While readers who love historical fiction enjoy the journey into the past, the journey to make the time travel believable begins with research. That can mean an author spends hours delving into old documents, diaries, even maps, to ensure the accuracy of the time period.
I recently returned from scouring the American Revolutionary history of Rhode Island where an often-forgotten battle—at least in our American History books are concerned—took place in 1778. Even more significant was the formation of the first black regiment in the American Army. These pieces of our Revolutionary War history fill in many of the blanks of our understanding of the war that freed our country from being a colony of England. It is history both amazing and, at times, heartbreaking.
Although I’d grown up in New England, for some unknown reason I’d never visited Rhode Island. I had been to every other New England state at one time or another, but the smallest state in our country had always eluded my notice. Until now.
It all began with a simple suggestion from my older son, who said to me one day, “Mom, you ought to write a book about the black soldiers during the American Revolution.” My interest was immediately piqued. What I did not realize was the journey that simple statement would take me on.
First, I discovered that there was an entire black regiment formed in 1778 called the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. Next, I discovered something shocking. This regiment was predominantly made up of slaves, essentially sold by their masters, and purchased by the state of RI to serve in the Army. They would be free if they served the duration of the war.
The rationale behind this regiment was simply the need for troops. Numbers were dwindling in the ranks and by January of 1778, a quota was required of each state to send men to fight for the cause of liberty. Rhode Island had such a large black population—another surprising discovery—that the plan was to recruit black slaves. Owners of slaves, anxious to remain on their plantations in Rhode Island, often sent one of their slaves to meet the quota.
Plantations in Rhode Island? You could have knocked me over with a feather quill pen.
But then the real horror became unearthed through my research: Rhode Island had major landing ports for slave ships. Boston did as well. The tales of slavery that I attributed to the southern states suddenly crept into the northern states of my ancestry. Slavery was alive and well during the American Revolution.
They called it “The Triangle Trade.” Molasses from Barbados was shipped up to Rhode Island, where they processed it into rum. The rum was filled into wooden casks, then transported by ship to Africa. There, black tribes captured black people from other tribes, and exchanged people for rum. Instant slavery. The men and women were forced into horrible, cramped quarters on the ship below deck and carried across the ocean back to Barbados. There, the auctioning of human lives began. Many of those souls ended up in the southern colonies, then were transported to the northern states.
If you’ve ever seen the musical “1776,” there is a haunting song called, “Molasses to Rum.” It describes the triangle trade in its gut-wrenching reality.
Next time I’ll post about my recent trip to Rhode Island for research. (Photo to the right is part of a rum cask along with a metal ring, perhaps used for slavery purposes)