Over the past thirty-five years, historians have reminded us that of all the colonies, Rhode Island was the most deeply embedded in the international slave trade. Its enslaved population, while small, comprised the highest percentage of any in New England. Now, Christy Clark-Pujara offers the first comprehensive account of the struggles of black men and women during Rhode Island’s formative years. First, she demonstrates that this colony’s foundation rested on the “centrality of slavery.” Next, she argues persuasively that the Plantation State’s dependence on slave-generated profits stymied black efforts for equality well after it became a state. She reconstructs the experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants in this socio-economic context, and calculates the high cost to their lives and to the nation.
Title aside, Clark-Pujara does not provide a forensic accounting of slavery-based businesses. Although Clark-Pujara identifies several of the most significant slave-labor investors, in most cases, she does not track their insurance and banking firms, distilleries, and plantation partners. Rather, she traces how white economic prerogatives generated shifting legal and extralegal stipulations regarding enslavement, emancipation, and black citizenship––and reveals how black people challenged these imposed conditions.
Building on the scholarship of other historians (cited in useful endnotes), Clark-Pujara recounts how the rum-fueled, slave-shipping trade catalyzed the colony’s economy. Over the course of the seventeenth century, whites replaced enslaved indigenous peoples with enslaved Africans and legitimized race-based slavery by instituting various slave codes. By 1730, many of the colony’s merchants and artisans had invested in slave-ship shares, and most were tied to the slave trade’s ancillary businesses. At slavery’s peak (in 1755), enslaved people comprised about ten percent of the colony’s population, and they made up almost 20 percent of Narragansett County and Newport. Rhode Island slaves produced and packed pounds of cheese and barrels of bread and beef, which were consumed by sugar-colony slaves cutting cane. Rhode Island slaves distilled molasses, poured gallons of rum into slave-built hogsheads, and loaded them onto Rhode Island vessels financed by Rhode Island citizens. Rhode Island crews exchanged the rum for Africans, who were subsequently exchanged for molasses in the West Indies, sold at Southern ports, or, sometimes, brought back North.
Working chronologically from archival traces in court depositions and probates, tax records, and meeting minutes, Clark-Pujara deftly mines accounts of people of color. The author conveys a sense of the grinding work and the constant surveillance of those enslaved. She resurrects archival fragments depicting how slaves labored alongside up to some twenty bondsmen, were isolated on smaller farms, or were exploited in town as perpetual apprentices. The records suggest that many of those who fled were maimed by punishment or neglect, and that whites subjected those who resisted with torture or threat of sale. Clark-Pujara interprets their acts of defiance–in addition to quests for leisure, companionship, and family–as refusals to be defined as chattel.
When the local practice of slave-ownership declined after the Revolution, whites continued to profit from slavery. Africans and African Americans remained essentially unfree–impoverished and politically impotent. Rhode Island’s 1784 Gradual Emancipation Act allowed whites to exploit bound labor for decades. Even after laws prohibited Rhode Islanders from slaving, a complicit society enabled slave shippers to act with impunity. From 1784 until 1807, politically influential men with ties to slave-based investments–such as legislator James DeWolf and Brown University’s founder, John Brown–financed the shipping of some 45,200 slaves to the Americas.
Rhode Island merchants continued to find ways to spin wealth from the slave economy. The DeWolf and Brown families, for example, capitalized the state’s first cotton mills. Moving in lockstep with the increased harvest of slave-produced cotton, by 1850 more than eighty Rhode Island mills produced a rough cotton weave called “negro cloth” to be shipped south to serve as a kind of slave uniform. Clark-Pujara presents an instructive sketch of a prominent mill owner’s growing unease over Southern slavery. Had she included accounts of other mill owners’ political views and business partners, we might have a richer understanding of slavery’s pervasive influence in the North.
In an ironic twist, the mills closed their doors to people of color who were searching for factory work at the looms. Black women had no choice but to take on menial labor, and black men, barred from apprenticeships and trade organizations, had to settle for the same or leave their homes for maritime work. Failing to comprehend the real costs of discrimination, Rhode Island whites blamed black poverty on inherent racial differences, and so continued to disenfranchise black citizens.
Black organizations, in turn, pushed against these constraints. Members of the first black mutual aid society in the nation, the Free African Union Society, sought to support one another while reasserting an African identity, but they lacked white sponsorship. Measures taken to educate black children by the African Female Benevolent Society and other community organizations were cut short by similar hurdles. Threatened by challenges to white authority, mobs destroyed black neighborhoods in 1824 and 1831. The state denied black men the vote until after the Dorr Rebellion in 1842, and excluded black children from white schools until after the Civil War. Although white militias at first turned them away, Rhode Island’s black men organized and enlisted in an all-black regiment to serve the Union Army. Descendants of slaves understood that their quest for equality was predicated on fulfilling civic duties.
Dark Work is a valuable addition to scholarship on slavery and its legacy in New England. Clark-Pujara disabuses readers of any Rhode Island pretensions to a “mild slavery,” a nominal investment in slave-based businesses, a wide support for abolition, or a full commitment to racial equality. She makes clear that institutionalized racism–sustained by the slave economy–impacted black lives well into the nineteenth century. Clark-Pujara concludes with a plea for public historians and artists to interpret these lessons. She compels us to recognize that our race-based history fosters our enduring, race-based disparities.