The American South could not have become the destination for Africans enslaved by their own people without the ships of the Portuguese, Spaniards, French, British – and New Englanders. The latter had become a notorious smuggling center by 1750 as it surpassed Liverpool in the outfitting of slave ships in the infamous rum triangle.
It can be accurately stated that Britain’s Navigation Acts after the Seven Years’ War were aimed directly at New England smugglers and their African-West Indian trade, which helped bring on the American Revolution.
New England’s Black Ivory
Well-before the American Revolution, New England had engaged in smuggling goods to the other colonies and West Indies in violation of British law. This traffic left little for British merchants to import into the colonies and led Parliament to keep a watchful eye on its New England colonies. Author Reese Wolfe in his 1953 “”Yankee Ships” wrote:
“Shipbuilding, especially for New England’s triangular trade for African slaves, was sufficiently profitable for the shipbuilders of the Thames district to meet in London in the winter of 1724-1725 and formally complain to the Lords of Trade: “. . . the New England trade, by the tender of extraordinary inducements, has drawn over so many working shipwrights that there are not enough left to carry on [our] work.”
Linked inseparably with New England’s ventures south to the West Indies was its brisk trade in rum and what they were in the habit of calling black ivory. For the West Indies trade was a three-cornered affair hinging on rum, slaves and molasses.
Like so many momentous occasions in history, the start of the slave trade had been an offhand sort of occurrence. A Dutch privateer found itself with twenty Negroes taken from a Spanish ship and, not knowing what to do with them, dropped anchor in the river at Jamestown in 1619, a year before Plymouth Rock. The Negroes were offered cheap as laborers, and the Virginia settlers decided to trade tobacco for them. The swap was made and the Dutch sailed away, leaving behind them a cancerous growth that was to bring the parent body close to death before the disease was arrested.
Meanwhile, the Virginians did not call them slaves; as late as 1660 Virgnia court records still referred to Negroes as indentured servants. The New Englanders had Indian slaves as early as 1637, and a more or less formal business developed, with traders nabbing Indians along the banks of the Kennebec River in Maine and selling them into slavery up and down the coast. It was the black ivory from Africa, however, that turned the trick in New England’s West Indies trade and established Southern slavery on a solid and enduring footing.
The mechanics of the all-important trade worked like this: molasses was brought to New England and made into rum; the rum, highly-prized among the native Negroes on the west coast of Africa, brought its own price among the drinkers, a price that included any of their relatives or friends who might have the bad judgement to be lying about, and the resultant human cargoes were disposed of profitably in Boston, Newport and on south. Or most of the way south. Foreign ships for the most part maintained the supply in the deep South.
Not all the West Indies rum was drunk by Negroes. A flourishing local trade in fur was conducted with the Indians by the extremely profitable exchange of a few bottles of cheap rum or whisky for the entire season’s catch of its drunken owner. New England rum, it is generally agreed, had more to do with the destruction of the Indian tribes on the eastern seaboard than all the wars in which they were engaged put together.”
(Yankee Ships: An Informal History of the American Merchant Marine, Reese Wolfe, Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953, pp. 42-44)