Narragansett Bay: A Friend's Perspective

Maritime Commerce

After the period of the first settlers, the availability of the Bay as an artery of maritime commerce was of prime importance to the prosperity of the region.

The writings of people who lived in Narragansett Bay communities or visited them in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries describe the richness of the land and its produce. Some found much to criticize about Rhode Islanders, accusing them of being cunning scoundrels and unscrupulous pirates and of being unprincipled in matters of religion. As for the climate, there were conflicting opinions. However, all considered the Bay a great natural asset.  

An anonymous author in 1690, for instance, wrote this:

Rhode-island—is of considerable bigness and justly called the Garden of New England for its fertility and pleasantness. It abounds with all things necessary for the life of man, is excellent for sheep, kine and horses, and being environed by the sea, it is freed from the dangers of Bears, wolves and foxes which molest and damnifie those that live on the Continent.

The people live in great plenty, send horses and provisions to Barbados, and the and the Leeward-islands, and sell great numbers of fat oxen and sheep to the butchers of Boston.

Cotton Mather in 1702 found Rhode Island a true "Garden of Eden" except for the "serpents"—the human beings who failed to follow his strict religious precepts.

  In 1752, after more than 30 years in Narragansett Country as a missionary from the Church of England, the Reverend James MacSparran said:

The produce of this colony is principally butter and cheese fat cattle, wool and fine horses. These are exported to all parts of the English countries. They are remarkable for fleetness and swift pacing, and I have seen some of them pace a mile in little more than two minutes, a good deal less than three…

  The Reverend MacSparran was of mixed mind about the weather: "In general the air is more clear and serene than in England or Ireland.... In New England, the transitions from Heat to Cold are short and sudden, . . . We are sometimes frying and at others freezing."

  Another writer, the Reverend Andrew Burnaby, said in 1775:

The province of Rhode Island is situated,... in the most healthy climate of North America . . . the winters are severe, though not equally so with those of the other provinces, but the summers are delightful, especially in the island (Aquldneck), the violent and excessive heats which America is in general subject to, being allayed by the cool and temperate breezes that come from the sea. The soil is upon the whole tolerably good, though rather too stony; Its natural produce is maize or Indian corn, with a variety of shrubs and trees. It produces in particular the button-tree, the spruce-pine, of the young twigs of which is made excellent beer; and the pseudo-acacia, or locust-tree; but none of those fine flowering trees, which are such an ornament to the woods of Carolina and Virginia. It enjoys many advantages, has several large rivers, and one of the finest harbors in the world Fish are in greatest plenty and perfection, particularly the tataag or black-fish, lobsters, and seabass. In its cultivated state it produces very littile, except sheep and homed cattle; the whole province being laid out Into pasture and grazing ground. The horses are bony and strong, and the oxen much the largest In America, several of them weighing from 1600 to 1800 weight.

  Along the Bay to the north and northwest, the land was hilly, covered with ledge and boulders, and the soil in general was poor. However, to the south and southwest there were areas of extremely rich soil, and fertile land on Aquidneck Island. On the island, agriculture thrived and sheep, cattle, and horses grazed in large numbers. In former Narragansett Country, King's Province, Washington County of the present, a small group of wealthy landowners emerged, developing a life-style similar to the plantation culture of the South—raising cattle, horses, and for a time tobacco by utilizing the labor of Indian and black slaves and indentured white servants. Some of their holdings amounted to several thousand acres. There were also the waters of the Bay, which offered fish in quantities limited apparently only by the number of fishermen and boats needed to harvest them.

  This fertility and abundance led to surpluses which could not be absorbed by local markets, so other markets had to be found. The Bay was strategically located in relation to the coastal communities to the north and south for coastal trade, and was as convenient a departure point for overseas commerce as any location along the Atlantic seaboard. It contained half a dozen excellent small harbors in coves and river mouths suitable for the building and launching of ships and the docking of merchant vessels.

  Maritime trade became the first business of any significance in the colony, and shipbuilding its first manufacturing industry. Rhode Islanders did surprisingly well at both, despite a local disparity of trade goods and eventual shortages of raw materials for construction. At the beginning of the 1700s, Rhode Island was building ships in Providence, Newport, Warren, Bristol, East Greenwich, and Warwick for sale to other colonies and to Europe.

In the beginning, trading cargoes consisted of agricultural produce, livestock, fish, and wood products such as lumber, barrel staves, shingles, and charcoal. William Coddington, the founder of Newport, was exporting sheep, cattle, horses, corn, butter, cheese, wool, and mutton just 20 years after the colony was founded. At first, there was a severe shortage of hard cash to provide a means of exchange, but Rhode Island solved the problem by issuing paper money in 1710 based on taxes owed, then on land owned, which was accepted in most of the New England colonies. In the 1750s, when commerce was well established, as well as credit with overseas merchants, "bills of exchange" were issued; these were like private checks, paid by one purchaser for goods delivered, to be redeemed by a merchant in another port who owed the purchaser money or goods. Aided by this barter economy, and by shrewd trading, adaptability to new opportunities, and willingness to take risks, the merchants of the young colony prospered and they competed on equal terms with merchants in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Early trade was with the planters on Barbados and certain other West Indian islands. The needs of the West Indian sugarcane growers coordinated with the available trading resources of Rhode Island; building materials were in short supply on many of the Caribbean islands and charcoal was needed to fuel their sugar mills. The ships returned to Narragansett Bay with sugar and molasses.

  The enterprising Rhode Islanders figured out what to do with molasses; rum distilleries sprang up and the merchants had another item of trade. The Caribbean planters and those in the Dutch colony of Surinam had large requirements for animal and human labor. Rhode Islanders found ways to supply both needs: they exported sturdy work horses to haul the sugar cane from the fields and swift Narragansett pacers for owners and overseers to ride as they surveyed their enterprises, and they joined the British and French in the slave trade. The horses were raised on the big plantation estates in King's Province and ferried to Newport and other ports for loading onto merchant ships bound for the Caribbean or for Surinam.

 A notorious "triangular trade" developed. Merchants loaded ships with rum - produced in local distilleries and the ships sailed to the west coast of Africa to trade for slaves and gold and then to the West Indies to sell the slaves and take on a cargo of molasses for the trip home to the distilleries.

 During this period, Newport held a position of dominance. For a time it was the most important port on the American continent. Newport's preeminence corresponded with the rise of a wealthy merchant class and emergence of a sophisticated and cultured society on Aquidneck Island based on income from shipping. Among the notable merchant traders were John and William Wanton and Benjamin Ellery, gentlemen who were willing to risk their vessels in privateering as well as in trade. And there was a group of prosperous Jewish merchant families: the Riveras, the Polocks, and the family of Aaron Lopez.

 A number of Newport merchant families prospered from the slave trade. In the middle of the eighteenth century, a roster of Newport merchants held the names of Abraham Redwood, William Ellery, Henry Collins, Daniel Ayrault, Godfrey and John Malbone, John Channing, Samuel Vernon, and Joseph Wanton, all of whom depended in some part on profits from the slave traffic.. In Providence, the descendants of Chad Brown, especially John, took advantage of the African trade to build a mercantile dynasty, and in Bristol there was the family of Mark Anthony DeWolf.

 Even in the nineteenth century, when the slave market had shifted from the West Indles to Charleston, South Carolina Rhode Islanders were heavily engaged in it. Some slaves were brought to Rhode Island to work on the big farms in King's Province and as household servants elsewhere, but in 1774 there was a prohibition against slaves being shipped into the colony. By later legislation, effective March 1, 1784, all children newly born of slave mothers were declared free. The number of slaves in Rhode Island thus declined until the practice died out. However, between 1804 and 1807 of the 202 slave ships which entered the port of Charleston, 59 of the vessels came from Rhode Island, bringing in 8,238 slaves. Bristol ships delivered 3,914; Newport, 3,488; Providence, 556; and Warren, 280.

 Narragansett Bay ship captains and owners were involved in numerous other ventures of questionable nature, including smuggling, piracy, and quasilegalprivateering. They were never averse to making a profit, and the constant wars of the European powers frequently blocked them from open, legitimate trade.

 The story of the privateers of Narragansett Bay extends through much of the first 200 years. Opportunities for profit in the guise of loyal service to the Crown were numerous as England fought with her European rivals for supremacy on the seas and for colonial empire. The settlements around the Bay were too new and too small to do much about the Dutch War of 1635, although three Newport men used commissions as privateers and Captain John Underhill sailed up the Connecticut to besiege the Dutch trading port which is now the city of Hartford. Newporters sent their little sloops out to engage the French privateers that harried Block Island repeatedly during King William's War in 1689. By 1702, when Queen Anne's War between England and France broke out, William Wanton, Isaac Martindale, and John Scott of Newport were ready to get involved. Their ship the Greghound managed to seize three French ships loaded with fish, and prize crews sailed them to Newport.

 From then on privateering, risky but profitable, became an acceptable form of business, and it helped sustain the maritime merchants when earnings were lean from more prosaic commercial operations. It was often possible to combine the two. Some of the more lightly armed merchant ships carried "letters of marque," which gave them the right to capture an enemy merchantman if they could. The true privateers were more heavily armed and carried up to 100 men in the crew so that enough would be available not only for fighting but to fill out the crews on captured prizes. (The privateers spread prosperity among the crews: like present-day fishing boats, crew members received shares from the captured prizes.)

 King George's War (1739-48), involving England and Spain, provided fresh incentives for privateering, and during the French and Indian War (1754-63) Newport alone dispatched 50 of its ships as privateers. In terms of profit, this probably could be described as a holding action, since French privateers made serious inroads on the Newport merchant fleet.

 During the Revolutionary War privateering became big business in Rhode Island. Early in 1776 Congress authorized the issuance of letters of marque, and between May and December, 65 privateer vessels were commissioned in Rhode Island. Rhode Islanders seemed to pursue this highly profitable venture in neglect of all other business and all duties. Robert Morris, a member of the Marine Committee of Congress, reported that a fine ship built in New Hampshire was missing cannon; the cannon, he complained, were "to have been cast in Rhode Island, but the spirit of privateering has prevailed so eminently there, that they have sacrificed every other pursuit to it, both public and private, as I am informed." The Marine Committee had Connecticut cast the guns.

 When Congress made plans to build a Continental Navy, it authorized 13 men-of-war to be built, two of them in Providence. Construction of the two vessels, the Warren and the Providence, went so slowly that Esek Hopkins, a Rhode Islander who had been commissioned commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy, charged that labor and materials were going to privateer vessels rather than to the frigates. Robert Morris again had cause to complain about Rhode Island; he cited the fine ships built in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and other colonies, but "in Rhode Island were built the two worst frigates, as I have been informed by those that have seen the whole."

 When the frigates were at last ready for sea, Esek Hopkins could not find enough sailors to man them, because the wages and prizes on privateer vessels were more attractive than those on the Continental Navy vessels. The two ships never played any role in the new navy. Outfitting ships became so impossible that in December 1776 the Rhode Island Assembly placed an embargo upon the enlistment of sailors to privateering ships.

 Privateers again set forth during the brief war between the United States and France in 1798, and again during the War of 1812.

 The difference between pirates and privateers was that pirates would attack the ships of friends and enemies alike. It was sometimes difficult to identify one's friends, since merchant ships, including those from Rhode Island, were not above hoisting a different flag on the mast if a distant ship seemed to be giving chase. Sometimes double sets of ownership papers were carried and a French- or Spanishspeaking crew member would claim to be the owner if the ship was boarded by the wrong party.

 There were pirates around throughout the seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth century. In 1723, at Gravelly Point, Newport, 26 were hanged on one day. Captain Kidd is known to have visited various islands in the Bay, especially Conanicut, and, some say, buried treasure there.

 Although slave traffic, privateering, and other nefarious practices laid the foundations for some Rhode Island fortunes, these activities were but a small part of a larger picture of extensive maritime commerce which grew to cover virtually every corner of the world.

 In 1680, shipping in the colony was limited to a few sloops, yet only a few years later, between 1698 and 1708, old records show that 103 oceangoing vessels were built along the shores of Narragansett Bay. At first, native timber was used—in particular, oak and chestnut—but in time, especially after the Revolutionary War, local stocks of construction material had given out and timbers for hulls. masts, and spars had to be transported over long distances from Connecticut and Maine. By that time, however, a pool of skilled shipwrights, ironworkers, cordage and sail makers, and other artisans existed in Rhode Island, and the shipbuilding continued unabated. Some writers feel that the skills learned in shipbuilding created a human resource which laid the foundations for the Bay region's early entrance into the Industrial Revolution and Rhode Island's future preeminence in shore-based manufacturing.

 By 1739 more than 100 big ships were owned by the merchants in Newport alone, and many more Rhode Island-built ships were in the fleets of the other colonies. In 1769 Narragansett Bay merchants owned 200 vessels engaged in foreign trade and another 300 to 400 used in coastal traffic. There were 2,200 seamen employed in operating the fleet. By this time, Providence had begun to compete with Newport in earnest, and some ships sailed regularly from Warren and Bristol. No numbers exist for the hundreds of artisans, dockworkers, warehousemen, wagon masters, bookkeepers, and other employees of the merchant countinghouses. In 1774. on the eve of the Revolution, the population of the colony was 59,000. It seems likely that in one way or another the majority of the population obtained at least some of its living from maritime activity.

Next Chapter: Revolutionary War |  Table of Contents