framed in terms of the treatment of slaves and their potential for conversion to Christian faith. Similarly, a few Protestant clerics, like Samuel Sewall in Boston, had spoken against human bondage, but they had been roundly denounced, in part on scriptural grounds.
More important, slavery was an accepted part of everyday life in the colony, and in the life of the Browns. James and Obadiah Brown each had slaves tending the kitchen and the nursery while the boys were growing up, and as the brothers established their own households, each included as his property Africans held in lifelong bondage. The best accounting that survives is the one for Moses; he had working for him in 1764 several African men, including Bonno, the oldest, aged about twenty-five years; Caesar, recently purchased at age twenty-three; and Cudjo, born in Rhode Island of African parents. In addition there was at least one woman slave in the household, named Eve. She had been bequeathed by Uncle Obadiah to his daughter Mary, the sister of Moses' wife; she lived with Anna and Moses at their home on Towne Street.
John offered some hint of his attitude toward his slaves in a summary of his ratable estate, a document filed with the town for tax purposes. In it, he accounted for two African servants: "One Negrow feller, also one negrow which I am uncertain is 14 years old or not." He would register his slaves as property, but disdained to mention them by name. As for Nicholas, he owned several slaves, and sold them on occasion, as in November 1763, when he recorded the sale of "one Negro girl named Desire" to the seafaring Abe Whipple.
In addition to the slaves they held at home, the brothers held several slaves in common. This was an unusual arrangement but not unique; several deeds of manumission, recorded in the mid-1770s, released an owner's partial interest in an individual slave. The Browns' practice was described years later by William J. Brown, whose grandfather grew up in bondage to the Brown brothers. "Grandfather Brown was born in Africa, and belonged to a firm consisting of four, named respectively, Joseph, John, Nicholas and Moses Brown," William wrote in a memoir. "They held slaves together, each brother selecting out such as they wished for house service; the rest of the slaves to perform outdoor labor."
The Browns' slaveholding was not exceptional. While the institution of slavery was always stronger and more advanced in the southern colonies, it was present throughout the British settlement, and especially in the seaports like Boston and New York, New London, and Newport, where most families of means kept black slaves. Slavery was more prevalent in Rhode Island than in most of New England, and it was stronger in the southern part of the colony than the north. By the middle of the eighteenth century, slaves made up more than 15 percent of the population at Newport, and in the Narragansett country, a district of fertile plantations on the coastal plain to the west, dozens of farms were tilled by teams of ten to twenty slaves.
In Providence, slaveholding was a mark of the elite. Slave auctions were held at the Crown Coffee House, just off Market Square. Many from the Browns' circle of friends owned slaves, including Stephen Hopkins, Jabez Bowen, and the Jenckeses. These personal slaves did chores around the house and on the country holdings of the leading families. If there wasn't enough work to keep the slaves busy, they were leased out. One 1763 letter to Moses asks the wages for his blacks, "that we may settle with his master."
The slaves of Providence became a part of the social life of the town, particularly in the mornings and evenings, when the blacks joined boys from other families in a headlong race across the Great Bridge to reach the town pump, or north on Towne Street to the banks of the Moshassuck, where they would draw water that they would tote back in buckets. This was the limit, however, of the town's tolerance for the Africans in their midst. Within the home, slaves lived out of sight, in attics or dank basements, or physically apart, in outbuildings and barns. In those churches that admitted blacks, they were consigned to balconies where they could not be seen. And after nightfall, a colony-wide curfew barred blacks from being abroad after 9 P.M.; transgressors were punished at the whipping post. In 1751, that law was amended "to prevent all persons keeping house within this colony from entertaining Indian, Negro or Mulatto servants or slaves . . . nor furnish any opportunities for dancing or gaming."
In the years after slavery was abolished in the north, chroniclers of New England history tended to soft-pedal the memory of slavery, assuring their readers that the institution of bondage was more gentle and more familial than the brutal mode prevailing to the south. References abound to "jolly darkies" and the "delightful experience of patriarchal manners." Yet in the north as in the south, slavery was always characterized by the tools of the trade, the manacle and the lash, and by mutual mistrust rooted in the master's arbitrary and total sway.
That fear lay at the base of the relationship between master and slave was made clear in an incident that took place at Newport, in 1707, and was remembered long after. In the spring of that year, the wife of a slaveholder was murdered, and one of the family slaves, a suspect in the crime, fled and threw himself into the sea, "by reason he would not be taken alive." Two weeks later, when the body of the anonymous slave was washed ashore, it was "brought into the harbor at Newport," where, upon order of the General Assembly, it was dismembered. The head, arms, legs, and torso were then "hung up in some public place, near to town, to public view . . . that it may, if it please God, be something of a terror to others."
The primary consideration for the Browns entering the slave trade was not moral, but logistical. Like their father before them, they would have to secure the substantial up-front capital needed to stage a voyage that would take a year to complete under the best of circumstances. They needed to assemble a cargo. And they needed to locate a captain they could rely on.
The brothers were already working on the first two tasks during their correspondence with Braxton. "We shall largely be concerned in the navigation this Fall which will bring molasses in the Spring and we living in a place where we can procure a large quantity of rum distilled amediately," they wrote in September 1763. A year later, they had secured 159 barrels, called hogsheads, which contained more than seventeen thousand gallons of high-proof rum. There were other items to locate and buy as the brothers sought to adjust their wares to the tastes of the African coast. Tobacco was especially useful in helping to close a deal, and ten hogsheads of local leaf were loaded on. Onions, produced in nearby Bristol, always traded well, and the Browns obtained eighteen hundred bunches. Rounding out the cargo were thirty boxes of candles, forty barrels of flour, ninety-six pounds of coffee, and twenty-five casks of rice, presumably to feed the slaves on the trip across the Atlantic.
In the meantime, the brothers wrestled with the crucial choice of who would command their ship. During the months since the deal with Braxton had fallen through, other merchants had stepped into the trade, glutting the coast with rum and carrying off most of the available slaves. The Browns needed a captain who could enter a thin and volatile market and still come away with a successful venture. Their first choice was William Earl, the helmsman on the Wheel of Fortune, Obadiah's last slaving venture, but Earl was committed to Simeon Potter, a sometime privateer running slave ships out of Bristol.
Word of the Browns' search for a captain reached their friend Joseph Wanton in Newport, and in August his son Joseph Jr. offered his services. "[I] flatter my self that I can give you satisfaction . . . being well aquainted and well experienced in the Ginea trade all down the coasts," he wrote. By then, however, the Browns had made their decision: they would enlist Esek Hopkins, Stephen's brother and, when ashore, a colleague of the Browns in the Providence political scene, on various civic projects, and as a deputy to the General Assembly during Moses' first term.
Then forty-six years old, Esek Hopkins was a handsome and headstrong sailor, more than six feet tall, who had already lived a life of adventure on the sea. His conquests in command of privateers, sometimes on ships commissioned by the Browns, were the stuff of legend, and had financed a farm of more than two hundred acres and a retail shop on Towne Street. Not only was he an able seaman, but Hopkins had proven a reliable supercargo, readily moving cargoes at the cutthroat markets of the West Indies. True, Esek had yet to try his hand on the coast of Africa, but then, neither had Uncle Obadiah, and his voyage in the Mary had ended well.
Many images were rendered of Esek Hopkins, most in connection with his later service during the American Revolution, but only one was made by someone who actually saw Hopkins in person. This was a remarkable oil painting, Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam, created by the portraitist John Greenwood in 1755. The tableau does not convey much about Hopkins's visage -- there are twenty-two figures on a three-foot-by-six-foot canvas -- but it tells us much about his milieu. Set in the gloomy interior of a seaside tavern, the painting depicts the climax of a nightlong drinking bout. Hopkins is at the center, seated at a large round table wearing a tricorner hat, holding a glass of grog, and conversing with Nicholas Cooke, another Providence sea captain, who was later elected governor of the colony. Around them reel shipmasters and sailors in various stages of inebriation, some laughing, some dozing; a couple are dancing, and two are vomiting. The only women in the picture are two black slaves serving up still more libations. The painting confirms Hopkins's reputation as a popular figure in the maritime fraternity, at home in any port where the trade winds might take him.
When Joseph Wanton learned that the Browns had settled on Hopkins, he advised against the decision. "Depend on it," he warned in a letter on August 13, "such times as will be when your vessel gets there, never were before and having a stranger must make it worse." Wanton went so far as to suggest an experienced slaver as a substitute. "If Esek is willing to quit, don't believe you can better yourselves than by taking Croswel, which was it my case should do." But the Browns stuck with their friend, and Hopkins was on hand at Newport when John, Moses, and Joseph arrived.
The terms of his hire followed the custom of the African trade. Hopkins would earn 5 percent of all sales transacted during the voyage, but the lion's share of his profit would come in kind -- he was to ship ten slaves as "captain's privilege" on his own account. In addition, Hopkins was to receive four slaves of his own for every hundred purchased. Hopkins was a part owner in the Sally, but this venture was underwritten exclusively by the Browns.
It was up to Hopkins to assemble his crew. Slave ships carried a larger complement than trading vessels of the same size, as seamen were required to guard their captives as well as handle the ship. At the time she set sail, the Sally had twelve men on board, including Hopkins, first mate James York, and Amos Hopkins, probably a nephew of Esek's, as he was listed just below the captain on the ship's roster.
Aside from detailing the captain's compensation, the sailing orders issued by the Browns afforded Hopkins full authority "to transact any and all business whatever," including sale of the vessel itself if that might be done for a profit. Aside from cash or "good bills of exchange," the Browns asked that Hopkins bring "four likely young slaves home for owners about 15 years old."
The orders were issued September 10, and Hopkins embarked soon after that, tacking north through the rocky embouchure at the mouth of the harbor and then south, through the main channel and out to sea. John, Moses, and Joseph were still in Newport, and certainly they stood at the docks to see Hopkins off. They were accustomed to striding the docks with the proprietary assurance of ship owners, but the brothers had cause for an added measure of pride and trepidation as the crew loosed the mainsail and the Sally rounded silently into the stream. John, the more sartorial of the three, may even have sported a powdered wig to mark the event. This was, after all, the Browns' entry into the rarefied caste of Newport slave traders, an order marked by means, manners, and ambition.
The voyage east went smoothly, and the Sally made landfall in early November near Bissau on the Windward Coast of Africa. Lying between the Gambia River to the north and Cape Mount (in what is now Sierra Leone) to the south, this was a region of heavy tides that surged against a low alluvial plain. The shore was divided by a dozen major rivers and defined by great stands of mangrove, which shaded the riverbanks and anchored the boggy flats. Crocodiles and hippopotamus wallowed along the banks of the fast-moving streams, while sharks cruised the Atlantic shallows between the coast and the archipelago of the Bijagos Islands, which reached fifty miles out to sea.
This was the true Guinea Coast, a thousand miles north and west of the primary trading grounds of the Slave Coast, where Obadiah Brown had done business thirty years before. Hopkins may not have been a veteran of the slave trade, but his choice of destination was a bold one. The shorter route cut a good three weeks of sailing off each leg of the trip, and it allowed the Sally to avoid the postwar glut of sail, and rum, at the more established European trading forts. That region was already crowded: one contemporary report held that "trade, for these many months, has been miserable indeed"; another correspondent found at a single fort "17 sail . . . of Europeans & Rum Men & the latter could not get a slave at any price."
By trading farther to the west, Hopkins avoided some of the competition, but he was also forfeiting the convenience of European middlemen operating from their land-based slave marts. The Windward Coast in fact had a longer history with slavery, as the Portuguese had opened the Atlantic trade there as early as the fifteenth century. And after 1750, with the Slave Coast operating at capacity, slave exports from the Windward Coast surged. But instead of relying on caravans from the interior, the slave merchants of the Windward Coast found their quarry close by the shore; meaning supplies were more sporadic, and the slaves themselves were more rebellious. In choosing to work the well-watered Senegambia coast, Hopkins was committing to the vagaries of the black trade.
Control of the region between the Gambia and Sierra Leone was divided among scores of different tribes, most of which battled one another for dominion and for slaves to sell. The centuries of slaving had given rise to a state of constant insecurity, as tribal chiefs vied for liquor, firearms, and other European manufactures. Kings sometimes sold off even their own subjects, and travelers routinely carried firearms to fend off raiding parties. Traders or kings would advertise their wares by torching bonfires on the shore; a pillar of smoke signaled a going market.
To judge by the Sally's log -- among the most detailed documents that survive anywhere to illustrate daily life in the slave trade -- Captain Hopkins was more than game. During the first week he made deals for provisions, trading small quantities of rum for wood, corn, yams, and fowl. Aboard ship, preparations were made for the long stay under the African sun; following the custom of the trade, the crew struck the yards and the topmasts and lashed them lengthwise between the masts to create a ridgepole above the center of the deck. Boards and more spars were used to set walls along the gunwales, and then the whole framework sheathed in sailcloth. This structure would shade the deck, and also serve as a daytime cage for the growing complement of slaves.
In the meantime, the crew was getting accustomed to the coast. For several, that meant enduring the crushing head and body aches and searing fever that was dubbed by sailors in the trade as "the malady of the land." This may or may not have been malaria, but it was debilitating and often fatal, contributing to a mortality rate among slave crews that was higher than it was for their cargo. Before the first month was out, Hopkins was seeking a doctor to minister to three ailing crew members.
Getting down to business, Hopkins made contact with Alkade, a local king. On November 13, he saluted him with three gallons of the legendary New England rum. This was the first of many palavers Hopkins would hold with Alkade and other royals; a month later he "went ashore to meet the king under the palaver tree. Carried 5 kegs 14 flask of rum and paid the king 75 gallons for his customs and received a cow as a present." The rest of the week was spent in daily fetes with Alkade and his entourage. Hopkins, perhaps accompanied by an officer or two, joined in drinking rum, eating roasted meat, and smoking fat spliffs of rolled tobacco. It was a macabre version of Christmas, with the fierce heat and the strange language, the potentates draped in brightly colored cotton, and the prospective slaves, naked and chained, huddled off to one side. But it was all part of the business.
This sort of flattery was standard for the black trade, a way to reassure the Africans that their white partners would not betray them. In years past, ill treatment and shipboard kidnappings by slavers had engendered fear and recrimination. In one notorious case, in 1732, local Africans overwhelmed the British slave ship Dove, killing the entire crew and destroying the vessel. Gaining the favor of the king was crucial to a successful venture.
Moreover, Hopkins had competition. The Sally's log shows that other slave ships were a constant presence, some British, some French, and some Portuguese. Hopkins appears to have welcomed their company, and when business was slow on shore, he kept busy making deals with his ostensible rivals. On November 20, for example, he traded barrels of beef, ship's bread, flour, and sugar to a captain named Elliot, and received in return a supply of beads -- for future trades -- and "one garl slave." Onions were particularly popular with the crews of the European ships.
The consent of the king meant Hopkins had permission to deal, but he'd have to find his slaves where he could. While most of the trade was carried on by middlemen, primarily mulatto descendants of the early Portuguese adventurers, Hopkins also secured the services of slave hunters, who worked the low-lying coast for a retainer of a flask or two of rum. If they returned with captives for sale, the bargaining began anew. Sales took place on shore, where Hopkins or one of his officers inspected their naked, exhausted quarry for signs of disease or other infirmity. The bargaining could take all day, as the slave merchant picked over the Sally's trading goods. Some transactions were settled for a simple quantity of rum, but others were more elaborate -- the price of one "small garle" was four kegs and four flasks of rum, seven sets of cotton clothes, one length of calico cloth, two large iron bars, one small cutlass, two English guns, one bunch of beads, a flask of gunpowder, and six knives. By early January Hopkins had secured thirty slaves -- a rate of one every couple of days.
Once a purchase was made, the captive Africans were taken aboard. According to the custom of the trade, the slaves were kept on deck during the daytime, sequestered behind a barracoon that was hung with nets to keep the captives from diving overboard. Males were always shackled, but women and children were usually free to move about inside the compound. At night, as the stifling heat lifted, all the slaves were confined below decks, their quarters increasingly crowded as the tally of prisoners steadily mounted.
On some days, Hopkins ran a virtual bazaar on the Sally's crowded deck. January 8 was especially busy, with canoes plying the waters from ship to shore and small boats ferrying officers and wares from other slave ships lying nearby. That day, a Captain James exchanged ten dozen knives for twenty-four bunches of onions, while a second captain sold two kegs of gunpowder for sixteen bunches more. Other trades brought a pistol, two pairs of handcuffs, "country clothes" favored by the slave dealers, two cases of blown-glass bottles, quantities of corn and yams, and one large cutlass, all for one or more flasks of rum. The following day, Hopkins traded the gunpowder, the country clothes, and the large cutlass, along with seventy-five gallons of rum, four guns, and two iron bars, for two slaves, one woman and one girl. Time was slipping by slowly.
By February, Hopkins was doing what he could to pick up the pace. He sent his first mate up the Geba River, whose broad tidal estuary ran forty miles into the interior of the tangled coastal forest. James York was gone a week and returned with mixed results. He procured one man, one boy, and one girl, along with three sets of country clothes and 165 pounds of beeswax, but the price was high: "He give and expended 328 galons rum, 28 bushels onyons many more wasted, 1 pr silk stockins 20 galons rum drunk and stole." Moreover, York fell ill on the expedition. The new slaves brought Hopkins's total to forty-nine.
There were other problems. In March, William Cookos, one of the sailors, died, presumably from the malaria. And some of the hogsheads of rum had begun to come apart -- not surprising, considering that the barrels were made of fitted, rough-hewn oak bound by nothing more than hoops -- creating a constant problem in ships covering the long distances involved in the slave trade. Hopkins estimated that he'd lost more than 10 percent of his rum to leakage, the rum adding a sour note to the Sally's sloshing bilge.
As the months dragged by, Hopkins seems to have grown so enamored of the business of trades and palavers that he lost any sense of the urgency of his mission. He swapped slaves with other ship captains, sometimes to little effect. On one day in March, Hopkins bought two slaves on shore, then turned around and sold them to a Captain Patto for a trifling profit. And he enjoyed friendly relations with King Alkade, so friendly that he took to making advances of rum and other articles, presumably for aid in finding more slaves. Alkade proved his allegiance by returning to Hopkins a slave who had escaped from bondage on shore. Separately, Hopkins employed a number of Africans on the coast, including two boatmen to run canoes between ship and shore, and an interpreter named Antony.
By May, with the rainy season coming on, the slow pace of the trading began to take a toll on the slaves Hopkins was so busy procuring. May 1 brought the first, spare notation in the Sally's trade book: "a boye slave died." Sweltering heat combined with despair to make life all but intolerable for the captives, and on June 8, a "woman slave hanged herself between decks."
From that day forward, Hopkins and the crew of the Sally found themselves in a grim race with mortality. On July 12, three slaves expired in a single day, bringing the total thus far to ten. That same day the captain recorded the purchase of two slaves, for a net loss of one. Two more slaves died the next day, but another ship captain sold Hopkins five women and two boys. That would have to pass for progress.
By this time, the Sally had completed the transition from oceangoing freighter to prison ship, with more than one hundred slaves crammed into the darkness below the main deck each night. Already, the crew was engaged in the daily, dirty process of bringing the fearful captives on deck to feed, and to stretch their cramped limbs while the stinking hold was scrubbed and flushed with seawater. The ship's log makes no indication of why the slaves were dying, but it does not appear to have been an outbreak of communicable disease, like measles, which could carry off half a slave cargo in a matter of days. More likely it was the combination of shock and heartbreak that afflicted each individual taken aboard ship. Olaudah Equiano offered a sense of that experience in his 1789 memoir, one of a handful of first-person narratives to survive from the slave era.
The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship, which was then riding at anchor, and awaiting its cargo. These filled me with astonishment, which soon converted into terror. . . . I was not long suffered to indulge my grief; I was soon put under the decks, and there I received such a salutation in my nostrils I had never experienced in my life; so that, with the loathsomeness of the stench, and crying together, I became so sick and low that I was not able to eat.
Hopkins did what he could to limit the damage. He sold off four elderly captives to another ship; on August 1, he managed a grisly exchange, trading "a man slave with his foot bitt off by a shark and goot a boy in his room." There is no hint of emotion in the cold accounting of the trade book, but this period had to tax the moral stamina even of a hardened Yankee slaving crew. Their spirits took another blow with the death of another of the sailors, Uriah Parker. The cause of death was not noted, but at the end of the journey, his widow received payment for nine months, eighteen days of service.
By late August, after ten months on the coast, Hopkins had achieved his target of 140 slaves -- and more, hoping perhaps to answer for the extended duration of the trip by padding his profits, and the Browns'. He closed out his business on August 20 when he bought a woman slave, bringing the total crammed below decks to 167. In a final gesture, bidding once more to cut his losses, he handed over "1 woman all most dead" to Antony, the African interpreter. The next day, at long last, the Sally hoisted sail and headed south, seeking trade winds blowing west.
Back in Rhode Island, the Browns had no way of knowing Hopkins's progress, or the lack of it, in Africa. The brothers were busy with the business of their other ships, with the affairs of colonial government, and with the agitation against the British, but the fate of the Sally was constantly in mind. On December 30 the brothers wrote a chatty letter to Hopkins, reiterating that he was empowered to "dew as you shall think best for our interest," and belatedly reminding him, "It's an old proverb and we doubt not that you will verifye it, Dispatch is the life of Business." Also enclosed "for your amusement" was a copy of The Rights of the Colony Examined, by Esek's brother Stephen. Subscribed Nicholas Brown & Co. but written in Moses' hand, the letter was handed off to a captain of a late-sailing slaver in hopes it would find Hopkins in Africa.
The brothers' continuing concern with their captain and his cargo was evidenced by amended sets of sailing orders, sent July 4 to Barbados, and again July 15, on the chance Hopkins should touch there first after crossing back. The first advised that prices for slaves were strong in South Carolina; two weeks later they proposed Jamaica "if the slaves are in good health." The letter observed, "We have not received a line from you," and closed ominously, giving additional instructions "if Captain Hopkins should not be living and onbord the Brigg Sally when this reaches her."
The Browns had good reason to be pessimistic. Communications with ships at sea were necessarily spotty, and owners of vessels had to rely on rumor and unconfirmed reports for news. The first word of Hopkins to reach Rhode Island came in a letter from Benjamin Gardner, a Newport ship's captain, who'd seen a letter from his brother, yet another captain then on the coast of Africa. Gardner's brother "informs us of Capt. Hopkins' arrival on the coast." The Sally was "up the River Gamby . . . and they are all well on board." Underscoring the hazardous nature of the trade, Gardner closed by requesting that the Browns inquire of their captains after the fate of his brother, for Gardner had been told that his brother was dead.
The next report reached Rhode Island a month later. Benjamin Mason, a Newport merchant with his own ships in the trade, wrote the Browns with the news that Hopkins had lost all his hands in the river Basa and had taken refuge with "the Governor of Gambia," an apparent reference to the small and ineffectual garrison maintained by the British on an island in the river. This dismal tale was picked up and published as a shipping brief in the Newport Mercury, which lent credence to the report and sent a shudder of despair through Providence.
On June 26, with still no further word of Hopkins, Joseph and William Wanton sent a note of commiseration to the Browns. "We heartily condole with you the bad news from Hopkins," the Wantons wrote. They were generous enough to add that the Browns should not blame Hopkins for his decision to work the Windward Coast. "Had he proceeded down to Anamaboe [a primary trading fort on the Slave Coast] it would have been no better."
The Browns refused to give up on Hopkins, or on the fate of their venture. On July 15, they sent another dispatch, this to Barbados, hoping to reach him before he'd unloaded his cargo. It was addressed to Captain Esek Hopkins or the commanding officer of the brig Sally and began, "We have not received a line from you since you sailed." From there forward, it was strictly business. The market for slaves was soft in South Carolina, the brothers advised. He might try Barbados, but if he could not raise twenty-eight pounds sterling per head, "we advise your going to Jamaica if your slaves are in good health and there dispose of them for cash or good bills excepting only 30 hogsheads of rum 6 or 8 hogsheads sugar & 3 or 4 bags cotton all which you'll immediately bring home in the brig." The letter closed with a vote of confidence, and then a darker note. "If Capt. Hopkins is alive and in good health," he remained at liberty to proceed as he saw fit. But "if Capt. Hopkins should not be living," his stand-in should follow the detailed plan of action.
By the time that letter was sent, Moses Brown was no longer content to continue waiting for news. The next morning, he sailed for Newport, planning to alert captains then departing for Africa to seek out Hopkins and "take some method to supply the misfortune as much as possible." Upon his arrival, however, Moses was handed a letter from Hopkins himself, dated May 17. Hopkins reported that one crew member had succumbed to disease and three others were ill, but the rest were healthy and there were seventy-five slaves on board. The captain also related his problems with the rum.
Moses immediately wrote to his brothers, describing his "transports of joy to hear of [Hopkins] being in a state of health and the melancholy news before heard being in so great a degree contradicted he having lost only one of his hands." Moses then addressed the financial prospects for the venture still under way, sounding the first note of dissent on the general question of slaving. "As to the voyage, it is doubtless spoiled by the leakage if no other misfortune attended it, but however if Capt. Hopkins and people return safe with the brig I shan't be any great disappointed what else he brings, after engaging in so disagreeable a trade and being alarmed with so much loss of friends and interest."
Moses then wrote a note to Hopkins. After observing that, "Such a favorable account of your circumstance from what we had heard quite alleviates our misfortune," Moses went on to reiterate the news of the slave markets to the south. Two days later, Nicholas and John updated their advice to Hopkins yet again. Writing from Providence, the brothers again designated Jamaica as the most promising market for slaves, and then amended their request for a return cargo. "Bring with you five likely boys about 12 or 15 years old for our own use," they advised. "Take care to cloth them proper for the season." Apparently, naked and shackled would not do for the wharf at Providence.
There is nothing to indicate that Hopkins ever received any of the letters dispatched by the Sally's owners from Providence or Newport. Not that they would have altered his course in any material way. During his stay on the coast of Africa, Hopkins had already lost twenty of his slaves to disease, despair, and suicide. And contrary to the rosy interpretation of Moses and his brothers, Hopkins's crew remained in distress, several of them seriously ill with jungle fever. Now they faced the rigors of the middle passage.
Wooden sailing ships bearing human freight over the long haul from Africa to the Americas faced a series of daunting challenges. Fresh water was strictly rationed, and supplies were rarely sufficient. Conditions in the hold deteriorated rapidly, with a full complement of slaves locked down for long stretches, the miserable captives thrown about by the constant heaving and bucking of a ship on the high seas. Even under the best conditions, one slave in ten perished before reaching the docks of the West Indies, and often the total ran much higher.
Moreover, with the departure from land, the sense of desperation among the slaves increased sharply. On occasion, their fear and resentment led to outright rebellion -- and such uprisings were far more frequent on the Windward Coast, where the slaves there were sold closer to home, and so less resigned to their fate. Ship captains dealt severely with these bloody, hopeless revolts. One favored method was to identify one or more of the ringleaders and bind them tightly around the chest, with the other end of the rope looped over the yardarm of the mainsail. Crew members then hauled the miscreants aloft, and as they dangled over the deck, a firing squad shot them dead.
Short of such terrifying exhibitions, wary ship captains limited slave revolts through strict vigilance. Male slaves were kept shackled in pairs day and night, despite the problems that created for sleeping and using the few latrines -- buckets placed in the center of the slave decks. In fair weather, while the sun was up, the slaves were brought above decks to exercise, to eat their meals of mush and gruel and to breathe the fresh sea air. Even then, however, the men retained their manacles, which were chained together for added restraint. Women were allowed a modicum of freedom, but members of the crew kept a close watch.
Esek Hopkins was aware of these routines, but he relaxed them in the face of illness and fatigue among his crew. According to a newspaper report based on one of his letters to the Browns, "Soon after he left the coast, the number of his men being reduced by sickness, he was obliged to permit some of the slaves to come on deck to assist the people." In the nomenclature of the trade, "people" referred to members of a ship's crew -- not the slaves between decks. It may be that Hopkins was accustomed to cordial relations with his slaves at home, who had become used to their lives in bondage, or that the captain assumed his experience with the hired blacks on the Guinea shore would translate to life on ship. In any event, he was pleased with his innovation, finding the four slaves he drafted into sailors' service "was become very helpful."
On August 28, after a week at sea, Hopkins paid the price for his leniency. As the Newport Mercury described it, "These slaves contrived to release the others, and the whole rose upon the people, and endeavored to get possession of the vessel." It was a slave revolt, just the sort of violent reaction to captivity that the white crews and captains feared most. The details of what transpired next can only be imagined -- the slaves, scared but bold, massing on the deck by the main hatch leading to the hold; Hopkins at the quarterdeck rail, joined by the few crew members still able to stand, brandishing threats and weapons; the sea and sky forming a yawning backdrop of blue and green and gray. What is sure is that the crew of the Sally opened fire, with a swivel gun or with small arms, the lead shot cutting into the naked throng. The roar of the guns followed by anguished screams, and the blood running crimson on the polished deck.
Several slaves were slain on the spot. A few more jumped overboard, bobbing in the ocean swells as the ship cruised on. Several were sorely wounded, one with broken ribs, another with a broken leg. In all, eight died that day. Another died three weeks later, "of his wounds on the ribs when the slaves rose." The man whose leg was shattered in the volley of gunfire lingered for another month, his wound festering, his pain constant, until he too succumbed.
The chaotic melee of the uprising soon gave way to the slow-motion disaster that the Sally's Atlantic crossing became. As Hopkins wrote to his owners, the rebellion "made us confine the rest more close which gave them a bad turn in the head. Numbers starved themselves, all lost their spirits and became very sickly, and some died without being sick." The daily toll was entered on a special log Hopkins opened to track the status of his cargo. The somber ledger began August 21, the date of the first death while under sail. The entry read "1 garle slave dyed," and listed her as "No. 21," accounting for those who died on shore. Three more slaves had died even before the revolt.
The days thereafter proceed in numbing regularity. A boy and a girl died August 30. A woman died August 31. On September 1, two more slaves died, bringing the total to thirty-seven. That steady pace of near-daily mortality continued for the duration of the passage. An average crossing from Africa took fifty days, and Hopkins hit his mark, making landfall in the Leeward Islands at the entrance to the Caribbean in early October. A day before that, he entered in his roster, "1 man slave dyed." That brought his total mortality to eighty-eight.
When the Sally rounded the island of Antigua and sailed into the placid waters of Saint John's Bay, Esek Hopkins had to feel a sense of relief. He was, in a real sense, coming home: Antigua was a British colony, like Rhode Island, and home to the British naval squadron in the Caribbean. Saint John's had a familiar feel, with cobblestone streets, three hundred gaily painted homes, and, close by the water, a Georgian courthouse designed by Peter Harrison, the same architect who built the imposing stone market just off the docks at Newport. Hopkins knew the leading traders at Antigua, and he knew the taverns.
Yet Hopkins knew too that the business of his voyage was far from over. He had to dispose of his wretched slaves, and he had to assemble a cargo for the return trip to Providence. But first, he had to report the dismal state of the Sally's affairs to the Browns. This he accomplished in a letter dated October 10. He described the uprising of the slaves on ship, and the subsequent, continuing loss of life. Those who survived were so dispirited, he said, that he could not follow the brothers' orders to seek out the best market. "I cannot carry them again to sea before I can get their spirits up," he wrote. "If I should I believe they should all dye."
Hopkins then set about selling his benighted captives for whatever profit he could raise. Antigua might not boast the thriving slave market of Jamaica, but it was home to more than 150 sugar plantations, all of them operated by enslaved gang labor. If the Sally's cargo could not survive another stint on the ocean, they could be disposed of right there at Saint John's.
The usual custom for disposing of a slave cargo was to bring the captives on deck, bathe them and rub them down with oil to show off their physique, and then invite the leading traders of town to come aboard ship and bid against one another. There was no such auction on board the Sally, however. With the slaves weak, miserable, and many on the verge of death, Hopkins opted to get them on shore and into one of the warehouses commonly found in most Caribbean ports of the plantation era. There, he hoped, they might recuperate enough to bring a reasonable price at market.
That was wishful thinking. The warehouses were dark, squalid places notorious for filth and disease -- not much better than the holds of the slave ships. One French official, after making an inspection at the nearby colony of Martinique, commented that the warehouse district "presented a revolting picture of the dead and dying thrown helter-skelter in the gutter."
The only evidence that survives of how the Sally's slaves were handled on shore is a bill for storage from an Antigua slave merchant. But once they had been removed to shore, the die-off resumed its grim progression. On October 11, four more slaves perished.
The sales began soon after that. As it happened, Hopkins had landed at a strong market. In their sailing orders, the Browns had been hoping to find a price of at least twenty-eight pounds sterling per slave; at Antigua, healthy slaves could have commanded the sum of fifty pounds each. The Sally's slaves were far from healthy, however, and the price fell accordingly. On October 17, six "sick slaves" were sold to a John Lynsey for a total of ninety pounds.
The first public auction was held that day, announced by a "cryer" who went through the streets of Saint John calling out the location of the event and, perhaps, the opportunity of buying slaves at discount prices. Liquor was provided to loosen the customers' wallets, but to little effect. Few buyers turned up, and those that did were unimpressed with the forlorn collection of sick and dying Africans. One man spent forty pounds for "3 sick men," according to notes made by Captain Hopkins. And Lynsey was back, apparently looking for bargains. He decided on adding to his purchase of two days before, buying "2 small garles & sick" for his wife. For all their misery and their dim future prospects, the two girls earned for Hopkins just nine pounds eighteen shillings.
The sales continued through the next month. A man named Caesar Roach, who may also have been proprietor of the warehouse, managed to sell eleven slaves, for which he charged a commission of 2 12 percent. Hopkins sold a few on his own, including "2 prime slaves," apparently the only Africans to survive the voyage with their health intact, which brought the princely sum of one hundred pounds. Still another middleman, a merchant named Alexander Willock, managed to move twenty-four slaves for a total price of 486 pounds. Willock also bought some tobacco off Hopkins.
Looking to expand his circle of business contacts, Willock wrote to the Browns at Providence to pitch himself as a factor for their Caribbean interests. He anticipated a good sugar crop, he said, and promised "very reasonable" future prices for rum. As for the cargo delivered by the Sally, he apologized for the low price, but observed that the "slaves was very indifferent," and promised a better showing for any future ventures. "I am truly sorry for the bad voyage you must make had the Negroes been young and healthy I should have been able to sell them pritty well."
While the slave merchants were pushing their wares, Hopkins was attending to the ship and its crew. The sailors set about the task of converting the Sally back into a coasting freighter, breaking down the platforms between decks where the slaves had suffered and died, swabbing out the hold one last time. One of the sailors, Richard Smith, "went ashore and got drunk for 6 days and then came on board," according to the captain's log. It was his last binge. Smith, who had fallen ill on the African coast, died on the cruise back to Rhode Island.
The Browns remained ignorant of Hopkins and his travails through the summer and most of the fall of 1765. With no word from their captain since May, they could only speculate as to his progress; it appears they still expected to profit by their venture. In August, they wrote to a business partner in New York to request a loan. For surety, they proposed that "whatever sum you may be in advance for us" would be taken out of the Sally's "effects."
Their hopes were dashed by the receipt of Hopkins's October 9 letter, which arrived at Providence in the middle of November, at the height of the machinations against the Stamp Act. It was "a most disagreeable account," as the Browns described it in a letter to Esek's brother George Hopkins and two other captains who sailed vessels for the firm. As Esek had informed them, he had "lost 88 slaves and the rest on bord in very sickly & disordered manner." With the survivors selling at depressed prices, the best the brothers could expect was to break even; more likely, they would take a loss.
The setback came at a difficult juncture for the Browns, who had been counting on the Sally, along with several other shipping ventures, to finance their stake in the new Hope Furnace. But they allowed no umbrage to color their communications with Hopkins. Writing November 16, the brothers assured him, "We need not mention how disagreeable the news of your losing 3 of your hands and 88 slaves is to us and all your friends, but yourself continuing in health is of so great satisfaction to us, that we remain cheerful under the heavy loss of our interest." The letter went on to give the same advice as previously regarding various slave markets and the best return cargo, and warning that the price of salt had fallen in Rhode Island. But as before, they closed with a vote of confidence. "We knowing your capacity submit the whole management of the voyage to your judgment . . . and notwithstanding your misfortune in this voyage, we well on your arrival at home employ you in any business you may chuse."
Once again, the dispatch was sent in vain. Hopkins continued to pursue the original plan to purchase a cargo of salt. He made his last recorded sale of slaves on November 23, when he sold four weakened men for forty-five pounds. He left Antigua soon thereafter, sailing west, to the Turks Islands, at the southernmost reach of the Bermudas, where he took on a load of salt. Finally, he headed north, heavily laden and carrying as well the last five surviving Africans. During the trip, the Sally began to leak, and Hopkins ordered the crew to stand regular shifts working the bilge pump. His orders were ignored, however, and much of the salt was spoiled, prompting him to deduct wages from five crew members, and himself, for the overnight. On December 20, as the Sally slogged northward, one of the remaining slaves died. Hopkins noted the event in his ledger, closing his morbid accounting at 109 deaths, well over half the slaves he had purchased on the Gambia shore.
Hopkins arrived at Rhode Island in February 1766, hunched down in the folds of a woolen greatcoat that had hung useless on a peg in the captain's cabin during more than a year in the tropical climes of Africa and the Caribbean. The icy breeze blowing off the frozen shores of Narragansett Bay chafed against his sunburned face. And while he was once again sailing familiar waters, his mood was tempered by the anguish that would attend his landing at Providence, where the wives and families of his crew were waiting anxiously to learn the fate of husbands, sons, and fathers.
But Hopkins was a veteran captain, and so was accustomed to the mixed emotions of a homecoming from the sea. His owners and friends, as the Browns signed their letters to their captains, knew from the outset that their entry into the slave trade was an especially risky venture. And besides, the brothers might take some solace from the fact that Hopkins had fulfilled one express wish. Despite all the death and woe that had attended his efforts, Hopkins would deliver four "likely boys," as the Browns had requested.
Copyright ©2006 by Charles Rappleye
Excerpted from Sons of Providence by Charles Rappleye Copyright © 2006 by Charles Rappleye. Excerpted by permission.
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the north wasn't just part of the slave trade, it was the engine and the profit taker of the slave trade. yet, in this book, if you didn't know the outcome, you could believe rhode island would end the slave trade.