Like the other New England colonies, Rhode Island was outraged by the British Sugar Acts aimed at curtailing their illicit molasses trade with the West Indies. That molasses was an essential ingredient in making New England rum, which was shipped to Africa along with locally-produced Yankee notions to trade for slaves held by African tribes.
Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com
Rhode Island’s Slave Trade
“[The] early industries in Newport were farming, fishing and shipbuilding. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the trade in rum and molasses brought about an intense local activity; distilling, sugar refining, brewing, and the making of sperm oil and spermaceti candles, created a prosperous Newport.
The one shadow on this happy picture was the African slave trade in which Rhode Island was more concerned than any other Colony, with Newport the chief Rhode Island trade center. In 1708, the British Board of Trade addressed a circular to all the Colonies relative to trade in Negro slaves, which read in part: “It is absolutely necessary that a trade so beneficial to th3e kingdom should be carried to the greatest advantage.”
In 1707-08, the Colony laid an import tax of [3 pounds] on each Negro imported. The proceeds were large; in 1729, some of the money was appropriated for paving the streets of Newport, and some for constructing bridges.
Many fortunes were amassed in the slave trade. Fifty or sixty vessels were engaged in this traffic, and their owners were among the leading merchants of the city. After 1750, many wealthy English planters from the West Indies found their way here for extended visits.
The Newport of that period lingered in the visitors memory as a place of gay entertainment, of scarlet coats and brocade, lace ruffles and powdered hair, high-heeled shoes and gold buckles, delicate fans and jeweled swords, delicately bred women and cultured men. Even in Europe the town was noted for the elegance of its society. Every indication seemed to point to it as a future metropolis of the New World.”
(Rhode Island, A Guide to the Smallest State, WPA Federal Writers’ Project, Louis Cappelli, Chairman, Houghton-Mifflin Company, 1937, pp. 205-206)