I’m skulking through Newport’s Common Ground Cemetery, searching for the slave plots. Night is beginning to fall in earnest and a light drizzle is blanketing the ground. As I step in a divet and faceplant I curse myself for leaving my flashlight in my friend’s car (thanks, M, for letting me drive all over the Rhode Island coast). The rain and the rapidly darkening sky add a certain degree of atmosphere to this whole thing but, having been an avid watcher of both Buffy and the X Files I’m feeling a little bit . . . well . . . bite-able. Thanks to all the cars slowing down to watch the strange, bearded, damp, and shabby-looking prowler trawl through a cemetery squinting at headstones and snapping pictures I’m also feeling rather ghoulish.
Finally, I see it. A sign welcoming me to the colonial African burial ground.
Pardon the iffy quality of these photos. My camera battery died after snapping the last picture in the last set, so I had to fall back on my cell-phone.
The sign, while rather prominent, faces a cemetery side road.
Note how the first sign exhorts visitors not to take grave rubbings? There’s a pretty good reason for it. The headstones in “God’s Little Acre” are not nearly as well kept as the other plots. Most of them were virtually unreadable, save one.
This is where I really, really wished I had actually managed to fully charge my battery before coming here. Still, you can get an idea of how this little plot is separate and apart from the rest of the [white] headstones in the background. Adam’s headstone, weathered and moss-covered, is nonetheless in far better condition than the crumbling and tilting stones behind it. I attempted to take some more detailed photos of the stone, as best I could with a friggin cell-phone. Here are the results:
On the off-chance a reader sharper-than-I can make out the inscription, it will serve as verifiable, material proof that the word “servant” substituted, at least in some cases, for the word “slave” in New England. If you can’t read it, this will serve as an example of fieldwork at its worst and least prepared. I definitely will be taking another trip to the cemetery in order to get some pictures that aren’t just big blobs of darkness.
Still, the trip to the cemetery was an invaluable experience for this project. Even in death the slaves are kept apart and it takes an active effort to keep some — any — evidence that they existed. That they played a part in the founding of a bustling, prosperous community that wanted little or nothing to do with them outside the realm of the economic. That they had lives, hopes and experiences apart from their status as chattel servants.
After visiting the cemetery I wound my way back to the wharves and mansions. As the density of tourists increased, the evidence of Newport’s slave past became scarcer and scarcer. Signs do pop up in subtle ways, if you know what to look for:
The pineapple is a pretty ubiquitous symbol in Newport. A coveted import during the Triangle Trade (along with sugar, chocolate and spices) they came to signify hospitality and the safe return of merchants from abroad. Merchant ships bearing cargo from exotic locales — such as slaves — were often welcomed home by pineapple-esque icons at docks such as Long Wharf. Guests often slept in beds with pineapple flourishes adorning the posts, as they in fact do decorate my bed. Pineapples were also (along with sugar) harvested by slaves in the Caribbean. For both slaves and colonials, then, pineapples were yet another commodity signifying Euro exploration and “conquest” of other lands, not to mention the birth of what might be a termed a global economy. The particulars of what this exploration and “conquest” meant, of course, varied differently for the two audiences.
Finally, my trip was wrapped up by dining al fresca on food from one of tony Newport’s finest establishments:
It was a good trip but, again, another excursion to Newport is warranted. Any friends with cars care to be a “research assistant?” I pay in booze! ; )