History Bytes: Newport’s Slave Trade Through a Global Lens

August 17, 2021

Hampton Smith, Ph.D. student, MIT, is one of the 2021 Buchanan Burnham Fellows working on capturing data from the NHS archives on Black and Indigenous people of color in colonial Newport, Rhode Island. The following post relates to the global and local dimensions of the slave trade. 

As a fellow for the Newport Historical Society, I am using historical documents to better narrate the stories of the enslaved, indentured, and manumitted population of Newport, Rhode Island. Part of my project this summer is to detail the unique experiences of individuals forced into bondage, within Newport. And yet, I am often confronted with documents that have traveled miles upon miles before arriving in Rhode Island. These letters reveal the global dimensions of eighteenth-century life in Newport, but how do we account for this internationalism while still addressing local histories of Newport? When thinking through systems of enslavement, how does a global lens offer more complex narratives of marginalized peoples?

A letter from Captain Walter B. Whitting in Barbados to Mr. Stephen Ayrualt in Newport, dated 30 May 1774. Box 164, Folder 5, NHS Collection.

To be sure, attending to the geographic specificity of slavery is an important endeavor. Slavery shaped regions differently. For example, there were social, political, and lived differences between the eighteenth-century rice plantations in South Carolina and sugar plantations throughout the Caribbean. Likewise, the experience of urban enslavement in a city like Newport was profoundly different than life in North Carolina’s tobacco fields.

But while close historical attention to regional differences remains crucial, it is also true that slavery connected seemingly far-flung locales to maintain an intricate web of finance, people, and ships. You have likely heard of the Triangular Trade system, whereby African people were forcibly enslaved by Europeans and brought to the Americas. The shape of the triangle, however, does not necessarily encompass the world-wide network necessary for the slave trade’s operation.

We can look at a series of letters between Newport-based slave-trader and financier, Stephen Ayrault, and Captains John Stanton and Walter B. Whitting to glimpse Newport’s global network.

A letter from Mr. John Stanton of Barbados to Mr. Stephen Ayrault of Newport, dated 15 May 1774. Box 164, Folder 5. NHS Collection.

In one letter from Captain Walter B. Whitting to Mr. Ayrualt, dated 30 May 1774, for example, over five locations are mentioned. Whitting writes from Bridgetown, Barbados, a large port within the Caribbean. As enslaved people were capital and journeys were full of risk, Mr. Aryault needed frequent updates to see how his “investments” were fairing at sea. In the letter, Whitting notes the loss of seven enslaved individuals and the price he hopes to receive at auction for the “best part of the slaves.” Amid these violent acts of financial speculation, Whitting expounds upon a “Spanish Brig,” another captain heading to South Carolina, and a prior letter he sent to New London, Connecticut.

A letter from John Stanton dated 15 May 1774, similarly addresses the maritime dimensions of slave-trading. Writing safely from Barbados, Stanton updates Aryault on the precarious 48-day-journey he has just completed across the Atlantic Ocean. After buying “47 slaves” in Annamaboe (present- day Anomabu), Ghana, Stanton admits to only “losing four slaves” at sea and promises to be, “In Rhode Island…in a Month.”

From Barbados to South Carolina and from Ghana to Spain, these letters connected Newport to a vast world. They illustrate the logistics behind the business of slavery, while also blatantly documenting its cruel logic. And yet, these letters also suggest the ways in which enslaved people and those in bondage navigated and survived geographically diverse and incredibly dangerous journeys. Although these experiences are not often written about in these letters, tracing the routes enslaved people were forced to endure indexes a path towards recovering their histories.