WebNovel History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 Volume I Part 37

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The cruel practice of manumitting aged and helpless slaves became so general in this plantation, that the General a.s.sembly pa.s.sed a law regulating it, in February, 1728. It was borrowed very largely from a similar law in Ma.s.sachusetts, and reads as follows:–

“An Act relating to freeing mulatto and negro slaves.

“Forasmuch, as great charge, trouble and inconveniences have arisen to the inhabitants of divers towns in this colony, by the manumitting and setting free mulatto and negro slaves; for remedying whereof, for the future,–

“Be it enacted by the General a.s.sembly of this colony, and by the authority of the same it is enacted, that no mulatto or negro slave, shall be hereafter manumitted, discharged or set free, or at liberty, until sufficient security be given to the town treasurer of the town or place where such person dwells, in a valuable sum of not less than 100, to secure and indemnify the town or place from all charge for, or about such mulatto or negro, to be manumitted and set at liberty, in case he or she by sickness, lameness or otherwise, be rendered incapable to support him or herself.

“And no mulatto or negro hereafter manumitted, shall be deemed or accounted free, for whom security shall not be given as aforesaid, but shall be the proper charge of their respective masters or mistresses, in case they should stand in need of relief and support; notwithstanding any manumission or instrument of freedom to them made and given; and shall be liable at all times to be put forth to service by the justices of the peace, or wardens of the town.”[470]

It is very remarkable that there were no lawyers to challenge the legality of such laws as the above, which found their way into the statute books of all the New-England colonies. There could he no conditional emanc.i.p.ation. If a slave were set at liberty, why he was free, and, if he afterwards became a pauper, was ent.i.tled to the same care as a white freeman. But it is not difficult to see that the status of a free Negro was difficult of definition. When the Negro slave grew old and infirm, his master no longer cared for him, and the public was protected against him by law. Death was his most beneficent friend.

In October, 1743, a widow lady named Comfort Taylor, of Bristol County, Ma.s.sachusetts Bay, sued and obtained judgment against a Negro named Cuff Borden for two hundred pounds, and cost of suit “for a grievous trespa.s.s.” Cuff was a slave. An ordinary execution would have gone against his person: he would have been imprisoned, and nothing more. In view of this condition of affairs, Mrs. Taylor pet.i.tioned the General a.s.sembly of Rhode Island, praying that authority be granted the sheriff to sell Cuff, as other property, to satisfy the judgment.

The a.s.sembly granted her prayer as follows:–

“Upon consideration whereof, it is voted and resolved, that the sheriff of the said county of Newport, when he shall receive the execution against the said negro Cuff, be, and he is hereby fully empowered to sell said negro Cuff as other personal estate: and after the fine of 20 be paid into the general treasury, and all other charges deducted out of the price of said negro, the remainder to be appropriated in said satisfying said execution.”[471]

This case goes to show that in Rhode Island Negro slaves were rated, at law, as chattel property, and could be taken in execution to satisfy debts as other personal property.

A great many slaves availed themselves of frequent opportunities of going away in privateers and other vessels. With but little before them in this life, they were even willing to risk being sold into slavery at some other place, that they might experience a change. They made excellent seamen, and were greatly desired by masters of vessels.

This went on for a long time. The loss to the colony was great; and the General a.s.sembly pa.s.sed the subjoined bill as a check to the stampede that had become quite general:–


“Whereas, it frequently happens that the commanders of privateers, and masters of other vessels, do carry off slaves that are the property of inhabitants of this colony, and that without the privity or consent of their masters or mistresses; and whereas, there is no law of this colony for remedying so great an evil,–

“Be it therefore enacted by this General a.s.sembly, and by the authority of the same, it is enacted, that from and after the publication of this act, if any commander of a private man of war, or master of a merchant ship or other vessel, shall knowingly carry away from, or out of this colony, a slave or slaves, the property of any inhabitant thereof, the commander of such privateer, or the master of the said merchant ship or vessel, shall pay, as a fine, the sum of 500, to be recovered by the general treasurer of this colony for the time being, by bill, plaint, or information in any court of record within this colony.

“And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that the owner or owners of any slave or slaves that may be carried away, as aforesaid, shall have a right of action against the commander of the said privateer, or master of the said merchant ship or vessel, or against the owner or owners of the same, in which the said slave or slaves is, or are carried away, and by the said action or suit, recover of him or them, double damages.

“And whereas, disputes may arise respecting the knowledge that the owner or owners, commanders or masters of the said private men of war, merchant ships or vessels may have of any slave or slaves being on board a privateer, or merchant ship or vessel,–

“Be it therefore further enacted, and by the authority aforesaid, it is enacted, that when any owner or owners of any slave or slaves in this colony, shall suspect that a slave or slaves, to him, her or them belonging, is, or are, on board any private man of war, or merchant ship or vessel, the owner or owners of such slave or slaves may make application, either to the owner or owners, or to the commander or master of the said ship or vessel, before its sailing, and inform him or them thereof, which being done in the presence of one or more substantial witness or witnesses, the said information or application shall amount to, and be construed, deemed and taken to be a full proof of his or their knowledge thereof, provided, the said slave or slaves shall go in any such ship or vessel.

“And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, that if the owner or owners of any slave or slaves in this colony, or any other person or persons, legally authorized by the owner or owners of a slave or slaves, shall attempt to go on board any privateer, or a merchant ship or vessel, to search for his, her or their slave or slaves, and the commander or master of such ship or vessel, or other officer or officers on board the same, in the absence of the commander or master, shall refuse to permit such owner or owners of a slave or slaves, or other person or persons, authorized, as aforesaid, to go on board and search for the slave or slaves by him, her or them missed, or found absent, such refusal shall be deemed, construed, and taken to be full proof that the owner or owners, commander or master of the said privateer or other ship or vessel, hath, or have a real knowledge that such slave or slaves is, or are on board.

“And this act shall be forthwith published, and therefrom have, and take force and effect, in and throughout this colony.

“Accordingly the said act was published by the beat of drum, on the 17th day of June, 1757, a few minutes before noon, by

“THO. WARD, Secretary.”[472]

The education of the Negro slave in this colony was thought to be inimical to the best interests of the master cla.s.s. Ignorance was the _sine qua non_ of slavery. The civil government and ecclesiastical establishment ground him, body and spirit, as between “the upper and nether millstones.” But the Negro was a good listener, and was not unconscious of what was going on around him. He was neither blind nor deaf.

The fires of the Revolutionary struggle began to melt the frozen feelings of the colonists towards the slaves. When they began to feel the British lion clutching at the throat of their own liberties, the bondage of the Negro stared them in the face. They knew the Negro’s power of endurance, his personal courage, his admirable prompt.i.tude in the performance of difficult tasks, and his desperate spirit when pressed too sharply. The thought of such an ally for the English army, such an element in their rear, was louder in their souls than the roar of the enemy’s guns. The act of June, 1774, shows how deeply the people felt on the subject.


Whereas, the inhabitants of America are generally engaged in the preservation of their own rights and liberties, among which, that of personal freedom must be considered as the greatest; as those who are desirous of enjoying all the advantages of liberty themselves, should be willing to extend personal liberty to others;–

“Therefore, be it enacted by this General a.s.sembly, and by the authority thereof it is enacted, that for the future, no negro or mulatto slave shall be brought into this colony; and in case any slave shall hereafter be brought in, he or she shall be, and are hereby, rendered immediately free, so far as respects personal freedom, and the enjoyment of private property, in the same manner as the native Indians.

“Provided, nevertheless, that this law shall not extend to servants of persons travelling through this colony, who are not inhabitants thereof, and who carry them out with them, when they leave the same.

“Provided, also, that nothing in this act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to any negro or mulatto slave, belonging to any inhabitant of either of the British colonies, islands or plantations, who shall come into this colony, with an intention to settle or reside, for a number of years, therein; but such negro or mulatto, so brought into this colony, by such person inclining to settle or reside therein, shall be, and remain, in the same situation, and subject in like manner to their master or mistress, as they were in the colony or plantation from whence they removed.

“Provided, nevertheless, that if any person, so coming into this colony, to settle or reside, as aforesaid, shall afterwards remove out of the same, such person shall be obliged to carry all such negro or mulatto slaves, as also all such as shall be born from them, out of the colony with them. “Provided, also, that nothing in this act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to any negro or mulatto slave brought from the coast of Africa, into the West Indies, on board any vessel belonging to this colony, and which negro or mulatto slave could not be disposed of in the West Indies, but shall be brought into this colony.

“Provided, that the owner of such negro or mulatto slave give bond to the general treasurer of the said colony, within ten days after such arrival in the sum of 100, lawful money, for each and every such negro or mulatto slave so brought in, that such negro or mulatto slave shall be exported out of the colony, within one year from the date of such bond; if such negro or mulatto be alive, and in a condition to be removed.

“Provided, also, that nothing in this act shall extend, or be deemed to extend, to any negro or mulatto slave that may be on board any vessel belonging to this colony, now at sea, in her present voyage.”[473]

In 1730 the population of Rhode Island was, whites, 15,302; Indians, 985; Negroes, 1,648; total, 17,935. In 1749 there were 28,439 whites, and 3,077 Negroes. Indians were not given this year. In 1756 the whites numbered 35,939, the Negroes 4,697. In 1774 Rhode Island contained 9,439 families, Newport had 9,209 inhabitants. The whites in the entire colony numbered 54,435, the Negroes, 3,761, and the Indians, 1,482.[474] It will be observed that the Negro population fell off between the years 1749 and 1774. It is accounted for by the fact mentioned before,–that many ran away on ships that came into the Province.

The Negroes received better treatment at this time than at any other period during the existence of the colony. There was a general relaxation of the severe laws that had been so rigidly enforced. They took great interest in public meetings, devoured with avidity every sc.r.a.p of news regarding the movements of the Tory forces, listened with rapt attention to the patriotic conversations of their masters, and when the storm-cloud of war broke were as eager to fight for the independence of North America as their masters.


[450] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. i. p. 243.

[451] Bancroft, vol. i. 5th ed. p. 175.

[452] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. iii. pp. 492, 493.

[453] There is no law making the manufacturing of whiskey legal in the United States; and yet the United-States government makes laws to regulate the business, and collects a revenue from it. It exists by and with the consent of the government, and, in a sense, is legal.

[454] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. iv. p. 34.

[455] I have searched diligently for the Act of February, among the Rhode-Island Collections and Records, but have not found it. It was evidently more comprehensive than the above Act.

[456] R.I. Col. Recs., vol iv. p. 50.

[457] R.I. Col. Recs, vol. iv. pp. 53, 54.

[458] R.I. Coll. Recs., vol. iv. pp. 54, 55.

[459] R.I. Col. Recs., vol iv. p. 59.

[460] J. Carter Brown’s Ma.n.u.scripts, vol. viii. Nos. 506, 512.

[461] It was a specious sort of reasoning. I learn that the bank over on the corner is to be robbed to-night at twelve o’clock. Shall I go and rob it at ten o’clock; because, if I do not do so, another person will, two hours later?

[462] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. iv. pp. 133-135.

[463] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. iv. pp. 191-193.

[464] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. iv p. 225.

[465] R.I. Col. Recs., vol. iv. pp. 423, 424.


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