Local author takes on untold story about slave trade in RI | news


SOUTH KINGSTOWN, RI — Christian McBurney’s new book, “Dark Voyage: An American Privateer’s War on Britain’s African Slave Trade,” opens a potentially untold story about Rhode Island’s episode in the African slave trade during the Revolutionary War.

As McBurney tells it, he was attending a Revolutionary War conference when he learned about the privateer ship Marlborough and its investor, officers and crew all from Rhode Island and all involved in the African slave trade.

“My heart rate increased immediately. I knew that this topic had never been the subject of a book. At that point, I knew what my next book would be,” said McBurney, a lawyer, author of six books and historian about the Revolutionary War.

“This is a ground-breaking book that tells a story and side of the Revolutionary War and Rhode Island history never before told,” he added. The story is largely based on a ship’s log prepared by a captain’s clerk from Newport.

The Rhode Island Historical Society will have McBurney, who splits time between Washington, DC and West Kingston, as a speaker on Wednesday, August 17th, at 6 pm, to discuss his work on the book. He also spoke in July at the Kingston Free Library.

Privateers were not pirates. They were commissioned by the Continental Congress to attack only enemy shipping. American privateers split the value of the enemy ships and cargo they captured — 50% to the investors and 50% to the officers and crew.

American privateers sold the African captives they seized on board British slave ships to French Caribbean plantation owners.

“The mastermind and primary investor behind the voyage was Providence merchant John Brown. With his experience dele as a slave trader — he had been an investor in two previous slave voyages,” McBurney said, describing Brown as bold in character and sending his new 20-gun privateer Marlborough that was constructed in Providence.

Before sailing to Africa, the Marlborough had to run the British naval blockade of Narragansett Bay and the Marlborough barely escaped, pointed out McBurney, also the author of many scholarly reports on the American Revolutionary War and Rhode Island history.

He is president of the George Washington American Revolution Round Table of the District of Columbia and is the publisher and chief editor of the online journal at smallstatebighistory.com, devoted to Rhode Island history.

In the book, McBurney notes that other New England privateer investors lacked Brown’s experience in the slave trade.

“They were thus hesitant to send a privateer all the way to Africa,” he said. However, the privateer Marlborough left Providence in December 1778 with a Rhode Island crew mostly from North Kingstown and Exeter, the author noted.

The ship’s captain, George Waite Babcock, was born and raised in Exeter, but resided with his family in North Kingstown as did most of the officers. Babcock, following the voyage and with his privateering proceeds, purchased the Silas Jones house in East Greenwich, which still stands.

In his research, McBurney also came across a few surprises.

“While Rhode Island was by far the leading slave trading colony among the original thirteen colonies, the percentage of slave voyages by them was small, about 2.6% of all worldwide slaving voyages,” he said.

“I (also) discovered that American privateers captured so many British slave ships that British investors in Liverpool, London and Bristol dramatically reduced their investment in slave trading voyages,” he said.

“I found that American privateers captured at least 41 British slave ships with more than 11,000 African captives on board. The Marlborough, in attacking a major slave trading post in Africa and capturing British slave ships off the coast of Africa, damaged the British slave trade more than any other American privateer,” he said.

As a result of British investors reducing their investment in slave voyages, “I estimate that as many as 60,000 Africans were spared from being forced across the Atlantic Ocean and enslaved in the British Caribbean islands — Jamaica, Barbados, and others,” he said.

In addition, he said he found that British slave ship captains and slave traders the Marlborough captured on the African coast quickly agreed to cooperate with the Americans and gave useful intelligence to them in return for getting their ships back.

“They were willing to commit treason against their own country to make more money in the slave trade,” he said.

The officers and crew of the Marlborough wanted to advance the cause of independence from Britain by harming Britain’s economy, but they also desired to enrich themselves by selling the plunder they captured—including enslaved Africans.

In Africa, Marlborough’s officers come across an array of African and European slave traders willing to assist them in attacking the British. This book is also the first study to detail the many captures that American privateers made of British slave ships during the Revolutionary War.

The program, sponsored by the Rhode Island Historical Society, will be at the organization’s Aldrich House in Providence. Tickets are free and available at rihs.org. The book is available online, including through Amazon books.

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