Stampless Covers
1825 Letter From Ship's Captain - Liverpool, England
To John D'Wolf Merchant/Slaver -Bristol, Rhode Island

The full text of the letter is reprinted at the bottom of this page.

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 United States in 1808, however the D’Wolfs and others continued in the trade until the early 1820s. One of the 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 Americas 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 the economy of Rhode Island during the 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 the 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.  

John D' Wolf Letter:
The letter below concerns a cotton shipment on one of John D’Wolfs vessels and is addressed from Captain Martin Bennett at Liverpool, England to John D’Wolf in Bristol, Rhode Island. It was sent via ship through the port of New York with a postal rate of 20 cents.

Liverpool   April 10, 1825

John D'Wolf Esq.
My Dear Sir,
I am happy to inform you that I have arrived safe at this port and shall sail in a few days for St. Petersburg. I have sold your cotton at 15 shillings 3 pence per pound which is a very great profit. It cost 15
1/2 cents as no doubt, but you have received the invoice as I forwarded it from New Orleans. I purchased the goods according to your memorandums at this port and at the lowest rate payable. I shall take particular care of the goods and keep them onboard the vessel until I return.

I am Sir, your hm servant,

Martin Bennett

Note: I believe the captain is alluding to some special cargo in the last part of the letter as he seems to go to great lengths to not identify what the cargo is. Also there is that reference to keeping it onboard.

There are two excellent books dealing with the Rhode Island slave trade, which go into much greater detail than this short article and I heartily recommend both for further reading. They are: "Off Soundings - Aspects of the Maritime History of Rhode Island" by Alexander Boyd Hawes and "The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807" by Jay Coughtry.

Off Soundings - Aspects of the Maritime History of Rhode Island - Alexander Boyd Hawes 
Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade - Rhode Island Historical Society
The Notorious Triangle: Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade, 1700-1807 -
Jay Coughtry
Encyclopedia Britannica 
Encyclopedia Africana 

See Also: The First Rhode Island Regiment (The Black Regiment)
Brown & Ives Letter - 1852

Stampless I
Stampless II

Stampless III
Stampless IV
Stampless V
Stampless VI
Brown & Ives Letters
The Hazard Family Letters
Joseph Tillinghast
Free Franked Letters
DeWolf Family Letters