No matter where you find them, Rhode Islanders will curse the powers that be and, in general, be loudest and most indignant critics of what goes on in the Ocean State. But, when it comes to amending any part of Rhode Island’s history, the majority of Little Rhody’s citizens will decisively defeat it.
Which is what they did on Nov. 2, when a solid majority of voters said “No” to removing the words, “Providence Plantations” from the formal title of the state. It is safe to assume that Robert Lynch, of Naples, FL, still considers himself a Rhode Islander.
“In all the ruckus about eliminating the word "Plantation" from our fine state's name, one very important fact has been overlooked,” he wrote. “One community among the Plantations was the first in the New World to abolish slavery. The date was 1652 in the town of Warwick.
Lynch wrote that he was conducting research at the Library of Congress and came across an article published, as the abolitionist movement was gathering momentum in pre-Civil War America, in the Niles Register dated Oct. 8, 1825, stating:
“In 1652, Rhode Island passed a law abolishing African slavery, similar to those governing indentured European servants, where ‘black mankind’ could not be indentured more than ten years. It is remarkable enough, that the men who were centuries in advance of civilized Europe, on the question of religious toleration, should have seen also so clearly into the nature of that system, which, in the 17th century, at least, was so far from be reprobated, that the most enlightened divines considered it to be both lawful and scriptural to hold the heathen in bondage. The act to which we refer, and which we have inserted in our paper below, was passed at a General Court of Commissioners held at Warwick, May 18, 1652.”
“‘Whereas, there is a common course practiced among Englishmen to buy Negroes, and to that end, they may have them for service or slaves forever; for the prevention of such practice among us, let it be ordered, that no black mankind or white forced by covenant, bond, or otherwise, to serve any man or his assigns, longer than ten years, or until they come to be twenty-four years of age, if they be taken in under fourteen, from the time of their coming within the liberties of this Colony, and, at the end or term of ten years, to set them free as the manner is with the English servants: And he that will not let them go free, or shall sell him away elsewhere, to that end that they may be enslaved to others for a longer time, he or they shall forfeit to the Colony, Forty pounds.’”
Lynch pointed out that this law proclaimed all slaves must now be treated as indentured servants, thus they are free people, bound only by a contract for service, and released from any contractual obligation from their master at the end of their term of indenture, which was typically 10 years.
“Indenture required the master to provide sufficient food, clothing, and lodging befitting a servant. If the servant had any money, they could usually buy their way out of a contract, as was the custom. The normal purchase price for canceling the contract of indenture was £15, which was a lot of money in those days.”
Lynch pointed out that, in the 17th century, nearly two-thirds of English settlers came as indentured servants as a means for poverty stricken people to pay for their transatlantic voyage, and in return for receiving clothing, room, and board in return for work.
Lynch says this puts the Warwick law in a unique light: essentially establishing a process to a phase-out of slavery over the next ten years for newly arrived slaves, more rapid release for those with less than ten years service or under 24 years of age, and immediate release for those with ten or more years service or over 24.
“The penalty of £40 was a whopping sum in those days – two and a half times the normal cost of a buy-out,” according to Lynch.
But, before a small footnote to Rhode Island’s history is construed as an example of universal enlightenment on Narragansett Bay, there is no record found of it ever being enforced.
“This law, as noble as the intent behind it may have been, was more honored in its breach than by adherence,” wrote Holly Snyder of Brown University’s John Hay Library, in response to a query. “As we well know, by 1723 Rhode Island had become a central locus of the transatlantic slave trade.”
In fact, the law’s existence is largely unknown outside of academic historians, mostly because it was passed during a very fluid period in the state’s history.
One of Roger Williams’ contemporaries, William Coddington, who bought Aquidnick Island from the Narragansett Indians, beseeched the King of England to make Aquidnick Island a separate and sovereign colony ruled, quite naturally, by Coddington. That left Providence Plantations as a separate colony for a time. At that time, Providence Plantations included Warwick and it was within that period that the men gathered in Warwick abolished slavery.
“Roger Williams and John Clarke went to England and successfully had Coddington patent repealed,” said Rhode Island historian Patrick Conley. “When the colonies became one again, the law [abolishing slavery] became a dead letter.”
Conley said that little footnote to history was still a demonstration of the moral character of the state that was founded to give everyone freedom of conscience in religion. It is not a great leap from Roger Williams declaring that Native Americans are the equals of colonists at a time when most Europeans saw Native Americans as nothing more than a hindrance to their expansion. Williams even went so far as to seriously study the language of Native Americans and publish his Key into the Language of America, and to assert that “Nature knows no difference between European and American in blood, birth, bodies, etc.”
Then, of course, we had the Browns and other families and the shameful history slavery in our state. Rhode Island played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade. According to sources available online from the Hay Library, there is much that Rhode Islanders can be less proud of:
“Not only did Rhode Islanders have slaves—they had more per capita than any other New England state—but they also entered with gusto into the trade. By the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas.”
So, how much of this disgusting twist in human history was Rhode Island responsible for? Not much in the total scheme of things but still enough to take the sheen off any pride we have in being the first to abolish slavery in North America. Of the approximately 12 million Africans transported to the Americas by the mid-nineteenth century, 600,000 (or 5 percent) came to North America, and about 100,000 were carried in Rhode Island ships.
Needless to say, Rhode Island history has much to be proud of and much to be ashamed of; and taking “Plantations” out of the state’s name would have changed none of it. For better or worse, we voted for history. Get used to it.