Colonial Rhode Island differed economically from most of the other colonies, as it had very little arable land and no large staple crop to trade with England. For this reason, Rhode Islanders turned to the sea very early. The ocean provided the avenue by which the small colony became one of the most prosperous of the original 13. While most of the sea activity was of a legal nature, some early fortunes were made illegally or by quasi-legal means.
It is no secret that Rhode Island, at one time, was a refuge for pirates and privateers. Notorious pirates such as Captain Kidd walked the streets of Newport openly and were often guests of some of the leading citizens of the colony. During the colonial period, it was often difficult to distinguish between pirates and privateers. A pirate is one who steals or plunders on the high seas. A privateer does much the same thing, but with permission and against an enemy in wartime. Privateering was allowed and encouraged, as it was the easiest, quickest and cheapest method of obtaining a navy. In the 18th century there was very little difference between a merchant ship and a war ship, except for the guns on board. Merchantmen were urged to prey upon the enemy and were allowed to keep a large portion of whatever they captured.
Rhode Islanders found the rewards worth the risks and had many opportunities for privateering. From 1689-1713 England, the mother country, was at war with France or Spain for 19 out of 24 years, and from 1745 to 1763 she was at war again for two-thirds of the time. During some of these wars, Rhode Island refused to send troops to assist the mother country, but she nearly always sent privateers.
Getting permission to be a privateer was relatively easy, especially when the magistrate in charge was given a “gift” or bribe. Often, those who were empowered to allow privateering owned part of the vessels they licensed. When privateers overextended themselves by attacking ships in time of peace and were guilty of piracy, Rhode Island courts often ignored the charges or changed the dates of the attacks. Rhode Island established its own admiralty courts to decide the question of piracy or privateering, and it became a well-known fact that if pirates brought wealth to Rhode Island they were usually safe and welcome in the little colony.
Piracy and privateering, however profitable, carried too great a risk and were too unstable for those who sought substantial fortunes. Simeon Potter, the DeWolf family, the Wantons and the Browns began their fortunes through privateering but soon found a safer and more profitable venture in the “triangular” or slave trade. Rhode Island ships brought goods gathered in the New England area to the south and to 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 20 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 $40. The same slave, when sold in Cuba or the Carolinas, often brought close to $400. Obviously, the slave trade was going to bring very substantial profits.
The slave trade, with its opportunities to make a fortune, had its own risks. The greed that possessed the slave traders resulted in the practice of cramming as many slaves as possible into whatever space was available. In some instances, slaves lacking air and space were literally crushed and smothered, and overloaded ships sank occasionally. Contagious diseases spread so fast that not only did many of the slaves die as a result, but often the crew would succumb as well.
John Brown, on at least one occasion, lost more than two-thirds of his human cargo through sickness. One documented case reported that disease spread so rapidly that the captain jettisoned the entire human cargo of slaves in a desperate effort to save the crew. It didn't work, however, and the ship was discovered sailing aimlessly in the Caribbean with all but one crewmember diseased and blind.
Severe storms and piracy also took their toll, and in spite of armed guards, heavy chains and severe punishments, slave rebellions were occasionally successful. In spite of the dangers, however, the profits were so great that the trade flourished, and Rhode Islanders continued to deal in the slave trade long after it became illegal to do so.
Newport was the leading center of the slave trade, and Providence and Bristol were not far behind. Much of the prosperity of colonial Rhode Island came either as a direct result of the sale of slaves or because of industries closely related to the trade. In 1763 Newport had 22 distilleries for rum and Providence had 12. 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 trade in some manner. Farmers received higher prices for their food, the iron industry in the small colony found a ready market for chains and ankle cuffs, and the merchant princes created a demand for artists, cabinetmakers, physicians and musicians. To attract iron-makers, glassmakers, locksmiths, weavers and brick-makers, substantial bounties were paid for artisans who would settle in Rhode Island.
While the slave trade placed Rhode Island in a strong economic position, not many slaves were sold in the colony. The number rarely exceeded 20-30 a year, and most of those were sold to the large landholders in South County. Newport put a tax on slaves taken to her port and used the revenue to help pave the streets and make other improvements.
During and after the Revolution, the slave trade died a hard death. Leading abolitionists, like Moses Brown, were so intent on stopping the trade that they were able to get legislation passed to forbid the trade in Rhode Island. When John Brown refused to comply with the act, Moses, his brother, brought charges against him and had him arrested.
Despite the growing abolitionist feelings and the illegally of the trade, the high profits kept many Rhode Islanders in this endeavor well into the 19th century. Eventually, the slave traders found even greater profits in the China trade and in other fields such as cotton and woolen manufacturing. By the time of the Civil War, the last of the "slavers," as the ships were called, had left Rhode Island waters.
Trade on the high seas, once so important to Colonial Rhode Island, eventually gave up its position of importance to the rapidly rising textile industry.