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    Monday, April 15, 2024

    For sugar, rum, and profit

    On January 9, 1789, the Connecticut Gazette’s lead story was an account by a sailor on a British ship describing what he witnessed on a slaving voyage between Africa and the West Indies sugar plantations. The unspeakable cruelty inflicted on the captive men, women, and children sickened him. It is sickening to read about today. New London newspaperman Timothy Green’s choice of such a frontpage story seems provocative given how many of his subscribers depended on trade with the West Indies.

    The dependency had begun years earlier during a time when colonists lived in what amounted to a barter-based economy; cash was in short supply, jobs were scarce, and markets for agricultural products were limited. But one asset New London -- and much of New England -- had was access to the ocean, offering the opportunity to find new markets like the West Indies.

    Columbus had brought sugar cane to the Caribbean on his second voyage, and by the mid-1600s, sugar cultivation was the islands’ primary business. Forests were leveled, and sugar, which was well suited to the climate, was planted to the exclusion of most other crops. Food, wood products, livestock, everything really, had to be brought in. In exchange for imported necessities, the islands offered sugar, molasses, rum, and profit. The reciprocal needs dovetailed, and a trade system was born.

    Early New London participants in the trade included John Coit and Hugh Mould, who established the first shipyard in the city in 1651. One of their ships, the Endeavour, made several trips to Barbados. Around 1663, John Daniels had a warehouse and wharf on Close Cove (near today’s Howard Street). About the same time, Charles Hill and Christopher Christophers had a wharf on Mill Cove at the upper end of Winthrop Cove. All of them traded with the islands. Robert Lay, who owned Lays Wharf on Potapoug Point in Essex, was another early colonist taking advantage of that market outlet.

    The practice grew. By the late 1700s, as many as 170 vessels destined for the Caribbean were leaving New London harbor annually. Livestock made up a huge part of the cargo. The Gazette reported that in 1789 alone the haul included 6,366 horses, mules, and cows, although the reporter thought the number of horses was probably understated. Horses died quickly in the tropical heat, making their replacement a lucrative business. Men, sometimes referred to as horse jockeys, raised horses for this purpose on common land near today’s Clark Lane in Waterford.

    The islands needed people to work around the clock in the fields and processing factories. According to one source, over 4 million enslaved people toiled in the West Indies under conditions that virtually guaranteed their premature deaths, usually within three to four years. Anne Farrow, in her book, “The Logbooks: Connecticut's Slave Ships and Human Memory,” presents a harrowing account of one New London mariner, Dudley Saltonstall, who was directly involved in the transportation of Africans to the sugar plantations.

    Outside the Caribbean trade connection, in at least one instance enslaved people were brought directly to New London to be sold to local residents. The city has recently been designated a UNESCO Slave Route Project Site of Memory; a plaque has been installed at Amistad Pier honoring the 95 men and women whose freedom had been stolen.

    The impact of the West Indies commerce was systemic; the benefits were felt at every level of colonial society whether or not the recipients understood their origin. As an article on the Connecticut Humanities website notes, “…Connecticut profited from this trade, from the ship-owning merchant to the milkmaid who traded her cheese for sugar at the country store … (to the) farmers (who) expanded their cultivated fields and sent their sons to Yale …”

    Politically, the impact may have been even more consequential. The Revolutionary War was won, in part, by ships that had originally been built for the Caribbean trade but were repurposed for America’s nascent navy. Further, at the start of the war Americans were only able to manufacture one tenth of the gunpowder they needed to take on the British. Until production could ramp up, men like Nathaniel Shaw used their French West Indies business connections to secure more.

    So, who knew about the suffering? Probably not the milkmaid. Perhaps not some of the farmers. But the horse jockeys knew. If exertion in a tropical climate killed off horses at an astounding rate, it obviously wasn’t good for human beings. The sea captains and sailors knew because they witnessed it. Many, if not most, of the merchants must have known, too.

    Circumstances change, but systemic injustice persists. It can be invisible to some, hard to acknowledge for others, and even harder to remedy.

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