Friday, March 13, 2009

Life on the Plantation

Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was established by Royal Charter in 1663:
Because titles to these lands rested only on Indian deeds, neighboring colonies began to covet them. To meet this threat, Roger Williams journeyed to England and secured a parliamentary patent in March 1643-44 uniting the four towns into a single colony and confirming his fellow settlers' land claims. This legislative document served adequately as the basic law until the Stuart Restoration of 1660 made it wise to seek a royal charter.

Dr. John Clarke was commissioned to secure a document from the new king, Charles II, that would both be consistent with the religious principles upon which the tiny colony was founded and also safeguard Rhode Island lands from encroachment by speculators and greedy neighbors. He succeeded admirably. The royal charter of 1663 guaranteed complete religious liberty, established a self-governing colony with local autonomy, and strengthened Rhode Island's territorial claims. It was the most liberal charter to be issued by the mother country during the entire colonial era, a fact that enabled it to serve as Rhode Island's basic law until May 1843.

To this day, the official name of the state is still the state of "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations", though the last half of the name has been forgotten by just about everyone for a very long time. Basically, the full name has been relegated to nothing but an interesting piece of trivia: the littlest U.S. state also has the longest name. So no one really thinks much about it. Well, except a few who want to officially drop the "Plantations."

A group of Smith Hill legislators, along with members of the black community, believe it’s time for a name change that does not conjure up images of the slave trade.

“That we still have the word ‘plantation’ in our name is really a grave injustice and an insult to people in our community,” said Sen. Harold M. Metts, D-Providence.

He and other legislators, reviving a decades-old proposal, have introduced companion bills in the House and Senate to place a question on the next election ballot that asks voters whether they want to change the state’s official name to “Rhode Island.”

In years past the proposal has gone nowhere, with critics saying that the state’s name –– however flawed –– is part of the fabric of the Ocean State’s history.

But supporters say otherwise.

“We’re part of history and we’re changing that history and we don’t want to see that name anymore,” said fellow sponsor Rep. Joseph Almeida, D-Providence, at a news conference yesterday.

The proposal is much bigger than a name change, they said. It’s about making the state aware of its ties to slavery and moving forward, free of that burden.

“If we look at history, history is written for us to avoid the past and to move on,” said Dennis Langley, executive director of the Urban League of Rhode Island.

Their history is correct. Newport was a major slave port and Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence is a fine, recent work that covers both this and the role that the Brown family (founders of Brown University) had in the slave trade. In fact, Brown University has undergone a very public self-examination and has taken various steps to account for the fact that their foundations were built upon slavery. It is also true that some of the farms in the "South County" region of the state did operate with slave labor.

In Narragansett County, conditions favored large-scale farming, and here more than anywhere else in the North a system began to emerge that looked like the Southern plantation colonies. In parts of "South Country" (as Narragansett also was called), one-third of the population was black work force by the mid-18th century. That's comparable to the proportion of slaves in the Old South states in 1820. Narragansett planters used their slaves both as laborers and domestic servants. William Robinson owned an estate that was more than four miles long and two miles wide, and he kept about 40 slaves there. Robert Hazard of South Kingstown owned 12,000 acres and had 24 slave women just to work in his dairy. The Stantons of Narragansett, who were among the province's leading landowners, had at least 40 slaves.

In keeping with the usual pattern, a higher percentage of blacks meant a more strict control mechanism. South Kingstown had perhaps the harshest local slave control laws in New England. After 1718, for instance, if any black slave was caught in the cottage of a free black person, both were whipped. After 1750, anyone who sold so much as a cup of hard cider to a black slave faced a crushing fine of £30.

But the point is that the "Plantations" referred to in the original charter was a common appellation for "a new settlement or colony". Obviously, the meaning of the word became associated with chattel slavery in the South and carries a negative connotation today. I completely understand that. But by pushing to remove "Providence Plantations" from the official name, by "changing that history", proponents are being anachronistic in their application of the term.

They are also being impractical in these times. Like other states, Rhode Island is facing some serious fiscal difficulties--there are plenty of things that our politicians should be worried about besides a feel-good measure of limited appeal and utility. In addition, there are costs incurred by such a change (there are many plaques, stationary, etc. that contain the full name, which would have to be changed).

One attractive argument for dropping the name is because it is so little-used and unknown. So what's the big deal, right? Well, there is the argument that this would be just the tip of the iceberg (ah yes, the "slippery slope." I know, I know...)

But allow me to indulge...What about the City of Providence. I think many people would associate the word "Providence" with religion and one of the definitions of "Providence" is "A manifestation of the care and superintendence which God exercises over his creatures; an event ordained by divine direction." The City of Providence is an official government entity. Should a government have a name that is so overtly religious? Or is that a history that needs to be changed, too?

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Review - Defying Empire:Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

Thomas M. Truxes - Defying Empire:Trading with the Enemy in Colonial New York

Everyone in colonial New York City traded with the enemy (the French) during the Seven Years' War (what we colonial descendants refer to as the French and Indian War). OK, that's an overstatement, but as Thomas Truxes fine work explains, it comes close to the truth. The City's merchants (obviously) and politicians (surprised?) were up to their necks in illegal trade before, during and after this period. "[T]rade with the enemy...did not flow from disloyalty to the Crown or indifference to the fate of the nation," writes Truxes, "...rather, the naked manifestation of a powerful commercial impulse synonymous with the great metropolis."

And while other colonies traded with the enemy--Connecticut and Rhode Island, for instance, were notorious for their "independence" in these matters--New York had distinct advantages when it came to "laundering" illegal goods. Its deep harbor and relatively small size made it easy for large ships to load and unload quickly and it had established itself since its days as a Dutch colony, as a key transshipment port.

During the war, New York's advantages as a supply depot for the British Royal Navy lent to its importance in colonial commerce and wartime machinations. This also made it an attractive target to the French, which, in turn, caused the British to increase the naval presence further. In addition, privateers from New York struck out to capture French prizes.

But there was money to be made by trading with the enemy, too. New York was both hub and spoke of illicit trade that went between Europe, the Caribbean islands and the colonies. Already established smuggling operations easily accommodated further illicit trade with the French. War or no war, they were well practiced at avoiding the authorities.

It certainly didn't help that many local politicians and crown representatives were in on the network. And, as others have argued, by the time the Crown, or Parliament, tried to do something, it was already too late. The horse was well out of the barn: these were the unfortunate rewards of so-called salutary neglect. As Truxes writes:
The flour act of 1757 was the sole piece of parliamentary legislation directed at Briton trading with the enemy during the Seven Years' War. If it was to be effective, the law would require broad support on both sides of the Atlantic. But the restrictions and penalties contained in the act applied only to colonial America. Cargoes dispatched from Great Britain and Ireland were unaffected. The discriminatory character of the act was immediately apparent. The ill-conceived legislation was one of the great blunders of the eighteenth-century British Parliament. Before a decade had passed, there would be others. (p.68)
Truxes has conducted extensive research and it shows. He has a feel for the city at that time and also does a fine job explaining the relationships between various politicians and merchants. Indeed, through his explanation of both the geography and the personalities involved, he brings 1760's New York to life. He also provides a very good overview of the Caribean trade ports and, in general, this is a fine piecet of economic history. Further, it contributes to the historiography that supports the contention that it was Britain's reaction (or overreaction) to the conduct of its American colonists during the Seven Years' War that ultimately set the stage for the Revolution.