The Nefarious Slave Trade
"I would plow the ocean into pea-porridge to make money. . . . " Simeon Potter
Much of Rhode Island's prosperity in the Colonial Period came from the sugar trade, the slave trade, and the fisheries. Because of its size, Rhode Island had no staple product that could be used for trade, therefore the colony's ambitious turned to the sea to create a favorable economy. Early efforts saw ship captains gathering a suitable cargo from various parts of Rhode Island and exchanging these goods for others that would eventually bring a profit. Cheese from Little Compton or Westerly, wool from Newport, agricultural products from Warwick, and horses from Narragansett helped make up the cargoes that could be traded for fish or whale oil in Nantucket, lumber in Maine, and tobacco in the Carolinas. Rhode Islanders quickly earned the reputation of being reliable and driving a hard bargain. Very quickly, Rhode Islanders found the most profitable venture in the "triangular" or slave trade. The colony's ships brought goods gathered in the New England area to the South and the West Indies to exchange for tobacco, sugar, and molasses. Most of the sugar and molasses was taken to Newport or Providence and distilled into rum. The rum, which was made for about twenty cents a gallon, was traded for a variety of goods, including furs, fish, and slaves. The purchase price for a slave in Africa was about 200 gallons of rum, or about $40. The same slave, when sold in Cuba or the Carol inas, often brought close to $400. Obviously, the slave trade was going to bring very substantial profits. The lure of making a fortune in this type ofendeavor attracted Simeon Potter. This man had made a fortune as a privateer and was the founder of the powerful De Wolf dynasty of Bristol. As early as 1744, Potter received a commission from Governor William Greene to war upon the enemies of Great Britain as a privateer. He entered King George's War for profit not patriotism and soon did very well. By the time he was twenty-four years old, this un-schooled but very intelligent Bristol native owned one-fourth of the ship he commanded. He recruited young, talented Mark Anthony De Wolf as his clerk and began his money making adventures.
Potter's vessel was a ninety-ton sloop, the Prince Charles of Lorraine, with ten guns and a crew of eighty. Realizing he was no match for French naval ships. Captain Potter went after small or unarmed prey. His most profitable early adventure was an attack on a Jesuit mission in a French colony on the coast of South America. Potter's often drunken crew, dressed in the typical pirate costume of red kerchiefs, open shirts, loose knee breeches, and broad belts, terrorized the small community they attacked.
The Rhode Islanders captured peaceful Indians from a small village near the French colony and later sold them as slaves. When they attacked the village they stole everything from the church, including chalices, ciborium, and even the priests' vestments. Not content with that, the crew took the brass hinges and locks off the doors of the church. They terrorized the priest and set fire to the church and village.
Potter returned to Rhode island and used the gold, silver and other valuables he had stolen, plus the "booty" from five small ships he captured, and invested in shipbuilding and real estate. Realizing the huge profits that could be made in the slave trade. Potter and Mark Anthony De Wolf, now his brother-in-law, entered into the slave trade.
With an insatiable greed. Potter, as well as other slave traders, tried to pack as many slaves as possible into whatever space was available. In some instances, slaves, lacking air and space, were literally crushed and smothered. Occasionally slave ships were so overloaded -that they sank.
As might be imagined, contagious diseases spread so fast that, not only did many of the slaves die as a result, the crew would succumb as well. Often, ships lost more than two-thirds of their human cargo through sickness. One documented case reported that disease spread so rapidly on one cruise that the captain jettisoned the entire cargo of Africans in an attempt to save the crew. By that time, however, it was too late as the ship was later discovered sailing aimlessly in the Caribbean. The only survivor was a diseased and blind crew member.
Severe storms and piracy also took their toll and, despite armed guards and heavy chains, there were slave rebellions which were successful in few instances. The profits were so great, however, that Rhode Islanders continued to deal in the nefarious trade even long after it became illegal. Simeon Potter had become so obsessed with making money that he ordered his captains to "water the rum" when trading for slaves in Africa.
The "onery" and contentious Potter used some of his wealth to support local churches and gave one of his houses in Newport to the town to be used as a public school. Potter was a representative to the general assembly for a number of years and was named major-general of the state militia. As a result, while he made a tremendous fortune from trafficking in human flesh, he was considered a "pillar of the community."
During the most prosperous period of the slave trade, Newport was the leading center, with Providence and Bristol not far behind. Much of their favorable balance of trade was closely related to the slave trade. In 1763, Newport had twenty-two distilleries for rum and Providence had twelve. As the rum had to be put in barrels, the barrel makers thrived. Goods had to be taken to warehouses and to the docks, stimulating the building trade and the wagon industry.
Nearly everyone profited from the triangular trade in some manner. Farmers received higher prices for their food, the iron industry found a ready market for chains and ankle cuffs, and the merchant princes created a demand for artists, cabinet makers, physicians, and musicians. Rhode Island led New England in the highest proportion of slaves. By 1760, over 15 percent of Newport's population was black although most slaves were used in the southwestern part of the state on the large "plantations" or sheep and dairy farms. Although slaves made up nearly 17 per cent of the population in South County, the average number on a plantation was twenty, and none had more than fifty slaves.
In time, however, there were enough citizens of the small colony who would demand the end of the slave trade.