Slavery in Rhode Island–Who would ever have guessed?

By Al Benson Jr.

Awhile back an honest writer named Jeff McDonough wrote an article that appeared in the Jamestown Press in Jamestown, Rhode Island. It had to do with slavery in Rhode Island. I know that our current crop of what passes for historians seldom mentions slavery north of Mason-Dixon, the idea being that we are not even supposed to realize that it existed up there. And if it is admitted it’s downplayed.

So Mr. McDonough’s article was quite revelatory, and you can bet no major media picked up on it.

McDonough noted that: “Few people living today in Rhode Island realize that the slave trade was once a vital component of the Ocean State’s economy. ‘The numbers are astonishing’ says Ray Rickman, project director of an exhibit dealing with the slave trade in Rhode Island. In an 80-year period, people in Rhode Island got rich from the slave trade.”

According to Rickman slavery was pretty widespread in Rhode Island. “Slaves worked on South County farms and in the mansions of Newport. But it was the slave trade that was the number one financial activity for Rhode Island from 1720 to 1807.” McDonough noted that many Rhode Islanders were involved in the slave trade and Rickman noted that “Rhode Islanders are poorly educated in school about slavery.” Do you wonder why? In the War of Northern Aggression Rhode Island fought for the Union and so the winners got to write the “history” books and you can bet the farm that they wrote them to make themselves look good and the South look bad.

Some may claim that the North got rid of its slaves decades before the South did. So what? Slavery was still slavery whether it took place in 1760 or 1860 and if it was wrong for one section of the country why was it not wrong for another section? Why aren’t Northerners just as guilty as Southerners? The only difference involved is the time frame.

And as far as guilt is concerned, there is more than enough to go around and it doesn’t all belong to the white Southerner. In his monumental work on the slave trade Hugh Thomas noted, on page 13, that: “If one is looking for villains in this matter, and some are, one should certainly indeed look at royal families more severely than at Jewish ones: I am partly thinking of the rulers of Benin; the kings of Ashanti, Congo and Dahomey; and the Vili rulers of Loango, who sold great numbers of slaves over many generations…” All of these recently-mentioned rulers, starting with Benin, were black. That’s another fact you seldom hear expounded–the fact that blacks captured and sold other blacks as slaves, to whites or whoever would pay for them.

More information is starting to come out about this now, thanks to the Internet and other sources, but for years, this was a subject that was hardly mentioned. We were led to believe that white slavers just went over to Africa and kidnapped black Africans as they could find them. It seldom happened that way. Back in those days whites just didn’t wander around in Africa looking for slaves. It was too dangerous. They always did business with black slave dealers simply because it was a lot safer.

As time goes on and little tidbits of information about the slave trade begin to slip out more and more people will be shocked to learn that they don’t really know how much they don’t really know about this issue. If they continue to rely on government school “history” books they will continue in blissful ignorance, as the writers of those history books intended that they should.

Content ©2010  Al Benson Jr.

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