Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island

Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island The historiography of northern slavery has a long genealogy dating back to at least the 1940s, and it reminds readers that chattel bondage for African Americans was not limited to the South. This literature notes the particular concentration of black slaves during the colonial era in the area of Narrangansett Bay, Rhode Island, the engagement of northern merchants in slave importation, and the halting way emancipation was often realized in the North. Christy Clark-Pujara's monograph falls within a new northern slave historiography that includes recent works by C. S. Manegold (Ten Hills Farm, 2010) and Wendy Warren (New England Bound, 2016), viewing the North as equally guilty as the South in profiting from the peculiar institution. The author sources a rich trove of primary material—colonial and state legislation, court documents, deeds, newspapers, account books, town meeting minutes, church records, manumission records, memoirs, census data, speeches, company papers, letters, association records, and more—in a revealing study of Rhode Island slavery. Clark-Pujara complicates Ira Berlin's distinction between “slave societies” in the South and “societies with slaves” in the North by showing that “Narrangansett Country was a slave society within a society with slaves” during the mid-to-late eighteenth century (p. 25). Business is at the center of this study. Clark-Pujara takes cues from Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Walter Johnson, who examine slavery as part of the long reach of capitalism domestically and in the Atlantic world from the colonial period through the Civil War. The author underscores the depth and extent of Rhode Island's dependence on slavery for its wealth. It was that dependence, in fact, that prompted “race”-making in law and normalized the subjugation of African Americans by 1710—a departure from Rhode Island's initial prohibitions against slavery in the 1650s. The beneficiaries were slave traders, slaveholders on farms and in cities, and merchants importing goods produced by slaves. These included commercial elites such as the Browns as well as middling sorts. Farmers who raised livestock and provisions for West Indian plantations, shipowners who imported molasses, distillers who produced rum, and tavern owners who sold it relied on black slaves in the Caribbean's sugar plantations for their livelihoods, as did farm hands, wage earners, and seamen in related work. Clothing manufacturing emerged in New England as the major engine of industrial capitalism between 1800 and 1860. Agriculture and commerce gave way to industrialization, with Narragansett Country specializing in the production of “negro cloth”—coarse fabric sold to southern slaveholders for their slaves and produced from cotton cultivated by those same forced laborers. The mills dotting the state's landscape enriched textile factory owners and also paid wages to native migrants from the countryside and European immigrants working the machines. Thus, the economic interests of white laborers and businesses confirmed Rhode Island's restrictions aimed at blacks, and opposed local abolitionism and civil rights activism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com. http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png The Journal of American History Oxford University Press

Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island

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Publisher
Oxford University Press
Copyright
© The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.
ISSN
0021-8723
eISSN
1945-2314
D.O.I.
10.1093/jahist/jax454
Publisher site
See Article on Publisher Site

Abstract

The historiography of northern slavery has a long genealogy dating back to at least the 1940s, and it reminds readers that chattel bondage for African Americans was not limited to the South. This literature notes the particular concentration of black slaves during the colonial era in the area of Narrangansett Bay, Rhode Island, the engagement of northern merchants in slave importation, and the halting way emancipation was often realized in the North. Christy Clark-Pujara's monograph falls within a new northern slave historiography that includes recent works by C. S. Manegold (Ten Hills Farm, 2010) and Wendy Warren (New England Bound, 2016), viewing the North as equally guilty as the South in profiting from the peculiar institution. The author sources a rich trove of primary material—colonial and state legislation, court documents, deeds, newspapers, account books, town meeting minutes, church records, manumission records, memoirs, census data, speeches, company papers, letters, association records, and more—in a revealing study of Rhode Island slavery. Clark-Pujara complicates Ira Berlin's distinction between “slave societies” in the South and “societies with slaves” in the North by showing that “Narrangansett Country was a slave society within a society with slaves” during the mid-to-late eighteenth century (p. 25). Business is at the center of this study. Clark-Pujara takes cues from Sven Beckert, Edward Baptist, and Walter Johnson, who examine slavery as part of the long reach of capitalism domestically and in the Atlantic world from the colonial period through the Civil War. The author underscores the depth and extent of Rhode Island's dependence on slavery for its wealth. It was that dependence, in fact, that prompted “race”-making in law and normalized the subjugation of African Americans by 1710—a departure from Rhode Island's initial prohibitions against slavery in the 1650s. The beneficiaries were slave traders, slaveholders on farms and in cities, and merchants importing goods produced by slaves. These included commercial elites such as the Browns as well as middling sorts. Farmers who raised livestock and provisions for West Indian plantations, shipowners who imported molasses, distillers who produced rum, and tavern owners who sold it relied on black slaves in the Caribbean's sugar plantations for their livelihoods, as did farm hands, wage earners, and seamen in related work. Clothing manufacturing emerged in New England as the major engine of industrial capitalism between 1800 and 1860. Agriculture and commerce gave way to industrialization, with Narragansett Country specializing in the production of “negro cloth”—coarse fabric sold to southern slaveholders for their slaves and produced from cotton cultivated by those same forced laborers. The mills dotting the state's landscape enriched textile factory owners and also paid wages to native migrants from the countryside and European immigrants working the machines. Thus, the economic interests of white laborers and businesses confirmed Rhode Island's restrictions aimed at blacks, and opposed local abolitionism and civil rights activism. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Organization of American Historians. All rights reserved. For permissions, please e-mail: journals.permissions@oup.com.

Journal

The Journal of American HistoryOxford University Press

Published: Mar 1, 2018

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