As my friend and I continued our research trip around Rhode Island, our next stop on the tour was Bristol, the main locale for my novel “Scarred Vessels” (as yet unpublished). Here in Bristol lay the heart of my story.
* * * * *
My female protagonist, Lydia, is the daughter of the owner of a slave ship. Her life became a nightmare of fear and guilt once she understood the depth of the horror of slavery. My male protagonist (Micah) is a sergeant from the Continental Army who has arrived in Bristol to recruit freed slaves to form a regiment of black soldiers to join the American forces during the Revolution. Ezekiel is a slave owned by Lydia and freed to join the regiment, but then he must leave the woman he loves (Hannah) to join the cause for freedom. Hannah argues with him about his decision:
The woman’s voice grew angry. “And just whose cause is this? I don’t see no one offering to free us colored folk if we win this war. What’s to become of us, even if you be free?” She resumed her heartrending cries.
* * * * *
Before ever stepping foot in Bristol, I had studied some of its history that left me feeling conflicted. I could appreciate the beautiful wharf and stately homes. But knowing that the source of the wealth in this city was rooted in the slave trade overwhelmed my appreciation for the architecture.
According to author/historian Douglas Harper, “By 1750, Newport and Bristol were the major slave markets in the American colonies.”
Perhaps as you read this post, you are as shocked as I was when I first began my research. It’s ironic because Rhode Island was the first colony to pass an anti-slavery statute in 1652. The law banned lifetime ownership of slaves, allowing a slave-owner relationship for no more than ten years. The ensuing decades however, revealed a far different scenario.
An article printed from the John Carter Brown Library tells these chilling statistics:
By the close of the eighteenth century, Rhode Islanders had mounted at least a thousand voyages from Africa to the Americas. Of the approximately twelve million Africans transported to America by the mid-nineteenth century, six hundred thousand (or 5 %) came to mainland North America, and about one hundred thousand (or 1%) were carried in Rhode Island ships.
Thus, my visit to Bristol teemed with mixed emotions as I viewed the physical beauty of the surroundings yet knew the source of Rhode Island wealth.
The wharf where the ships would land has been updated but the waters are the same landing point for the slave ships.
In May of 1778—before the battle in Portsmouth the following August—British troops along with Hessian mercenaries invaded Bristol. I incorporated this attack in my book. During that invasion, St. Michael’s Church was burned to the ground. The updated building is in the same location as the original. In total, the structure has now been replaced three times since the original. The nameplate on the building explains it’s history.
This is St. Michael’s today.
My friend Cherrilynn and I met the historian (Reinhard Battcher III) in Bristol and we viewed his library of Bristol history and picked his brain for interesting tidbits. He was as welcoming and helpful as the volunteers in Portsmouth were.
As my friend and I wrapped up our busy day of travel and research, I left the beautiful seaside town with satisfaction of a day well spent, yet sadness about this tragic history.
As beautiful as Bristol was, it’s man-made scenery paled in comparison to the city of Newport. A brief drive through that busy port town provided a display of mansions that are even more impressive in their architecture than the homes in Bristol. Yet the wealth so evident today was also originally birthed through the blood money of slave trade. As one writer notes about the history of Newport, its “economic success from African slave labor in making rum was best described by 19th century American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson when he stated, ‘The sugar they raised was excellent; nobody tasted blood in it.’”
Harsh words reflecting the excruciating reality of slavery.
Years ago, I read a biography of John Newton who was a slaver before he became a Christian. I’ve not been able to find that book (it was quite old) but there are books about the slave trade available on Amazon, if you’d like to research this history.
For more information on the 1st black regiment of Rhode Island, I recommend Christian McBurney’s, “The Rhode Island Campaign,” and Robert Geake’s “From Slaves to Soldiers.”
Thanks for “driving” through Rhode Island with me as I shared my research trek that brought to life the scenes in my book and the places I had studied for months. I love reading history. But there’s nothing that quite compares with actually seeing the sites where events from our past occurred. They are tangible reminders that the battles and the people were real. And as Edmund Burke was once famously quoted, “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.”