, Newburyport, MA

Local News

April 14, 2014

The economics of slavery

Newburyporters profited from the trade for many decades


In the years of 1754-1755, for instance, a census showed that local residents held 50 slaves. (Newburyport was part of Newbury until 1764, so this figure would include what we know now as two communities.)

Most families who did have slaves had only a few blacks to work in the house. Unlike the South, which grew cotton and tobacco, agrarian labor needs here did not approach those of some warm-weather states.

At the time of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, there were about 4 million slaves in the South, historians say.

“It is difficult to look back and make judgments about slaveholding,” said Harvey, a Wellesley graduate who did the research as part of her master’s thesis at Fitchburg State College. “Slaves represented economic wealth centuries ago, though today we realize how terrible it is to own human beings.”

History shows that most houses did not possess slaves, but many leading families built or invested in ships that supplied the slave trade.

Owners knew the proposed uses for the vessels. Yet selling ships was a big business that few captains of industry ignored.

Statistics produced by Harvey show that between 1734 and 1858, 47 ships were built here and used for slave voyages. This resulted in the embarkation of 22,629 slaves.

About 3,582 slaves died during passage, her statistics show.

“The conditions of Middle Passage were terrible,” said Harvey. “But ship owners reasoned that if passengers died, there were always more.”

Studies show that many Newburyport ships were purchased by distant buyers and used to take Africans from their homeland to the Caribbean.

A key task there was harvesting cane for sugar. This substance was eventually sent north as a key component with which to make rum.

Rum is a “distilled alcoholic beverage made from sugarcane products, such as molasses or sugarcane juice, by a process of fermentation and distillation,” beverage-industry documents say.

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