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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Molasses to Rum to Slaves

On March 2, 1807, Congress passed an act prohibiting the importation of slaves after January 1, 1808, two hundred years ago.

Rhode Island played a big role in the slave trade, the “triangle trade” which brought tens of thousands of slaves in Newport slave ships before the American Revolution. Between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants sponsored over 900 slave runs to Africa, a booming economic force.

Rum was its commodity, for which molasses and sugar were imported from the Caribbean, and rum was Rhode Island’s main export. The West Indies plantations which provided the molasses and sugar were dependent upon slaves to work them. Rhode Island slavers brought slaves from Africa to the West Indies, which sold the Rhode Islanders molasses and sugar, who sold rum to African colonial settlements, beating out French and English competitors in this endeavor.

It has been estimated that in the 18th Century, Rhode Island merchants were responsible for between 60 and 90 percent of African slave trade. By 1765, the Rhode Island economy had become dependent on the slave trade. Slaves that were not auctioned off were put to work and served aboard merchant ships. By 1807, African seamen made up over 20 percent of all Newport crews involved in the West Indian, European, and African trades. It was good business. Occasionally what is “good business” is morally bankrupt. It’s good to be on the lookout for that, lest we lose our souls among all that profit.

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