Jamestown Slaves linked to Sierra Leone, Gambia rivers

Bunch Island in the Sierra Leone River, 1784. A woman enslaved in Jamestown by Sayles Carr was one of 75 captives to be purchased on the voyage along the West African river in 1742. NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF THE UNITED KINGDOM

In 1816, Ormand Remington of Jamestown told the Newport Town Council that he “was born on the coast of Africa and brought into this country by Captain Robert Stoddard, [a Newport slave trader], when he was about 12 or 13 years old.” In a document recently unearthed in Newport archives by genealogist Cherry Balmberg, Remington recounted that he labored in Jamestown from childhood until his 78th year when he moved to Newport with his family.[1] He was enslaved for 30 years until he purchased his own freedom from Gershom Remington at today’s Watson Farm.

While records of the lives of the enslaved in Jamestown are sparse, almost nothing is known of the journeys that brought them here. Therefore, Remington’s testimony, newly discovered by historian Marian Desrosiers, is a rare insight into the Rhode Island “middle passage.” The key facilitators were the sea captains and their Newport merchant underwriters.

Stoddard led a storied life for a slave captain. He accumulated much of his wealth from four slaving voyages, starting in 1751, delivering most of his captives to the British West Indies. After one voyage, Boston newspapers declared he “arrived at Antigua with a fine cargo of slaves.” During the French and Indian War, he took up privateering to sack French vessels. The climax of his success was purchasing one of the best pews in Newport’s Trinity Church.

Historians don’t know how Remington was captured and sold to Stoddard on his first voyage to Africa. Another enslaved Rhode Islander, Robert Johnson, however, described his own capture. Johnson was cargo in a voyage owned by John Brown, founder of Brown University. He recorded his ordeal in 1837.

“I was born in Africa, several hundred miles up the Gambia River … But the villagers in that country are very kind. When you go into a house, the first question is, ‘Have you had anything to eat?’ … When I was nine years old, I was out with my aunt to get figs. Figs grow wild in that country. I had to crawl amongst the bushes, when all at once I feel something pull my leg. I look around, and could see no aunt, nothing but man of my own color. And I never seen my aunt since.”

His captors tied him and paddled down the Gambia River, selling him to white Rhode Island traders on the coast.

Stoddard had likely already sold most of his human cargo before he arrived in Newport Harbor in June 1752. Remington arrived in Jamestown, a child in bondage. Thirty years later, however, he purchased his own freedom and that of his wife and children.

A woman enslaved by Jamestown’s Sayles Carr had an even more dreadful journey than Remington. She was one of 75 captives purchased on a voyage along the Sierra Leone River in West Africa in 1742. Peter Faneuil was the owner of the ironically named vessel Jolly Batchelor.

His name still adorns the eponymous Faneuil Hall, which he donated to Boston. In Sierra Leone, some “Negro Portuguese privateers” attacked the Jolly Batchelor.

They killed most of the crew, weighted the captain’s corpse with stones, threw him overboard, and seized all the slaves. English slave traders then recaptured 34 of the captives and sold a dozen to pay for reprovisioning the Jolly Batchelor for the voyage back to Newport.

William B. Weeden, a noted Rhode Island historian and a relative of the local Weeden family, wrote 130 years ago of the voyage, “This must be merely the sad irony of fate that, the craft deliberately destined to be packed with human pains and to echo with human groans should in its very name, bear the fantastic image of the luxury-loving chief owner. If these be the sources of profits and property, where is the liberty of Faneuil Hall, where the charity of good Peter’s alms?”

“Six of the First” by Jean-Marc Superville Sovak, Jamestown, 2022. This is a monument to some of the earliest recorded Africans to have been brought to the shores of Newport County in 1743 on the Jolly Batchelor: six women that can be culturally traced to Temne tribes in present-day Sierra Leone. See http://www.supervillesovak.com

 The vessel arrived at Almy’s Wharf in 1743, and the court appraised the 20 captives. They listed their value next to their African names like Yallah and Morandah. Once on the auction block, though, the names disappeared. One unnamed “Negro woman” was sold to Carr for 105 pounds sterling. Her name and story have disappeared into history.

To bring international attention to the histories of the Atlantic slave trade, the United Nations observes Aug. 23 as the International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition. Nations across the globe actively participate in the annual UNESCO day. In Rhode Island, the Newport Middle Passage Project also seeks to commemorate this history so it is not forgotten.

[1] Marian Mathison Desrosiers, Ph.D., “Sylvia Banister and Her Family”, Rhode Island Roots, September 2023, 49:3, 114-137.

This article was written by Peter Fay for The Jamestown Press. It appeared in August 2023.