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What does Rhode Island and Providence Plantations have to do with slavery? – Everything



This November 3rd, as we consider whether or not to remove ‘plantation’ from our state’s official name, let’s remember that the word represents not only a deep involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, but also an earlier history of Indigenous land theft and enslavement. To ignore either of these facts is to ignore our state’s history. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations has everything to do with slavery. Vote YES!

Last week in the Woonsocket Call [and in the Providence Journal today], Rhode Island’s Historian Laureate, Patrick T Conley, published an article asking the reader to appeal to his authority and vote ‘No’ on Amendment 1, which seeks to remove the word ‘Plantation’ from Rhode Island’s official state name. In his article, Conley writes that, “Presentism is History’s cardinal sin.” However, by ignoring basic historical facts revealed by a wider, more inclusive and less ‘presentist’ perspective of history, our Historian Laureate sabotages his own ludicrous claim that the word ‘plantation’ “had nothing to do with slavery.” Let’s be clear: The word ‘plantation’ in the original colonial title had everything to do with slavery – both Indigenous and African.

Rhode Island in the 17th century was not some sort of closed system – a British colony with the borders and understandings that principally resemble those of the 21st century state and its inhabitants – it was a northwestern outpost of a much larger British Atlantic world. It would be presentist to think that simply using evidence from the colony of Providence Plantations would help to prove Dr Conley’s point. Both Barbados and Jamaica would be quintessential to the growth of Rhode Island as a booming shipping colony in the 17th century Atlantic through what’s often been called the ‘provisioning trade,’ but what historian Christy Clark-Pujara has called ‘the business of slavery.’ With plantations completely dedicated to luxury items like sugar and tobacco, English Caribbean slaveholders relied on northern colonies like Rhode Island and Providence Plantations to provide them with food and other provisions for their enslaved Indigenous and Black laborers.

To understand this larger English colonial world that shaped Rhode Island and the words used in its colonial title, we can begin with the Oxford English Dictionary, which states that as early as 1626 in Virginia, ‘plantation’ was understood to mean “An estate or large farm, esp. in a former English colony, on which crops such as cotton, sugar, and tobacco are grown (formerly with the aid of slave labour).” 1626 was a relevant year for another reason in the English Atlantic. While most readers would be familiar with the date of 1620 as the year of the founding of Plimoth Plantation (whose modern successor organization recently changed their name to ‘Plimoth Patuxet Museums’ to better reflect the full story at the core of their educational mission) it was in 1625 when the first British ships reached the coasts of Barbados and in 1627, when its main port city, Bridgetown, would be founded. The original document that was used by the state to organize itself the longest was the Royal Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was granted in 1663 (and not replaced until 1843, following the Dorr Rebellion). By 1663, the population of Barbados had an enslaved Black majority – and another Caribbean slave society had joined the British Atlantic: the colony of Jamaica.

Providence Plantations, Portsmouth and Newport were all founded in the wake of the conflict known as the Pequot War, which culminated in a massive sell-off of enslaved Pequot captives, many south to the plantations of the Caribbean. Roger Williams himself purchased a young boy -from what he calls a ‘miserable drove of Adam’s degenerate seed’ – from John Winthrop. As early as 1671, colonial records show officials enslaving Indigenous men and sending them to Barbados to labor on the plantations as punishment for crimes committed. Historian Margaret Ellen Newell writes that in 1676, Williams would oversee an outdoor slave auction following the conflict known as King Philip’s War in Providence. That same year, a law was passed in Barbados to prohibit the importation of enslaved Indigenous people from New England. This statute may signify that by the last quarter of the 17th century, the export of enslaved Indigenous people to Caribbean planters had already reached its desired peak.

That was because by this point, the trade had shifted from Indigenous people (though never entirely) to foodstuffs and provisions for the Caribbean plantations. The plantations of Providence Plantations were built by settlers on stolen Indigenous land with the wealth made from profits of sales of enslaved Indigenous people. This land was then used to create massive agricultural surpluses to ship to their countrymen in the West Indies. These Caribbean planters used these provisions to feed the Black people they had enslaved on their plantations. That enslaved labor created goods like sugar that would return to the northern colonies to be manufactured into rum, which would, in turn, be used in the 18th century as a currency to purchase more slaves at places like the notorious Cape Coast Castle in modern-day Ghana. Many founding Rhode Islanders were made wealthy by this trade. Quaker families from Portsmouth like the Sanfords split up and spread out throughout the British Atlantic, and built industries on either ends. Peleg Sanford, made wealthy by the trade, would become the Colonial Governor of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations from 1680 to 1683. Knowing this, it’s hard to make the claim that these early Rhode Islanders were unaware of plantations run on enslaved Indigenous and Black labor.

For Dr Conley to presume that the 17th century English Atlantic had no concept of chattel slavery plantations reflects some sort of presentist perspective of the ocean as a barrier rather than a highway. With the onset of air travel, we in the 21st century often forget that the Atlantic itself was the fastest and most prominent means of intercolonial travel, underestimating the true connectivity during the formative years of the oceanic revolution. Dr Conley perpetuates this erasure with his October 17th article. He also works to perpetuate the erasure of a Black population in the colonies in the 17th century, writing; “There were no Black people in 17th century Providence.”

This is quite the claim, considering three points – First, no formal population data of the colonies was compiled until 1708 – so it is quite impossible to make a claim of complete absence. The only thing on record is a statement that was made by Governor Peleg Sanford in 1680 that said that ‘about 200 whites and Blacks’ were born in the colony each year. The Royal Charter of 1663 united all of the colonies of Narragansett Bay; Portsmouth, Newport, Providence, and Warwick. This leads me to my second point – it was the Warwick and Providence Plantations colonies alone that had agreed upon banning slavery in 1652 (as Dr Conley himself cites in this article and in a 2015 letter to the editor of the Providence Journal)– the colonies of Narragansett Bay were more a loose confederacy at this point, rather than a formal united colony.

This means that the law made in Warwick was not necessarily upheld in the neighboring colonies of Newport and Portsmouth. However, it may have made owners of enslaved Black people in Providence hide any paper evidence that they, in fact, owned any enslaved individuals. Finally, if there were no slaveholders in Providence Plantations – why would the practice need to be prohibited? Why would the law itself state “there is a common course practised amongst English men to buy negers”? Regardless, by 1708 – the first formal year of any population data – Providence had recorded seven ‘Black servants’, Newport had two hundred twenty, and Portsmouth and Warwick had a combined fifty. According to these records, the total population of Black people in 1708 in Rhode Island was four hundred twenty six, or almost six percent of the total colonial population of just over seven thousand.

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The land of Washington County (then called Kings County), was maintained for millennia by the ancestors of the Niantic, Coweset and Narragansett. By the mid-17th century, English settler colonists were working to politically maneuver massive tracts of fertile farmland into their own hands so that they could set up plantations of enslaved Africans to provision the Caribbean’s plantations (of enslaved Africans). By the 18th century, the early footholds forged in the land of Indigenous people in the 17th century had become massive slaveholding plantations, manufacturing their self-image to emulate the planters of the Caribbean, eventually earning the moniker the Narragansett Planters. By 1755, the ratio of Black people to white people in South Kingstown was as much as one to three, demonstrating an incredible dependency of these Rhode Islanders on enslaved laborers on plantations.

Dr Conley’s perspective reflects a presentist one, which erases both the connectivity of the 17th century Atlantic, and then, conveniently, the role of plantations of enslaved Black people in the creation of the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. His perspective also reflects some sort of temporal conformity, in that he sees almost no connection between the 18th century and the 17th, disavowing any threads that lead to the colony’s massive role in the transatlantic slave trade from an earlier period of Indigenous land theft. 

This November 3rd, as we consider whether or not to remove ‘plantation’ from our state’s official name, let’s remember that the word represents not only a deep involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, but also an earlier history of Indigenous land theft and enslavement. To ignore either of these facts is to ignore our state’s history. Rhode Island and Providence Plantations has everything to do with slavery. Vote YES!

[Edit: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Plimoth Patuxet Museums as ‘Plimoth.’ This has been corrected.]

About the Author

Michael J Simpson is a born-and-raised Rhode Islander and a PhD student studying Atlantic history at Brown University. Check out his walking history tours of Newport on Instagram.

insta: @HiddenHistoryRI
twitter: @HiddenHistoryRI