So . . . after a trip to Rhode Island and then another trip to Buffalo, catching up on a full week of work, unpacking, doing laundry, finding a new apartment and cleaning my room, I am finally back to typing up my research notes. The good news? There are a lot of them, and they’re backed up, so I have plenty to keep myself occupied until my next trip to Providence! Which means I should be posting these on a more regular basis. Um. Yey?
The first thing I noticed about Providence was the topography. A hillside sloping down to the Providence river, downtown sprawling on the other side of it in a beehive of winding streets and federal style houses. Much is made of the fact that, unlike most New England cities, there are no centralized churches on hills. Reflecting the ideals of religious exile Roger Williams houses of worship are integrated into the community rather than being located at the nucleus.
The historic district, a line of houses marching down the sloping Benefit Street, takes one past and through both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. The former institution is named for the wealthy, 18th century Horatio Alger-like John Brown. Not to be confused with the abolitionist whose body lies a’moulderin’ in the grave.
In some ways the narrative of Brown is somewhat similar to Royall. As alluded to above Brown, the son of a Baptist preacher, was a “self-made” merchant like Isaac Royall. Like Royall, Brown tried to make up for this by conveying his wealth in as conspicuous a way as possible. For example, he kept a massive coach for his use, a coach that made him instantly recognizable from afar. It also accommodated his . . . shall we say . . . prodigious size.
Like Royall, Brown was very heavily involved in the Triangle Trade. His father began the family tradition of trading rum for slaves but it was John Brown who earned the family their fortune. The Sally (the subject of the Brown slavery legacy exhibit at the Brown Mansion), the Wheel of Fortune and the Mary all either carried slaves in their decks or casks of rum that would factor into this early experiment in global trade. Moses Brown, John’s brother, would ultimately convert to Quakerism, renounce the family trade, and become a devoted abolitionist.
Unlike Royall, however, Brown was an ardent patriot. Here is where the plot thickens. To date all of the slavers I have examined have been Tories loyal to the British crown. It is therefore easy to demonize them, to — at least in part — overlook that pesky “product of their time” business, to examine meticulously extracted and archived evidence of their participation in the “peculiar institution.” Here, however, we have someone who supported the “right” side in our war for Independence. Someone we are supposed to revere. What sort of contrast will he strike, particularly in light of the fact that no similar archaeological excavation has been carried out at the Brown Mansion.
Let’s find out together, shall we?