Sugar Cane Harvest

An illustration of a sugar cane harvest in the Indies. (WETHERSFIELD HISTORICAL SOCIETY / June 3, 2014)

Generous donors to Harvard College, the Brownes reputedly were the richest family in a town that rivaled Boston in wealth. It may be no coincidence then that Salem, Mass., also is where New England's slave trade may have started. In 1638, the Salem ship Desire sailed to the West Indies loaded with captured Pequot Indians. It sold them as slaves and returned with a "cargo of salt, cotton, tobacco and Negros."

A few years later Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was advised by his brother-in-law that a "just war" against Indians could provide the colony with more captives to exchange for badly needed "Moores." He warned Winthrop, "I do not see how we can thrive until we get a stock of slaves sufficient to do all our business."

Slavery was about money from the start, yet even academics like the ponytailed Sawyer and the dreadlocked Perry, who are inclined to substitute the term captive for slave, because slave connotes docility and ignorance, have prestigious company in arguing that the slave economy has been severely underrated. Of hemispheric proportions, its original capital and original sin was the nearly 12 million souls bought in Africa to be transported to the New World in what was probably the greatest and most lethal forced migration in history.

A collection of essays published two years ago by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in advance of establishing a museum of New England economic history contains an astonishing judgment by Harvard Professor Bernard Bailyn.

Considered the dean of Colonial historians, Bailyn wrote that by 1770 New Englanders generally had achieved the highest standard of living the world had ever seen. Fortunes made in the West Indian trade would seed the industrial and financial fortunes to follow. "How was it that this unpromising, barely fertile region, incapable of producing a staple crop for European markets, became an economic success by the eve of the Revolution?" Bailyn asked.

His own unequivocal answer to New England's prosperity: "The most important underlying fact in this whole story, the key dynamic force, unlikely as it may seem, was slavery. New England was not a slave society. On the eve of the Revolution, blacks constituted less than 4 percent of the population in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and many of them were free. But it was slavery, nevertheless, that made the commercial economy of 18th-century New England possible and drove it forward. ... The dynamic element in the region's economy was the profits from the Atlantic trade, and they rested almost entirely, directly or indirectly, on the flow of New England's products to the slave plantations and the sugar and tobacco industries they serviced."

Crediting the work of others, Bailyn wrote that the slave plantations must be seen as "the great powerhouse" of the entire Atlantic economy. "Only a few of New England's merchants actually engaged in the slave trade, but all of them profited by it, lived off it," he wrote.

The global importance of sugar itself requires freshening.

Before Columbus brought the cane plant to the West Indies, sugar was an exotic luxury in Europe, more likely to be used in medicine than tea. But it soon passed tobacco as a mass addiction. Shipments to England alone increased a hundred-fold to 100,000 barrels a year between 1660 and 1730. Demand for Africans kept pace. Sugar plantations were labor intensive, crosses between farm and refinery. During the 18th century, just the island of Jamaica absorbed 650,000 slaves.

Bailyn did not claim the slave plantations were the only New England dynamo. Second to it was the region's miraculous population growth. It roughly doubled every generation, thanks to the family farms that spread over the countryside. They supported a high birth rate and long lives. And one by one they produced enough surplus, by husbandry or industry, to also supply a growing merchant class. Foodstuffs such as grain, preserved beef and pork, or livestock on the hoof, along with made goods such as shingles and barrel staves, trickled toward river ports like Hartford and Middletown and seaports like New London, Newport and Boston, where they joined a trade stream flowing south to the West Indies and also to the lower American colonies.

The trade fueled secondary industries like shipbuilding and distilling. Hundreds of vessels were launched from Connecticut River towns. Rum and gin poured from distilleries in New London and Hartford. Fairfield County was known for its horses, as were the farms of Hartford's merchant prince, Jeremiah Wadsworth. In Lebanon, Jonathan Trumbull, the governor who saw Connecticut through the Revolution, followed his father into the cattle business and became a major meat packer. In one year 1,000 mules were shipped from New London. Wethersfield became famous for the odor rising from its onion fields and for the "maidens" who first cultivated the pungent red variety in their kitchen gardens.

The onion brought so much wealth to town, said Brenda Milkofsky, the director of the Wethersfield Historical Society, that the First Congregational Church there is still sometimes called the church that onions built. Over a century, onions grew into a cash crop. In 1801, a peak year, nearly 100,000 ropes of onions, each weighing 5 pounds, were shipped from town, most destined for the West Indies.

"Nobody in Wethersfield ever asked where they went," Milkofsky said, "but when you look at the white population of the islands, you have to know that amount of onions was going to feed slaves." She said the onion probably was a cheap food that gave variety to the slaves' bland diet. After the onion trade died in the 1830s, people blamed a blight, Milkofsky said. But shipping records point to another cause. "I've always believed the decline in the red onion was directly related to the end of slavery in the islands," she said. "It began in 1833 [when Britain abolished slavery] and comes down like a cleaver in 1835." By then the cane plantations were losing value, their monopoly broken by the newly developed sugar beet.

The West Indies trade shifted with the tides of war and politics. Much took place off the books, in smuggling, and many shipping records were destroyed in 1781 when Benedict Arnold led British troops in torching New London. Also early in the Colonial period much Connecticut produce was shipped out of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. But after the Revolution, Connecticut came to dominate the West Indies trade more directly. In some years, more than half its exports went to French islands, especially the one known then as Santo Domingo, then the leading sugar producer in the West Indies.

Connecticut newspapers followed the slave revolts that occurred there in 1791 with dispatches that took weeks to arrive. On Oct. 24, The Courant carried vivid accounts of revolts the previous August. A writer from Cape François reported, "No longer than Monday last this large space was filled with beautiful villas, elegant seats and nearly the whole covered with sugar cane; the greatest part of which are laid [waste] and now lying in ashes. Almost the whole is destroyed! If the infernal devils were content with this destruction, it would be happy for the colonists, but they add the cruelty of savages to their incendiary conduct, inhumanly murdering all the whites they catch, sparing neither age nor sex."

Before the slave revolts, Santo Domingo may have been the world's richest colony. Columbus had named it Hispaniola when he discovered it. Today, the island is desperately poor, comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

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Owners and overseers

As scant as information is about the plantation in Salem, Conn., there is enough to show its owners and their elite circle were closely bound to the slave economy. According to David Wordell, a founder of the Salem Historical Society, the first owner, Col. Samuel Browne, hired Samuel Gilbert, the son of a Hartford innkeeper, as property superintendent soon after he began buying up land in what was then Lyme.

Orders Browne wrote in 1727 to the captain of one of his ships are proof of his interest in the West Indies trade. "You may touch at Barbados, St. Christopher's, or Antegoa [sic] or Jamaica, and if any good markets at any of those places, then you may dispose of my cargos," Browne wrote. "If the markets are low at ye English islands, then you may go and trade at Guardelope, Cape Francois or any of the French islands." Browne's instructions ran on in more detail and closed with a personal postscript, "Bring some oranges and limes."