HISTORY

THE UNIVERSITY THAT SLAVERY BUILT

A report traces an Ivy League school’s intricate ties to slavery

BRIAN BETHUNE November 20 2006
HISTORY

THE UNIVERSITY THAT SLAVERY BUILT

A report traces an Ivy League school’s intricate ties to slavery

BRIAN BETHUNE November 20 2006

THE UNIVERSITY THAT SLAVERY BUILT

HISTORY

A report traces an Ivy League school’s intricate ties to slavery

BRIAN BETHUNE

In 1764, the Rhode Island brig Sally, laden with 17,274 gallons of rum, left Providence for Africa on the first leg of the infamous triangular trade, seeking black slaves to sell in the West Indies. The voyage was a disaster: disease, suicide and a brave but doomed insurrection killed dozens of the captives. “Slaves Rose on us was obliged to fire on them and Destroyed Eight and Several more wounded badly 1 Thye and ones Ribs broke,” in the terse words of Captain Esek Hopkins’s logbook. Afterwards, the captain wrote, the slaves became “so Despireted that Some Drowned themselves Some Starved and others Sickened & Dyed.” All told, 109 of his human cargo perished at sea.

What makes the voyage of the Sally more than just another episode in the long, tragic story of American slavery is not the death toll—of the 14 million Africans loaded onto slave ships, two million died during the middle passage—or even its unusually wellpreserved documentation. For Brown University history professor James Campbell, it’s more a matter of the Sally’s stark symbolism and its ties to the contradictions at the heart of the founding of the American republic— and to the establishment, in that same year, of one of its most prestigious universities.

The owners of the Sally were the four Brown brothers, a prominent Providence family who gave the Ivy League university its name. Their school’s first president was Stephen Hopkins, governor of Rhode Island, future signee of the Declaration of Independence,

and brother to Esek, who later became the first commander-in-chief of the U.S. navy. Stephen was also the author of an influential revolutionary-era pamphlet, Rights of Colonies Examined, which condemned British tax measures for reasons practical (harm to the slave trade, lifeblood of the colonial economy) and moraltaxation without representation reduces men to “the miserable condition of slaves, the heaviest curse that human nature is capable of.” The Browns thoughtfully forwarded a copy to Esek, busy trading rum for humans off the African coast.

From a modern perspective, the wonder is that everyone involved didn’t choke on his own irony. But the Sally helps make human sense of an infinitely complex issue, notes Campbell, author of a beautifully written report just issued by his school’s committee on slavery and justice. (The committee’s mandate was not to decide on the explosive question of reparations for slavery, but to examine Brown’s involvement.) “This country is founded on deeply conflicting moral views that crystallized in the 18th century,” Campbell says. “A legacy of liberty and a legacy of racism— the opposing ideas that freedom is human-

ity’s natural state, except for black peoplehave dominated our history since.”

The Brown family and their elite school (annual tuition US$44,OOO)—partly built with slave labour, partly endowed with slavery profits, partly governed by slave owners— both fissured under the strain of the issue. Three of the brothers never backed another slaving voyage after the Sally, but John Brown went on to become a leading slaver. Moses Brown, the memory of the Sally weighing heavily on his conscience, eventually became the state’s leading abolitionist. The two carried on a long, bruising fraternal battle in private correspondence, in Brown’s governing councils, in the legislature and the courts.

To a degree, Moses’s side prevailed. Rhode Island was the hub of America’s slave trade, responsible in some years for more than 90 per cent of transatlantic ventures. A1787 state law, and a federal ban 20 years later, simply drove the slavers underground. The handful of cases tried almost always ended in acquittal, like the one Moses launched against John in 1795. When courts ordered the forfeiture and auctioning of illegal slave ships, other slavers colluded in the bidding; the owners could get them backfor as little as $10. Slavers bullied customs officers, assaulted a U.S. district attorney, and sliced the ear off a citizen who brought a case against a Bristol trader: stages in the trade’s descent into violent organized crime. In all, half the Africans carried into slavery by Rhode Island vessels were transported illegally.

At Brown’s 1790 commencement, a student, James Tallmadge, condemned all the justifications for slavery, taking particular aim at what was then emerging as the key rationale for slave owners who had risen in rebellion for their own liberty: black racial inferiority. Of all the “specious” defences for slavery, Tallmadge declared, the worst was “that one who was formed with a dark complexion, though a Newton or a Washington, is inferior to him, who possesses a complexion more light.” That his countrymen could seriously entertain that idea was a marvel “for future generations to investigate.” It may have taken more than 200 years, but one generation now has. M