There is one thing I do have in common with archaeologists like Alexandra Chan. I spend more time than the average person would care to digging through archives and libraries. Therefore, big ups must go to Library at 121 Hope St, Providence. It was there I uncovered more detail than I ever thought I would about the particulars of the Brown family dealingts. Way more detail.
It turns out that John Brown’s father, James, sailed what was likely the state’s first slave ship (the Mary) to Guinea. He dealt in rum, at one point alloting 296 gallons to one “Carpenter” (likely as a finder’s fee). The slave documents pertaining to John Brown were in a state of unmitigated chaos (at least when I was looking at them a few weeks ago), warranting a second trip to the library which will hopefully be tomorrow. It is clear that John took the family rum business to the nth degree, sailing on the Wheel of Fortune, the Sally (currently a subject of a standalone slavery exhibit at the Brown Mansion), and the Hope. While slaves are neither exhaustively nor coherently documented, rum very much is. This does serve my purpose at least in part because the Rhode Island distillers and distributors traded gallons of rum for slaves in West Africa and the West Indies. More information on slaves specifically, however, would make my life easier. Not to mention help me say something new.
Moses Brown, John’s abolitionist brother, does provide some illumination regarding slaves. Most of it is from the standpoint of the abolitionist movement — awesome in and of itself and wonderful to know, but not entirely germane to my specific subject — but there is some information as to who was owned by the family and when. One such figure: Ceasar, owned by Moses Brown until his master freed him in 1773. According to the records Ceasar, along with his father, built a house in what seems to have been a free black community in Dudley. The family encountered resistance in building their new life, judging from Brown’s letters to one Dr. Lilly lamenting “difficulties” Ceasar had regarding land improvement after paying taxes. For his part, Ceasar seems to have maintained a friendly correspondence with his old master, requesting “prayers” as well as building materials for the new house (nails, primarily).
If Moses Brown owned slaves, it is entirely likely that John did as well. It also seems that Moses’ manumition of his slaves caused some tension within the family. I speculate further that John procured at least some of his brother’s slaves for him prior to Moses’ conversion to Quakerism and subsequent catching of “abolitionist fever.” Some may have even lived in the “servants’ quarters” in the Brown Mansion. I’m hoping that during my next trip I might find further evidence to support what still amounts to speculation. It’s rather difficult when almost the entire state is trying to play the whole nasty slavery business down.