Jamestown Historical Society

Jamestown Slave History by Peter Fay

Speech Delivered at the Dedication of the Slave History Medallion at East Ferry, Jamestown, RI, May 22, 2021

Image courtesy of Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 1026, Folder 14, Thomas G. Hazard, Deed of Sale, 12_29_1791_
Image courtesy of Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 1026, Folder 14, Thomas G. Hazard, Deed of Sale, 12/29/1791.
Hear ye, hear ye, hear ye.
Know all Men by these presents.
That we John Eldred, Isaac Howland, Nicholas Carr, Jonathan Hopkins, and Nathaniel Hammond, Town Council for the Town of Jamestown in the County of Newport and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in our … capacities as councilmen … and in consideration of the sum of Nine pounds in Lawful Silver Money … paid By Thomas G. Hazard Esquire of Newport … Ourselves… Fully satisfied, content, … and paid, … so grant, Bargain, and sell unto … Thomas G. Hazard and to his heirs … a Certain Negro Boy Named Newport Martin …
In Witness … I … set my hand and seal by order and in Behalf of the Town Council … this Twenty ninth day of December … in the Year of our Lord 1791 and in the sixteenth year of American Independence.
[signed] Tiddeman Hull, Council Clerk

Introduction

Good afternoon friends, neighbors, and visitors and welcome to this beautiful small patch of earth on the shore of Conanicut Island. My name is Peter Fay, and I have been a Jamestown resident for twenty years.

You have just re-lived a moment in time that occurred here in 1791: the sale of a 9-year-old boy named Newport Martin for nine pounds British Sterling by the Jamestown Town Council in what they proudly declared, “the sixteenth year of American Independence.” This bill of sale can be found in the Rhode Island Historical Society archives in Providence. [1]

We are here today to uncover and celebrate the lives of people whose names have not been spoken in public in Jamestown in hundreds of years, if ever. And we are here at East Ferry, the first landing place for most of those people, like Newport Martin’s family, who set foot on Jamestown in bondage. They arrived here from across the bay in Newport, the center of the American-owned slave trade, the port where 965 Rhode Island ships carried people of Africa to the British West Indies and southern American ports, Barbados, Jamaica, Antigua, the ports of Savanah and Charleston, and occasionally, to Newport. These Rhode Island ships, though only a tiny part of the Atlantic slave trade, carried 106,000 people to the Americas. These people were purchased by Rhode Island captains from African traders who had captured and enslaved them in wars and raids upon each other to enrich themselves at the expense of their enemies, and to feed the insatiable demand by Europeans for slaves.

These people we will honor today are not famous, they are not war heroes, nor did they accomplished extraordinary feats (other than surviving, which in itself may be extraordinary), but by that very virtue of being common, they are more like you or I, and can teach us so much more about our real history and the roots of our society. And hopefully, they may open our eyes to what has changed since 1791 and what has still not changed in our society today.

Peter Fay, public historian, speaking at Slave medallion dedication, East Ferry, Jamestown. Photo courtesy of The Jamestown Press
Peter Fay, public historian, speaking at Slave medallion dedication, East Ferry, Jamestown. Photo courtesy of The Jamestown Press
Let me preface my comments today by saying that everything you hear today will be factual, based only upon records and documents I have found in historical archives over the past twenty years. I will not sugar-coat these events and this history to protect our sensibilities, or to place any one group in a more positive or negative light, because those people we are honoring today deserve the truth about their lives, plain and simple. We have suffered centuries of bending the truth to favor those in power, occasionally falsifying it, but most commonly ignoring the truth. And it has damaged us as a society grievously. But unlike earlier recounting of history, we are here today to simply state the truth as best we know how, and let the facts tell their own story.
 
In order to be faithful to historical record, I may use some words that offend some today. But life in Jamestown cannot be described without using painful words. Nor can I describe what happened here by counterposing today’s society as more highly evolved and superior to that of 1791. While the buying and selling of humans for labor is no longer part of our society, many traces of that society still linger today in many forms and haunt us to this day. We may find that we are not quite as free from the past as we think ourselves to be.

Newport Martin

Let us return now to 9-year-old Newport Martin.

Newport Martin was born in 1782 and likely grew up on what is known today as the Watson Farm on North Road. His owner, Rebecca Carr Martin (from the Carr family of Jamestown) was a widower and was either unwilling or unable to manage her finances. Most Jamestowners are familiar with the name Carr from Carr Lane and the historic Carr Homestead. Rebecca Carr Martin became indebted to the town who then put her into legal guardianship and seized her property, that is, her slaves, including Newport Martin. [2]

The Town Council, to recoup what was owed it by Widow Carr-Martin, first voted to indenture the child Newport Martin at age seven to farmer Thomas Fowler. The Fowler name survives today as a street sign you can see downtown behind the library. Newport was still enslaved by his owner but was also now rented out to work the Fowler farm.

When Newport Martin reached nine years old, he was no longer indentured, and the Overseer of the Poor raised the alarm, warning that Newport and the rest of his family, the Carr-Martin family slaves, with no source of support, would need to be supported by the town – that is, by the wealthy landholders who paid the taxes. This was the clarion call to the town fathers who had no appetite to provide financial support, especially to those people who were not their property.

Who lodged this complaint to the town? It was Hazard Knowles, from one of Jamestown’s ruling families, who farmed over 400 acres, and whose grandson built the Bay View Hotel just behind us today, and whose family name is enshrined on Knowles Court, , one block from here.[3]

There was no time to waste, so the Town Council rushed to indenture Newport for seven more years to the owner of a large farm in North Kingstown, taking time out on December 24th, Christmas Eve, to commit 9-year-old Newport to bondage. As a note, Quakers, amongst whom most Jamestown slave owners counted themselves, did not celebrate Christmas in this period, so conducting business such as selling slaves at Christmastime was not forbidden.

The bill of sale initially stated Newport Martin would be “manumitted and set free” after seven years of bondage.[4] However, as can be seen by the crossed-out lines on the bill of sale, the indenture and manumission clause were crossed out in the final document at the insistence of the buyer, and he instead was sold as a slave in perpetuity for 9 pounds Sterling (the equivalent of 30 dollars).[5] His new owner was Thomas G. Hazard, Esquire, who was the Assistant to the Governor of Rhode Island and owner of a vast estate in North Kingstown. While this transaction by a town government may seem illegal and barbaric, it was entirely legal and as common in Jamestown as the setting of the sun.

It was so common in fact, that the same Town Council did it again. And again. Every one of the enslaved Martin family members were sold. The mother of Newport Martin, named Betty Martin, was sold, but for 43 dollars. “It is voted by this council that [we] have full power and authority to dispose of the Widow Rebecca Martin’s Negro woman Betty to the best advantage… and that this Council will make a bill of sale to the purchaser.”[6]

 

Next, Mintus Martin, another man enslaved by the Martins, was indentured to Clark & Nightingale Co., merchants of Providence, one of the largest merchants in Providence. During this period, this merchant also sent three voyages to the coast of Africa, bringing slaves to Havana and the southern U.S. ports.[7] You may still visit Mintus Martin’s place of enslavement at the historic Nightingale-Brown house at Brown University on Benefit Street in Providence today.[8]

 

Abraham Martin, another man enslaved by widow Carr-Martin, was next to be sold by the town of Jamestown for the price of “forty-five silver dollars” to William R. Robinson of Newport, which was paid in both silver dollars and bushels of Indian corn. Mr. Robinson was termed a “gentleman”, as he was an heir of the 3,000-acre Rowland Robinson plantation in South Kingstown.[9] After purchasing Abraham, Mr. Robinson became a warden of Trinity Church, which we can see still standing on the Newport hill across the bay.

Finally, three other young Martin children were “bound out” to indentured servitude: Peggy, Jude, and Jacob Martin. Sadly, there is no further record of these children.

So that is the story of the Martins of Jamestown – the mother Peggy and her five children Newport, Peggy, Jude, Jacob, and Jamestown; the men Mintus and Abraham Martin – all of them sold to new owners or indentured to free the town of the debts of their owner, Rebecca Carr Martin.

It may come as a shock to some of us here that the Jamestown Town Council, a government body that still exists today, although in slightly different form, would have been in the business of selling human flesh. We know that most sales of humans in Jamestown were transactions between private individuals, not by government. For example, the well-known Quaker David Greene, whose historic house still stands on Shoreby Hill sold Hannah, “being a Girl half Indian and Half-Negro and about one Year and six months old” to a farmer in South Kingstown. And Jamestowner Sayles Carr, the Quaker grandson of the famous Quaker Governor Carr, purchased an African woman at an auction at the Green Dragon Coffeeshop in Newport for 105 pounds sterling. The woman had just disembarked from the snow Jolly Bachelor – one of the hundreds slave ships returning to Rhode Island’s waters.

The First Rhode Island Regiment

But the sales of humans were not always between private parties – and perhaps some of the most important sales in Jamestown were those who were sold to the newly formed rebel government of Rhode Island during the War of Independence. The state could not entice enough white men to fulfill its quota for the military, so the state purchased enslaved men to perform this deadly labor.

Let us take a moment to remember some of these Jamestown men today, as they have never in the last 243 years been acknowledged or remembered.

Javin Hazard of Jamestown was sold to the state by his owner, Robert Hull Hazard, for 110 pounds sterling on August 3, 1778. Javin Hazard was recorded as a “Mustee”, that is, having both African and Native American heritage, as were many of those enslaved on this island. The Hazard farmhouse where he worked was located just off today’s Tashtassuc Road on Rub Street. I know this location well, because when the house burned over a decade ago, I was one of the firefighters who put out the fire.

Akraw Remington, an enslaved man owned by Benjamin Remington, whose farm was at today’s Hodgkiss Farm on North Road, was sold to the state in June 1778 for 120 pounds sterling. And Robin Howland, enslaved by John Howland, whose farm is today memorialized by Howland Avenue, was likewise sold to the state to help form the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. The defense of Rhode Island during the war was due in no small part to these Jamestown men sold to the state and then set free as paid soldiers. So, it is fitting that we remember these men today.

Re-enactors are members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment
Re-enactors are members of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment
We are now beginning to see that the property in human labor was not only integral to production of Jamestown’s private wealth in farms, land and produce, but also integral to town finances, state government, and procuring labor for the military.

 

But if these men fought in the war, and some gave their lives, why were their families still enslaved in Jamestown after the war? After all, did not Rhode Island pass the Gradual Emancipation Act in 1784, seven years before this slave sale of the Martins occurred? And haven’t we Rhode Islanders been taught that the War of Independence, which ended a decade before this slave sale, brought freedom from tyranny? And was it not the North that later fought against slavery in the Civil War?

Well, yes, yes, and yes. Those are all true, but they changed nothing in property relations here or anywhere in the nation in this period. Free and unfettered ownership of property has been the hallmark of capitalism since its birth in Europe in the 15th century, and neither colonial Britain nor the new American nation nor Jamestown had any intention of restricting any property rights, particularly property in slave labor that produced so much wealth. After all, unfettered property rights in the form of free commerce, limited taxes, and an end to imperial trade restrictions is why America fought the war against Britain. And once the war was won, the slave trade in Rhode Island grew bigger than even before the war. Independence was a bonanza for the Newport slave traders, even though they could no longer legally bring new slaves into Rhode Island.

And it would be another half-century before selling humans was declared illegal in Rhode Island and Jamestown. It was a full 60 years after a dozen Black and Native American Jamestowners, most of them enslaved, fought and some, like Robin Howland and John Bristol, died in the War of Independence.

But here lies the crux of slavery in the North, and Rhode Island, and Jamestown. From the founding of Rhode Island until 1842 – for two hundred years, that is, until just two decades before the civil war, buying and selling humans was legal in Rhode Island. But it was not merely legal, it was foundational to society, especially here in Jamestown, which counted 32% of our population as people of color in the mid-18th century – a higher percentage than any other town in Rhode Island, any in Massachusetts, Connecticut, or anywhere else in New England. By 1774, there were 163 Black and Native Americans in Jamestown, most, though not all, enslaved.

How important was slavery to Jamestown? Let us ask Newport’s Congregational minister Samuel Hopkins who preached just across the bay in the First Congregational Church only four years before Newport Martin was sold. He said,

“The inhabitants of Rhode Island, especially those of Newport, have had by far the greatest share of this [slave] traffic of all these United States. This trade in the human species has been the first wheel of commerce in Newport, on which every other movement in business has chiefly depended. That town has been built up, and flourished in times past, at the expense of the blood, the liberty, and the happiness of the poor Africans; and the inhabitants have lived on this, and by it have gotten most of their wealth and riches.” [10]

What can be said about the production of wealth in Newport, with 18% of its population African American, can be said evermore so about Jamestown with almost twice the percentage as Newport.[11] And both towns participated fully not only in purchasing slave labor, but also in the West African slave trade.

Events of East Ferry

So, we stand here today, 230 years later, reflecting on the Martin family, and the soldiers Javin Hazard, Akraw Remington, and Robin Howland. We might wonder what they would think of us today, 230 years in their future, discussing their lives long after they left Jamestown on their way to new owners, or on their way to battle. Whatever the future would bring for them, we can be sure that this spot, East Ferry, was integral to their lives.

They or their ancestors arrived right here on the ferry landing after they were purchased in Newport or brought home by their slave-trading sea captains of Jamestown. This patch of land on East Ferry is also most likely where they left Jamestown for the last time, so it is fitting that we are here today to remember them.  The vast majority of commerce and travel in Jamestown, arrived or left from this spot, connecting us to one of the largest ports in Colonial America – Newport, across the bay.

This is likely where Robin Howland headed north to East Greenwich with his owner before entering the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. He joined Colonel Greene’s Company, and fought in the Battle of Rhode Island. He later marched to Yorktown, Virginia for one of the final battles of the war. In December of 1781, on his march north after the battle, he died of disease which was spreading throughout the camps, and he was buried in Delaware.

Photo courtesy of The Jamestown Press
Photo courtesy of The Jamestown Press

Nine-year-old Newport Martin also left this shore for good when he was sold to Thomas G. Hazard of Newport. He may have worked Hazard’s farm in North Kingstown or worked in Newport in the maritime trades. But we are certain that his labor further enriched his owner. A few years later we find him sailing out of Newport as a crewman on eight different voyages in the early 1800s, to Havana, the West Indies, Lisbon, Portugal, the Mediterranean, and elsewhere around the wide Atlantic.

But most astonishing are not his vast travels, but rather who he is traveling with. In 1806, he is found at 23 years old on the Ship Levant leaving Newport. He is recorded on the crew list next to another seaman, 42 years old, also born in Jamestown. His name: Abraham Martin. We do not know whether these two men, 17 years after they left this shore enslaved, were free or enslaved crewmen bound for the Mediterranean. But we do know they had found each other, and they were together for a reason. They were sold to different owners, but they were still family and they survived.

Conclusion

So, what can we learn from the lives of these ordinary, yet important people who crossed this piece of shore long before we did? What do their experiences tell us about our lives today?

Clearly, our lives are different today, and yes, better. Owners no longer purchase humans for the term of their lifetime to extract the profits of their labor. Instead, owners purchase human labor power by the day to extract the profits of their labor. It is clearly a different process, but the end result is the same: accumulation of wealth from others’ labor through private ownership of production. In this way, labor is free to be purchased by the day. Not by slaveholders like the Robinsons and Hazards of yesteryear, but by our robber barons of today: the Bill Gates, the Jeff Bezos’, the Mark Zuckerbergs of the modern era.

We freed humans from lifetime bondage where masters had to support them for life regardless of their ability to labor. And we replaced that with free daily bondage in which employers only need pay by the day, sending labor begging when workers are no longer needed or are too old, or too sick. We replaced chattel slavery with what the growing new industrial working class called, and sometimes still calls, wage slavery. However, this form of wage slavery produces more wealth than plantation owners could ever have imagined: one individual now owns $177 billion in wealth derived from other’s labor.

Newport Martin would likely have said this was a great advance. And who could argue with this? However, some could question the extent of the new freedom that came to the formerly enslaved in Jamestown. Families once guaranteed at least some support by their owners and the town, now were set free into the free labor market without any guarantee of land, support, or even town residency. Freedom of labor has its price.

Even the father of American abolition, the escaped slave Frederick Douglass, warned that exchanging slavery for a new type of free wage labor was not at all a final solution to exploitation of humankind. After slavery ended, he still decried the exploitation of labor: “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.”[12]

When we remember the difficult lives of those who went before us, like Newport Martin, Abraham Martin, Javin Hazard, and Robin Howland, let us take to heart the words of Frederick Douglass, who spoke courageously for all labor – enslaved and free – and demanded President Lincoln end bondage. Douglass saw that even after the end of slavery in America, in truth, we may still not be as free from exploitation of labor as we imagine we are. Let us carry forward his words and the lessons we learned from all Jamestowners who came before us.

Thank you.

Bibliography

[1] Rhode Island Historical Society, MSS 1026, Folder 14, Thomas G. Hazard, Deed of Sale, 12/29/1791.

[2] Jamestown Historical Society Archives, T2007.023.018; “Rebekah Martin is a widow who is selling her “Real Estate in said Jamestown””.

[3] 425-acre Knowles farm: 1783 Jamestown Tax List, RI State Archive. Historic Resources of Jamestown, Rhode Island, Rhode Island Historical & Heritage Preservation Commission, 1995, 43. The first Bay View Hotel, 2-1/2-storires, was built about 1873 by W.H. Knowles.

[4] RIHS, MSS 1026.

[5] One dollar in R.I. (or New England) was set by law at 6 shillings, or 3-1/3 dollars per pound sterling. See https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/09/dollar-revolutionary-america/ accessed 5/16/2021.

[6] Jamestown Town Council Records, 2:250, Dec. 17, 1791.

[7] Voyages 36514, 36557, 36745 at https://www.slavevoyages.org/voyage/database accessed 5/16/2021.

[8] See Joanne Melish, “Black Labor at Nightingale-Brown House”, https://www.brown.edu/academics/public-humanities/about/history/black-labor-nightingale-brown-house accessed 5/17/2021.

[9] http://www.preservation.ri.gov/pdfs_zips_downloads/survey_pdfs/south_kingstown.pdf, 118.

[10] Rev. Samuel Hopkins, Providence Gazette, 1787.

[11] Evarts B. Greene And Virginia D. Harrington, American Population Before The Federal Census Of 1790.

[12] Frederick Douglass, Three addresses on the relations subsisting between the white and colored people of the United States (Washington DC: Gibson Bros., 1886), 12-13.

Photo courtesy of Peter Fay
Photo courtesy of Peter Fay

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