I’m hurring down the hill to the commuter rail and balancing my books, cellphone and sunglasses against one another. The only time Dr. G and I have to talk before she leaves on vacation is now, 5h15 on a Tuesday. I have just gotten out of work and am hauling ass to catch the next train back to Cambridge. I finally find her number and dial, hoping we’ll be able to hear one another over the constant drone of background noise on my end of the line.
The phone rings a few times. “Hello?”
“Is this Dr. G?” I wince as a delivery truck rumbles past me.
“This is. Hey Jonathan. It sounds kind of noisy on your end!”
“Heh — yeah. I’ve just gotten out of work and am on my way back home.”
After an initial round of explanations and apologies for things that’s not really either of our faults — me for being in route to elsewhere, her for leaving to go on vacation — we began with the question and answer portion as I find a nice, quiet spot away from most of the crowds at the station.
“Brown is pretty well known as a slave trader but he never really ‘hit it big,’ so to speak, as a slaver. Was he mostly a rummer?” I hadn’t found too much direct information, inventories or otherwise, on Brown’s slave holdings outside of the Sally exhibit at the mansion.
“That would be correct, yes. For the most part his family traded in rum and supplied the West Indies and American south. He was one of the first traders to try and diversify his holdings. Most of the colonies were growing grocery crops like sugar and other spices. So Brown’s family are trying to enter into the slave trade. His father and uncle sail for Providence and the Sally is John’s first ship. Over time, however, the family pulls away as they fail to earn all that much money. John is the only one stubbornly remaining.”
“And he still doesn’t make it big?” I try not to shout over the sound of the train pulling in.
“Nope. He never actually makes money in the triangle trade but he still uses very strong rhetoric to justify the trade. It’s really interesting. He blatantly ties the slave trade to the future success of the United States. It comes up again and again in letters; ‘Europe participates and prospers so why not us?’ He’s not getting rich directly, but rather from the institution of slavery itself thanks to his family’s dealings in rum.”
Miraculously I find a quiet spot of seats at the back of one of the cars and settle in. “It also seems that there’s no evidence of slaves actually being present at the Brown Mansion.”
“There aren’t. There are no slave quarters per se put people claim to remember them.”
“Is it possible there were slaves in some of the outbuildings?” I recall the outkitchen at the Royall House where at least some groups of slaves lived and slept.
“It’s possible. There were slaves in older houses in the same neighborhood as the Browns, and there are accounts of slaves that ran away from the property. If we could get ahold of Sarah Brown’s letterbook that would answer a lot of questions but it’s in a private collection right now.”
I nodd politely at the conducter as he checks my monthly pass, then chuckle ruefully. “It almost seems like native New Englanders don’t like to ‘go there,’ so to speak.”
Dr. G chuckles on the other end of the line. “No. I’m originally from Vermont and I sure know I have to hold my nose.”
I settle back and thumb through my questions. “I recall from my tour of the mansion that there were servants’ quarters on the upper stories. Is it possible that the slaves slept there? There seems to be a trend in New England of the words ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ being used interchangeably.”
“There is informally, but not in the census. There the terms ‘slave’ and ‘servant’ are explicit. Either way it most of the anecdotal evidence points to slaves being in the Brown household, but the question is where did they go?”
“Are there stories about any specific ones? I remember ‘Caesar’ but I believe he belonged to Moses.” Belmont station comes and goes. I start gathering my belongings in preparation for Porter, my stop, which is coming up next.
“There is the perplexing case of ‘Jonathan,’ who evidently worked as John Brown’s coachman. We don’t know whether he was free or a slave, though, or whether he was with the Browns all along. You might want to try the Slavery and Justice papers which are linked to Brown University, or the 2 volume series The Browns of Providence Plantation.”
“Thanks. I skimmed the papers, but I’ll have to revisit them.” I jot the title of the series and sling the strap of my bag over my shoulder.
“Definitely do. You might also want to review some of the field notes from the Brown archaeology students. There have been some excavations on site and you might get some good data from them.”
“Great. That will definitely fill some of the gaps in my knowledge. This project is really making me wish I’d gone into archaeology. Materials would help me a lot”
“Heh — well, when in doubt spend more time in the archives.”
We chuckle over this shared “look at us we’re so nerdy” history buff joke as I detrain and fight my way up the stairs and out of the station. “One of the additional ways John Brown interests me is that he’s one of the few northern slaveholders who was also a patriot. A lot of the other families I’ve researched, like the Royalls, are Tories. Do you think that may have informed his attitudes towards slavery?”
“Well as I said he tied his justification for the slave trade into the future of the country.”
I grin. “Which, interestingly enough, was the same justification John Winthrop’s associates used to enslave the Native Americans when the Massachusetts Bay colony was originally founded.”
“Yep. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Other than that John Brown, like many Rhode Islanders, exemplified the ‘rugged individualism’ of Enlightenment ideals. He was self-made, rough and tumble, and was one of the conspirators to storm the Gaspee. Revolution is stirring — Brown is in the thick of an act of treason!” I fight off a chuckle as Dr. G unconsciously slips into history teacher mode, her voice rising and falling dramatically. “Sarah Brown has been sent away while pregnant. Colonial administrators are complaining of ‘trouble makers and upstarts.’ Rhode Island is rapidly solidifying as rebel state.”
“Rhode Island?” My Massachusetts Spirit of America pride rises.
“Yep. Rhode Island. Roger Williams founded it with the individual squarely in mind. They took the whole religious liberty thing seriously and the separation of church and state wasn’t stronger anywhere else than in Providence. There are very few Tories in Rhode Island. In fact, the ‘trouble makers and upstarts’ were seen as products of a ‘colonial characteristic’ by the British.”
I unlock my apartment and walk in, setting my books down. “So the British thought there was something in the water that made Rhode Islanders ‘trouble makers and upstarts’ specifically?”
“That’s correct. It was probably because in Rhode Island the maritime life was the only way of life so it bred a certain ‘adventurous characteristic.’ Locally it was thought of as the ‘American ideal.’ John Brown was perfectly happy to self-identify.”
I settle myself at my laptop and an evening of typing up research notes going on Facebook. “It would also seem that the Enlightenment ideas of religion dovetailed nicely with Rhode Island’s militant separation of church and state.”
“It did. John Brown, for one, was pretty much a deist. He didn’t know what was in the hearts and minds of his countrymen and didn’t really care. He didn’t think god bothered himself with it all that much either.”
Our conversation from there peters into talk of religious history in Rhode Island, which has been touched on in a prior entry and will be expounded in the next one. So stay tuned!