The colony of Rhode Island once had the highest percentage of enslaved people in New England, and was a dominant player in the global slave trade.
Slavery was a dominant feature of the antebellum South, but it was also pervasive in the pre-Civil War North—the New England states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island all have a history of slavery. In the early colonial period, Europeans invaded these lands and enslaved the Native people who lived there.
As New England colonists drove Native nations out of their homes, they replaced these enslaved Native people with enslaved Africans and invested heavily in the slave trade to power their economy.
Rhode Island addressed its history of slavery on June 22, 2020 when Governor Gina Raimondo announced that the state’s official name—“Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”—would no longer appear on state documents. Instead, the state will just identify itself as “Rhode Island.”
Slavery Was ‘Integral’ to Building Northeast Cities
“Most of the general public in the U.S. has no understanding of the very long history of slavery in the northern colonies and the northern states,” says Christy Clark-Pujara, a professor of history and Afro-American studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of Dark Work: The Business of Slavery in Rhode Island.
“They don’t have a sense that slavery was integral to the building of New York City and places like Newport and Providence, that many of these cities had upwards of 20 percent of their populations enslaved…and that slavery lasted in the North well into the 1840s,” she says. “Some states, like New Jersey, never abolished slavery, so slavery legally ends there in 1865.”
Colonist Roger Williams coined Rhode Island’s longer name in the 17th century, at a time when the word “plantation” referred to a new settlement. The word evolved during the 19th century, becoming synonymous with the enslavement of Black people on large farms. This is the meaning it has today, and the main reason why activists have previously called for Rhode Island to take “plantation” out of its name.
Yet even in the 17th century sense, the word “plantation” signified European colonization, a violent practice intertwined with slavery, says Margaret Ellen Newell, a history professor at The Ohio State University and author of Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery.
“Slavery was a global market, it was a global phenomenon, and it was tied to colonization,” she says.
PHOTOS: Slavery in America
How Slavery Evolved in New England
In the 17th century, the majority of enslaved people in colonial New England were Native Americans. This shifted in the 18th century as New England colonists gained access to international African slave markets and sought to violently purge Native people from their lands, according to Clark-Pujara and Newell. These enslaved people worked on small farms and some larger plantation-style ones, as well as in homes, shipyards and mines. White colonists in New England also heavily invested in the slave trade, buying shares in slave ships and boosting their economy with profits from human trafficking.
Early statutes limiting slavery in New England were local, weak and largely ignored, Clark-Pujara says. In 1652 and 1676, the colonial cities of Providence and Warwick passed statutes limiting the enslavement of Africans and Native people, respectively. Colonists in these cities likely passed these statutes to differentiate themselves from the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which legalized slavery in 1641, and from which colonists in Providence and Warwick had broken away.
Yet officials didn’t enforce the statutes, and starting in 1703, the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations supplanted them with new laws codifying the enslavement of African and Native people. By 1750, the Colony of Rhode had the highest percentage of enslaved people in New England, and was a dominant player in the global slave trade.
“The North was in many ways the engine behind the expansion of slavery in the South,” Clark-Pujara says.
New England’s thriving textile mills used cotton picked by enslaved people in the South who received no compensation for their work. Rhode Island fueled its rum trade by trafficking humans in Africa and the Carribean. Enslaved people performed numerous types of free labor throughout New England, and Clark-Pujara says that this northern slavery was just as brutal as it was in the South.
Fewer Large Farms in the North Meant Fewer Enslaved
“There is a strong fiction that slavery was mild in the North,” she says. “There is absolutely no historical evidence to support that. Bondage was bondage… People were beaten and tortured in the North, just like they were beaten and tortured in the South, and it was just bad in different ways.”
New England couldn’t sustain as many large plantation-style farms as the South, so most white slaveholders in the North held one or two enslaved people. “The very few historical documents that we have left of enslaved people tell us about the horror of the loneliness of slavery in the North, the horror of having to live in the same dwelling and sleep in the doorway of the person who robbed you of your liberty every hour of every day,” Clark-Pujara says.
Some northern states passed bans on slavery in the late 18th century, but many white people continued to keep Black people illegally enslaved in those states. In states like Rhode Island, which banned slavery in 1843, slavery continued until just before the Civil War. Others like New Hampshire and New Jersey never banned slavery. There, slavery only became illegal with the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.