For a century and a half, wealthy northerners built their fortunes off sugar, rum, and human misery

“Three Negro Men and two Women to be Sold and to be seen at the House of Mr. Josiah Franklin…in Union Street, Boston,” read an advertisement in the August 3, 1713, edition of the weekly Boston News-Letter. Tavernkeeper Franklin, proprietor of the Blue Bell at the corner of Hanover and Union streets, not only sold slaves but rented his premises to fellow slave traders to do the same. Franklin, 56, whose youngest stepbrother was seven-year-old Benjamin, was one of many New England entrepreneurs whose stock in trade included human beings. From the 1620s until the United States of America outlawed importation of slaves in 1807, New Englanders participated enthusiastically and profitably in the slave trade as buyers and sellers of kidnapped Africans, as well as being financiers, shippers, owners, manufacturers, and providers of goods and services crucial to the practice.

Some 2.5 million Africans were kidnapped and forced on to slave ships for the journey to the West Indies and the American colonies.

Slavery figured in New England almost from the colony’s start—less in terms of enslaved workforces than as a business proposition. Profit-minded colonial proprietors initially relied for labor on the indenture system. Indentured individuals contracted to exchange years of toil at no pay for passage to and room and board in the New World. At the end of the specified term, an indentured servant was free to go, perhaps even to compete with a former master. Voluntary self-enslavement waned as shipwrights, joiners, coopers, fishermen, farmers and practitioners of other trades embraced workers who were fully enslaved.

Sometime before 1629 Samuel Maverick became the first Massachusetts Bay Colony resident to own a kidnapped African. More Africans were imported in 1634. During the 1636-37 Pequot War, English settlers tried to enslave Native American prisoners of war but found the indigenes unsuitable because they refused to submit and constantly attempted escape. Colonists instead shipped Indian captives to Bermuda in exchange for enslaved Africans.In These Truths: A History of the United States, Jill Lepore writes, “In 1638, the first African slaves in New England arrived in Salem, on board a ship called the Desire that had carried captured Pequots to the West Indies.” The exiled Indians had been traded for “some cotton and tobacco, and negroes.” The first African slaves in Medford, Massachusetts, arrived the same year as part of a cargo from the Tortugas that also included loads of cotton, tobacco, and salt.

In 1641 Massachusetts legalized slavery, the first New England colony to do so. New Englanders began purchasing blacks from sellers in the West Indies. These slaves, “seasoned” by life in the New World and having built immunity to diseases common in the islands, often had valuable skills, such as blacksmithing and rice cultivation, and spoke some English. Slavery in the West Indies dated to 1505, when English, French, and Spanish slavers began shipping in captive Africans to work on sugar plantations; some 2.5 million Africans were brought forcibly to the Indies and often were sent on to mainland America in a market-driven system “built on the concept of European wealth, American land and the idea of hard labor,” writes historian Mark Sammons in his 2004 book, Black Portsmouth.

The slave trade offered mariners bigger returns than they made on rice, sugar, cotton, molasses, and other commodities they were hauling between the Indies and the mainland. Ships out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Salem and Boston, Massachusetts, and Providence and Newport, Rhode Island, started carrying slaves from British-held Barbados and Jamaica to the Atlantic coast colonies and, despite international tensions, to Spanish, Dutch, and French ports around the Indies. The round trip between New England and the Caribbean took a month.

In 1644, New England slavers began doing business in West Africa, a two-to-three-month round trip. The Dutch West India Company and the English Royal African Company had fierce grips on the trade along the West African coast. To avoid those entrepreneurs’ steeper prices, some New England slavers began sailing around Cape Horn and north to Madagascar, where Arab slave traders sold slaves for significantly less. Lower purchase prices justified the fraught four-to-six-month voyage to East Africa. West Indies trips made less but produced a reliable flow of capital.

Those New Englanders who did business in West Africa mainly bought slaves on the Gold Coast, a British holding now called Ghana, on the Gulf of Guinea. At ports like Elmina Castle, African slavers herded captives taken from the interior—prisoners of war, convicts, and kidnap victims—to be loaded for delivery to the Caribbean and southern ports like Charleston, South Carolina. Some slaves were brought to New England for sale locally or to purchasers intending to ship them south. Corresponding with the slave dealing Cutts family of Portsmouth in 1682, Virginian William Fitzhugh inquired about inventory and prices for Africans of both sexes and all ages. Fitzhugh offered the Cuttses 3,000 to 5,000 pounds of tobacco for each healthy slave shipped to his home.  

This map of the Triangle Trade shows the mercantile ties between Africa, the West Indies, and New England. At the center of the trade were human beings.

Slavery reverberated throughout New England and at many levels. A fulcrum of the trade was sugar. Europe and North America were ravenous for the sweet stuff, whose cultivation, harvesting, and production required armies of enslaved workers. In 1639 Barbados sugar cane plantations were home to roughly 1,000 Africans. By 1666 that census was 52,000. Rum is made from molasses, a sugar byproduct. Sugar was shipped in that form from the Caribbean to New England for distillation, a mainstay of colonial economies. In 1770, Rhode Island alone imported more than a million gallons of West Indies molasses. Of that, nearly 80 percent became rum shipped to Africa and bartered for slaves sold on Barbados or Jamaica to work on sugar plantations, according to Jay Coughtry in his 1981 book, The Notorious Triangle. Distillers everywhere stored and shipped rum in the era’s universal containers—wooden barrels held together with iron hoops. New England foresters felled oaks that New England mills lumbered into staves that New England coopers fashioned into barrels hooped with New England iron. New England farmers grew wheat ground into flour for bread fed Africans aboard ship and on plantations. According to Lepore, as much as 40 percent of economic activity in New England derived from West Indies sugar production.

The Middle Passage—the voyage from Africa to the West Indies was the middle leg of the slave triangle—ended for some prisoners at sugar and rice plantations in the West Indies. Other captives completed their passage at ports in New England, where sellers advertised them for sale. “Likely Negro Boys and Girls just imported from Gambia and to be sold on board the Sloop Carolina lying at the Long Whariff in Portsmouth,” an ad proclaimed in the July 18, 1758, New Hampshire Gazette. “Enquire of Mr. Trailor or Mr. Harrison on board said Sloop.” Taverns like Josiah Franklin’s, popular for socializing, politicking, and doing business, were the preferred sites for auctions, though private residences also served the purpose, as seen in the April 17, 1767, New Hampshire Gazette: “To be sold at public venue at the home of captain James Stoodley, Innkeeper in Portsmouth on Friday next at 2 o’clock Afternoon One Negro Man, has been with the English 2 years, Negro Girl about 17….a few rum…few bags of cotton wool…”.

Slave prices varied by sex, vitality, age, and skills, as well as the marketplace. Men generally brought more than women. Lorenzo Greene in his 1942 book The Negro in Colonial New England 1620-1777 notes that in New England as everywhere in slaveholding America, “mature young men who could endure heavy work” and who usually were more easily trained were in top demand. Buyers favored males age 10 to 40. On September 4, 1761, Medford, Massachusetts, slave trader Timothy Fitch wrote to Captain Peter Gwinn, master of a Fitch ship, “…you are not to take any Children & Especially Girls, if you Can Avoid it by any means, as few Women as Possible…But as many Prime Young Men Boys as you Can get from 14 to 20 Years of Age.”

Sales were cash or barter, with credit sometimes extended. During the 1600s, a slave sold in New England brought £20 to £30. In the years before the Revolution, demand for slaves boomed, with bondsmen of high quality bringing £1,200 in Rhode Island; as rebellion neared the price sagged to £40 to £50.

John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, scion of the Brown family, defended their participation in the slave trade.

Slaving required much capital and, thanks to a high return on investment, easily attracted cash. Around New England, wealthy families invested in the trade, themselves bought slaves, or both. Between 1732 and 1764, many Rhode Islanders owned a share or more in a slave voyage, whether buying captives or investing in industries that relied on slave labor. The region’s top slaving centers were Boston and Newport, Rhode Island. Major Bostonian slave-trade family names included Belcher, Waldo, Faneuil, and Cabot. In Newport, the Malbones, Gardners, Ellerys, and Champlins were socially prominent—and big in slaving. New England’s preeminent slave traders, the Brown clan, lived in Providence, Rhode Island, tenth among New England slave ports. The Browns cannily worked the triangle trade, investing in rum and in slaving. In 1764, James, Obadiah, Nicholas, John, Joseph, and Moses Brown were reaping huge profits running what some consider one of New England’s largest slaving enterprises. The profits enabled the Brown family to underwrite, in 1769, establishment of the university that bears its name and whose early campus infrastructure included slave-built facilities. Brown University governing board members owned slaves or captained slave ships, a hallmark they shared with the leaderships of Harvard, Yale, and Dartmouth colleges.

Slaving trips were costly but offered large profit potential. “Voyages differed in length, vessel, crew requirements, capital outlay and overhead costs, profit margin and risk,” writes Coughtry. Records kept by slaver Audley Clarke of Newport, Rhode Island, illustrate the difference between ordinary commodities and slaves. During 1768-72, Clarke reported, a round-trip West Indies voyage hauling beans, hay, lumber, low-grade fish, and assorted goods to the islands and bringing home molasses, rice, and fruit cost the equivalent of $3,100 to $5,000 and returned $95 to $249. In the same period, Clarke made three slaving voyages—total cost $14,127—that cleared a total of $3,871, a 27 percent profit.

Large and small, slave cargoes were a commonplace in New England ports. Between 1728 and 1743, captains Samuel Morse, John Major, Joseph Bayley, and John Odiorne mastered ships out of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, owned by Pierce Long, Joshua Pierce, and John Ridge and J & S Wentworth. These vessels sailed to and from Guinea, Virginia, and Barbados carrying cargoes that included from one slave to a dozen. In 1755, Exeter, owned by John Moffatt, docked at Portsmouth to deliver 61 enslaved men, women, and children, along with tobacco, wine, beef, rice, corn, rum, pitch, tar, and turpentine.

A slaving ship had one or two slave decks, stacked at either side, with 4’ of head room. Into that space were crammed naked Africans manacled spoon-fashion, all but unable to move, wallowing in their waste, the only ventilation a porthole or two. A double-decked New England slave ship could carry 100 captives. Slave decks were deliberately hellish, to discourage uprisings and escape attempts. Slavers separated men and women and, to thwart efforts at conspiracy, shackled together individuals who did not speak one another’s languages. Crewmen, who carried or had access to arms, raped female slaves. Captives died of seasickness, dehydration, starvation, malnutrition, dysentery, and smallpox. In 1764, aboard Sally, owned by the Brown family, more than half of a cargo of 196 captives bought in Africa died at sea. Crewmen flung the corpses overboard.

Slaving in New England was a going concern for about 150 years. As early as the late 1600s a few Quakers began opposing the practice. Some Quakers and Anglican Church clerics expressed concern over slavery even as they engaged in it. Colonial proprietor William Penn owned an unknown number of slaves; like many Quakers in the 1690s, Penn renounced slavery in all forms and manumitted the slaves he owned. In the early 1770s, slave trader Moses Brown became a Quaker and joined the antislavery movement. In 1789 he and others established the Providence Abolition Society. Even before the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the five New England states had begun enacting emancipation laws: Vermont in 1777, Massachusetts in 1780, and Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island in 1784.

Despite these gestures, New Englanders kept at the slave trade. In the late 1780s, according to The New York Times, John Brown, entrenched in the family business in Providence, Rhode Island, boldly defended his livelihood. Americans were doing Africans a favor by removing them from a barbaric homeland, Brown declared: “Slavery is right, just and lawful, and consequently practiced every day.” The United States outlawed trafficking slaves to foreign ports in 1793; in 1796, authorities prosecuted John Brown on such charges, which, perhaps owing to his position in Rhode Island society, were dropped. Risking arrest and seizure of their vessels, New England slaving ship captains continued to operate in the Caribbean. After the Revolution, merchants in Rhode Island may have controlled 60 to 90 percent of the African slave trade in the United States, which outlawed importation of slaves in 1807.