In 1794, the Federal
Slave Trade act was passed which prohibited any ships in the trade to be
outfitted in American Ports. Slaving ships that were seized were put up for
auction. However, slave trading merchants intimidated potential buyers and
repurchased their own ships for pennies on the dollar.
The schooner Lucy,
one of John D'Wolf's slave ships was confiscated in 1799 and the government
sent Samuel Bosworth to Bristol to bid on the condemned ship. John Brown and
two of the D'Wolf brothers, then paid a visit to Bosworth and threatened him
with a dunking in the harbor in an attempt to scare him off from bidding on the
vessel. Despite the threats, Bosworth arrived at the wharf for the auction and
was met by a party of "Local Thugs"
disguised as Indians and wearing blackface who took him to a waiting sailboat
and carried him two miles down the bay where they left him afoot.
The slave trade was
legally banned in the
in 1808, however the
D’Wolfs and others continued in the
trade until the
early 1820s. One of
methods employed by American slavers to avoid the
law was to register their vessels with Spanish
papers and employ Spanish Captains and crews. In 1820, Congress passed a new
law which included slave trading as an act of piracy and was punishable by
death. By the
mid 1820s, British and American seizures of slave ships and a
lack of open markets in the
had made the
trade unprofitable and the
D’Wolf family began to diversify into other trades such as cotton.
In addition, now that James D'Wolf was a U.S. Senator the family needed to
appear a bit more respectable.
Between 1709 and
1807 there were 934 recorded slave voyages sponsored or undertaken by Rhode
Island merchants, carrying over 106,000 slaves from their homeland in Africa.
80 percent of this slave trade was carried out from the ports of Bristol and
Newport with Providence a distant third at 14 percent. During the peak of the
slave trading years, Newport slavers owned or managed over thirty rum
distilleries and over 150 slave ships.
The slave trade in
Rhode Island was not simply limited to supplying slaves to the south and the Caribbean.
Between 1715 and 1755, the Black population in Rhode Island tripled twice and
by 1755, Black slaves made up 111/2
percent of the total population in the state. Most of these slaves were used on
the farms and plantations in the Narragansett and South County areas across the
bay from Newport.
The reality is that
economy of Rhode Island during
latter 18th and early 19th
centuries was heavily based on slavery and the
slave trade. From families such as D’Wolf, Lopez,
Malbone, Brown, Vernon, and others, which were actually engaged in
trade, to the
cotton and textile mills that depended on southern
slave labor for their products; Rhode Islanders played more than just a passing role
in perpetuating the
institution of slavery.