A Terrible Trade

The commonly held belief that slavery didn’t exist in New England as it did in the American South is a myth. Texts from Hartford and New Haven in 1639 and 1644, respectively, refer to enslaved African people in Bristol. By the 18th century Newport, Rhode Island and New London, Connecticut surpassed Boston as major slave trading ports.

Slave trading was a key facet of the Triangular Trade between Africa, the Caribbean, and New England. Just before the American Revolution, most of New England’s trade was with sister colonies in the British West Indies (the Caribbean). New England farms sent wood, livestock, and food to sugar plantations in the Caribbean that were so focused on sugar production, that not an acre of spare land was given over to other crops. In return, northern colonies received sugar, rum, molasses, and enslaved people who originally hailed from Africa. Manufactured goods were also sent directly to Africa from New England to barter for enslaved people.

The entire Triangular Trade economy was completely dependent on the work of enslaved Africans. In New England, enslaved people worked farms that produced food exports for the West Indies largely to be consumed by the many thousands of enslaved people working sugar plantations.The Caribbean was so dependent on North American exports that famine swept the islands during the American Revolution when British blockades prevented the arrival of American trading ships. In Jamaica alone, thousands of enslaved people died of hunger.

In Connecticut, river ports like Middletown did brisk business on the Triangle Trade. New England slave traders grew quite wealthy. In Boston, Peter Faneuil built a public meeting house, Faneuil Hall, with his inheritance from his slave-trading uncle’s estate. Faneuil Hall is often called the “Cradle of Liberty” for its role as a meeting place for American Revolutionaries.

While most enslaved people arrived on American shores via the Caribbean, the ship Africa brought enslaved people directly to New London from West Africa. The 1798 book, Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa by Venture Smith, gives a first-hand account of the horror of the trip from Africa to Newport on a ship that was likely The Charming Susannah. In Newport, Smith was traded for “Four gallons of rum and piece of calico cloth.”

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Enslaved people lived in the areas of Fairfield and Norwalk that would eventually become Westport. Over 240 men, women, and children were bound in the parish of Greens Farms alone in the eighty-year period from 1742 to 1822.

They were from the households of prominent families like the Jennings, Jesups, Nash’s, Sherwoods, and Coleys. Their labor – from farming to shipping to retail – produced wealth for those who enslaved them and prosperity in the community at large.

The stories of enslaved African Americans of the 18th and early 19th centuries are often only told in terms of the legal documentation relating to their existence as the “real property” of their captors. The purchase and sale of captive African Americans were recorded as “deeds” to real property. Manumission (emancipation) papers were similarly recorded with Land Records.

Enslaved people were also “handed down” to heirs in wills and appear as bond in legal proceedings, and even as mortgages to secure loans. These legal documents were archived in local town clerk offices, where they remain today. Church records also provide insight to the lives of those bound into slavery. Before the incorporation of the town of Westport, Green’s Farms Church records list the birth, death, baptism, and marriage of over 200 people enslaved here from 1741 to 1822.

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North Versus South

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, it is estimated roughly 6,500 enslaved people lived in Connecticut–the most in any New England state.

While there were few large plantations in states like Connecticut as there were in the south, there were at least two multi-thousand acre plantations in New London and Naragansett, R.I., which required a huge number of enslaved people to work them. For the most part, however, enslaved people in New England provided a wider variety of skilled labor for their owners from medicine and soap making to weaving and dyeing and more– along with the usual household and farm work.

Unlike in the South, enslaved people most often lived in their owners’ households versus in separate quarters on the property. In Westport, wealthy slaveholders in the 1790 census include Ebenezer Coley, Thomas Nash and Ebenezer Jesup with five enslaved people in each of their households while John Hide and Sarah Banks had six and four, respectively.

Just as in the South, Connecticut enacted harsh laws punishing those fleeing slavery. Runaways were pursued with vigor and punished cruelly if apprehended. Like New York, Connecticut cooperated with the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850 which mandated that escaped enslaved people must be returned to their owners even if apprehended in a free state.

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Wall of Names

Names hold significance to the people who bestow them. The wall of names holds an even greater significance as many were given by fathers who owned their children as literal goods, parents who themselves were enslaved, or were never given a name at all. These are the records of African Americans listed in the records in the Greens Farms Parish of what is today Westport.

The names on this wall represent baptism, marriage, and deaths of 241 enslaved and 19 free people of color recorded in the Greens Farms Church record book from 1742-1822. Twenty five of the enslaved people were children as were seven of the free people of color.

Green’s Farms Church was established in 1711 as an independent parish within Fairfield called the West Parish. It comprised an area that today lies between Compo Road and the Sasco River, extending northward into Redding.

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Memorializing Westport’s Enslaved People

The memorial wall in Remembered featured the names of the 241 enslaved and 19 free people of color who appear in the Greens Farms Congregational Church log book from 1742 to 1822 as births, marriages, baptisms and deaths. Throughout the exhibit’s one-year run, the public was able to purchase memorial bricks in order to install them in the WM brick walk as the Save Their Names Project. The brick walk was inaugurated on June 30th, 2019 in a ceremony attending by local dignitaries and three descendants of Tim & Lill who are among the enslaved people memorialized on the wall.