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letters (correspondence)

Braxton, Carter to Nicholas Brown & Co.; February 1, 1763
Though most of the Brown brothers trading activities were directed to the Caribbean, they also traded with mainland colonies. A voyage to Virginia by the sloop Four Brothers in 1763 touched off a correspondence between the Browns and Carter Braxton, a Virginia merchant and future signer of the Declaration of Independence, who proposed working together to mount a slaving voyage to Africa. "I am told there is a great Traid carried on from Rhode Island to Guinea for Negroes," Braxton wrote in this letter of February 1, 1763, "and I should be glad to enter into Partnership with some Gentlemen for a Voyage or two and have [the Negroes] sent here where I believe they sell as well as any where." The Browns initially seemed receptive to the offer, but ultimately decided to mount an African venture independently.
Braxton, Carter to Nicholas Brown & Co.; June 1, 1763
Having had no reply from the Brown brothers to his letter of February 1, 1763, proposing a partnership in an African slaving voyage, Carter Braxton wrote again on June 1, 1763. Braxton does not mention the slave trade in this letter, but instead emphasizes the possibilities of a bilateral trade between Virginia and Rhode Island, especially following the recent repeal of a duty on rum by the Virginia legislature.
Braxton, Carter to Nicholas Brown & Co.; October 16, 1763
Letter, dated October 16, 1763, from Carter Braxton of Virginia to Nicholas Brown and Company, continuing discussion of a possible joint African slaving venture. "I shall be very glad to be concerned in the Affrican Trade and will be a fourth of the Voyage if you Choose it," Braxton writes. The balance of the letter offers information on the local market for slaves in Virginia. "Gold Coast Slaves are Esteemed the most Valuable + Sell best," Braxton writes, adding: The Prices of Negroes keep up amasingly." For reasons that are unclear, the Browns did not pursue the partnership, and instead launched the Sally independently.
Brown, Benson and Ives to Benson, Martin; November 29, 1794
As the movement to abolish the transatlantic slave trade grew in the late eighteenth century, many abolitionists placed their faith in so-called "legitimate commerce," an African trade centered on commodities other than slaves. Such commerce, the argument ran, would enable Africans to obtain valuable western goods without the necessity of trading their brethren, while ensuring American and British merchants continued access to African raw materials and markets. Many abolitionists, black and white, pinned their hopes on the new settlement at Freetown, a colony established by the British on the Windward Coast of Africa as a home for repatriated former slaves. In 1794, Brown, Benson, and Ives, a firm run by Nicholas Brown, Jr., and his partners George Benson and Thomas Ives, tried the legitimate trade, dispatched the ship Charlotte to Freetown, under the command of Benson's half brother, Martin. In contrast to his abolitionist half brother, Martin Benson was a slave trader, which may account for the unusually explicit tone in this November 29, 1794 letter of instructions: "by no means take any Slaves on board the Ship on any terms whatever as we desire to have nothing to do with business." Though not referenced in this letter, the Charlotte carried a passenger, John McKenzie, a black man and secretary of the Providence African Society, who was traveling to Freetown to examine its potential as a homeland for black Rhode Islanders. The trip did not go well. A leaky hull destroyed much of the cargo. Benson and McKenzie clashed. The Freetown colony was moribund, and trade was dull. Benson disposed of his cargo - he appears to have consigned most of it to passing slave ships - and sailed home. Brown, Benson and Ives thereafter lost interest in the African trade, but Martin Benson returned a year later on a slaving voyage.
Brown, Benson and Ives to Benson, Martin; November 29, 1794
Abridged letter of instructions, dated November 29, 1794, from the firm Brown, Benson and Ives to Martin Benson, master of the ship Charlotte, for a voyage to the Windward Coast of Africa.
Brown, John to Arnold, Welcome; June 15, 1797
Letter from John Brown to Welcome Arnold, June 15, 1797. Welcome Arnold was a Providence merchant and long-time business partner of John Brown. He was also the brother of Thomas Arnold, a leader of the Providence Abolition Society and one of the men determined to prosecute Brown for illegal slave trading. In this letter, Brown complains to Welcome Arnold of his brother's activities, accusing the abolitionists of singling him out while allowing other slave traders to continue unmolested.
Brown, John to Brown Moses; July 29, 1797
Letter from John Brown to Moses Brown, July 29, 1797. As his trial for illegal slave trading approached, John Brown vacillated between self-righteousness and self-pity. In this letter, he accuses Moses and his companions in the Providence Abolition Society of vindictively singling him out for prosecution after one voyage while ignoring or offering settlements to others more deeply involved in the trade.
Brown, John to Brown, Moses; November 17, 1797
Letter from John Brown to Moses Brown, November 17, 1797. With his trial for illegal slave trading approaching, John Brown wrote to his brother Moses and to David Howell, president of the Providence Abolition Society, asking for a settlement. He proposed that they drop the prosecution in exchange for his pledge to avoid being involved in the trade in the future, an arrangement the society had previously made with another illegal slave trader in Providence, Cyprian Sterry. Ultimately, the case went to trial and John was acquitted.
Brown, John to Brown, Moses; November 27, 1786
Letter from John Brown to Moses Brown, November 27, 1786. In 1785, John Brown returned to the African slave trade after a sixteen-year hiatus. His decision deeply distressed his brother Moses, prompting a searching correspondence between the two. In late 1786, Moses learned of John's intention to send another ship to Africa. He immediately wrote to his brother, urging him to reconsider. John responded with this letter, defending his decision and offering various arguments in favor of slave trading. His ship, the Providence, sailed for the West Africa a few days later.
Brown, Moses to Brown John; March 15, 1797
In late 1795, John Brown returned to the slave trade for a final time, dispatching a ship, the Providence, to Africa. The venture proved a financial success: the Providence, under the command of Peleg Wood, acquired 229 captives in the Gold Coast, 198 of whom survived to be sold in Cuba. Unfortunately for Brown, the venture violated a recently enacted federal law prohibiting Americans from trafficking slaves to ports outside the United States. (The slave trade into American ports was protected by the U.S. Constitution, which contained a clause barring Congress from closing American ports to slaves for twenty years - that is, until 1807.) The Providence Abolition Society, an organization founded by John's brother, Moses, responded by bringing a prosecution. The case against John Brown provoked great controversy in Rhode Island, as well as an extraordinary exchange of letters between the brothers. In this letter, dated March 15, 1797, Moses expresses his deep distress at John's action, and accuses him of mounting the voyage in a deliberate effort to try the strength of the new federal law. John was eventually ordered to forfeit the offending ship, but in the ensuring criminal trial he escaped with an acquittal, an outcome that Moses ascribed to the "peculiar turn" of the Newport jury.
Brown, Moses to Clark, John and Nightingale, Joseph; August 26, 1783
During the Revolutionary War, the African slave trade out of Rhode Island was brought virtually to a standstill, but with the end of the war in 1783 the traffic stirred back to life. In August, Moses Brown, by then a confirmed opponent of the trade, heard reports that his friends John Clark and Joseph Nightingale, Providence merchants, were intending to dispatch a ship to Africa. The result was this letter, recounting his experience with the Sally and begging his friends not to repeat his mistake. Had the Sally never sailed, he wrote, "I should have been preserved from an Evil, which has given me the most uneasiness, and has left the greatest impression and stain upon my own mind of any, if not all my other conduct in life..." Nightingale and Clark elected not to heed the advice. Their ship, the Prudence, sailed for Africa a short time later.
Brown, Moses to Foster, Dwight; January 30, 1800
Letter from Moses Brown to Dwight Foster, January 30, 1800. Foster was a Federalist Congressman from Massachusetts, alongside Moses's older brother, John, who had recently been elected to the U.S. Congress representing Rhode Island. In the letter, Moses refers to a bill coming before Congress tightening the law against Americans trafficking slaves to foreign ports. While supportive of the bill, Moses also worried that it might "Agitate my Brother ... he having a peculiar irritability whenever [the slave trade] has been mentioned..." The letter makes oblique reference to the voyage of the Sally, a venture into which John, with his "Love of Money and Anxiety to Acquire it," had drawn his brothers. The proposed bill was enacted, despite vocal protests by John Brown, who was one of six Congressmen to vote against it.
Brown, Moses to Hopkins, Samuel; January 20, 1786
Letter, dated January 20, 1786, from Moses Brown to Rev. Samuel Hopkins, a Newport minister and prominent leader of the Rhode Island anti-slavery movement. In addition to forwarding Hopkins copies of anti-slavery pamphlets just arrived from England, Brown raised the idea of endowing prizes at leading American colleges for the best student essays on the slave trade, a policy that had recently been employed with great success at Cambridge University in England. While doubtful that such a contest could be organized at the College of Rhode Island, due to the presence of slave traders on the College Corporation, Brown asked Hopkins to investigate the possibility of establishing such prizes at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He even offered to endow the prizes himself. Whether the offer was communicated to officials at the three schools is unclear.
Brown, Moses to Morse, Jebediah; April 23, 1791
Letter from Moses Brown to Jebediah Morse, April 23, 1791. The bulk of this long letter discusses Quakerism, but it also includes, on p. 7, a short statement of Brown's belief that developing manufacturing industry in Rhode Island might help to wean local merchants from slave trading. Brown himself would become a leader of the state's burgeoning textile industry - an industry that depended on slave-produced cotton.
Brown, Moses to Nicholas Brown & Co.; July 17, 1765
On July 17, 1765, a letter finally arrived from Esek Hopkins on the coast of Africa, contradicting recent reports that the Sally and her crew had been lost. The letter came first to Moses Brown, who was in Newport on business; he forwarded it to his brothers in Providence, along with this note. While the letter from Hopkins does not survive, it is clear from this and other letters that Hopkins had lost one crewman to disease and a substantial share of his rum cargo to leakage, reducing the chances of a profitable voyage. But Moses's happiness was undimmed. "If Capt. Hopkins & People Return Safe with the Brigt. I shan't be any Great Disapointed What Else he Brings, after Ingaging in So Disagreeable a Trade and being alarmed with... Loss of Friends and Interests," he wrote. This passage is the only contemporary evidence that Moses entertained reservations about the venture, but the effect of the remark is diminished by the balance of the letter, which discusses the best market for selling the Sally's slaves.
Brown, Moses to Unidentified Recipient; July 31 1835
Letter from Moses Brown to unidentified correspondent (possibly Jeremiah Hubbard), July 31, 1835. Though he had passed his ninety-seventh birthday, Brown remained mentally alert and deeply committed to racial equality. In this letter, he criticizes the American Colonization Society, which proposed to solve America's racial problem by transporting free people of color to Liberia, a colony that the society had established on the Windward Coast of Africa.
Brown, Nicholas to John, Joseph and Moses Brown; September 12, 1764
Letter from Nicholas Brown to his brothers, John, Joseph, and Moses, September 12, 1764, discussing various trading ventures, including the voyage of the Sally, which had sailed from Newport a day or two before. In the letter, Nicholas proposed planting a story in the local press about the depressed "state of the Rum Trade upon the Coast of Ginea" in hopes of discouraging other Rhode Island merchants from dispatching ships for Africa. If the ruse was tried, it did not work: more than two dozen Rhode Island ships cleared for West Africa in 1764.
Gardner, Benjamin to Nicholas Brown & Co.; May 15, 1765
Letter from Benjamin Gardner, a Newport merchant, to Nicholas Brown and Company, May 15, 1765. Gardner relayed information from Captain Gardner - probably his brother Caleb, a slave ship captain - who had encountered Esek Hopkins and the Sally on the African coast the previous December. According to these reports, Hopkins was on the Gambia River with "All well on bord."
Hopkins, Samuel to Brown, Moses; March 7, 1787
Letter from Rev. Samuel Hopkins to Moses Brown, March 7, 1787, thanking Brown for the anti-slavery pamphlets he had sent the year before and briefly discussing his idea of creating a settlement for Christian blacks on the West Coast of Africa. He also endorses Brown's suggestion of endowing anti-slavery essay prizes at American colleges, but notes that he has been unable to pursue the matter.
Letter from A citizen
Letter published in the February 14, 1789 issue of the Providence Gazette and Country Journal, written by "A Citizen." The author, as contemporary readers well knew, was John Brown. In his letter, addressed to the citizens of the State of Rhode Island, Brown denounces the newly established Providence Abolition Society as an evil "combination" of religious fanatics bent on ruining him and the whole economy of the state.
Letter from A Citizen and true Federalist
Letter published in the March 14, 1789 issue of the Providence Gazette by "A Citizen and True Federalist" -- alias John Brown. In the letter, Brown defends the slave trade and continues his bitter attack on the newly formed Providence Abolition Society.
Manchester, Gideon to Nicholas Brown & Co.; April 22, 1764
The brigantine Sally, the ship that the Brown brothers dispatched to Africa in 1764, had previously been used on provisioning voyages to the plantation colonies of the West Indies, returning with cargos of sugar, molasses, cotton, and other local products. In this letter, dated April 22, 1764, the Sally's captain, Gideon Manchester, describes market conditions in Jamaica.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Whipple, Abraham, Hopkins, George, and Power, Nicholas; November 17, 1765
Letter from Nicholas Brown and Company to Abraham Whipple, George Hopkins, and Nicholas Power, three ship captains in the company's employ. The letter, dated November 15, 1765, relates the "Disagreeable account" the Browns had just received from Esek Hopkins, who had arrived in Antigua a month before. It includes details of the insurrection that the enslaved Africans had mounted during the return journey, after which the survivors were reportedly "so Despirited that Some Drowned them Selves Some Starved and others Sickened & Dyed."
Nicholas Brown & Co to Esek Hopkins
Once a ship was fully loaded, owners delivered a formal letter of instructions to the captain, specifying his destination, outlining his responsibilities, and making provision for various contingencies, including the loss of cargo, captain, or crew. This document, dated September 10, 1764, is a copy of the letter of instructions that the Brown brothers delivered to Esek Hopkins on the eve of the Sally's departure for Africa. The letter orders Hopkins to sail to the Windward Coast of Africa, to "Dispose of your Cargo for Slaves," and to proceed to Barbados or to any other American port where the captives could be sold to best advantage. The letter also instructs Hopkins to return to Providence with "four likely young slaves," aged about fifteen years, for the family's own use. For his services, the captain was offered a "privilege" of ten slaves to sell on his own account, as well as the standard captain's commission of four slaves for every one hundred and four he delivered alive.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Braxton, Carter; September 5, 1763
Letter, dated September 5, 1763, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Carter Braxton, a Virginia merchant, replying to Braxton's proposal that they join together to mount an African slaving voyage. "You Mention of being Concerned in the Guine Trade and that the Vessels Return with the negrows to your place," the Browns write. "[A]s we Shall be Largely Concerned in Navigation this Fall which will bring millo. [molasses] in the Spring and we Living in a place wair we Can procure a Large Quantity of Rum Distilled Amediately, its Very Likely if it's Agreeable to you to be Concerned that we May Fitt a proper Vessill for Guiney in the Spring..." In the event, the Browns did send the Sally to Africa in 1764, but they did so without Braxton.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; December 30, 1764
Copy of a letter sent by the Brown brothers to Esek Hopkins, dated December 30, 1764, offering news of other local ship captains, as well as a few observations about the political protests unleashed in the colonies by the British Parliament's decision to begin collecting a duty on imported sugar -- protests that would issue, twelve years later, in American independence. Enclosed "for your Amusement" was a copy of a pamphlet, "The Rights of the Colonies Examined," written by the captain's older brother, Stephen Hopkins, colonial governor of Rhode Island and a leading spokesman for the colonial cause. Published at the very moment that the Sally arrived on the African coast, this influential pamphlet not only denied Parliament's right to assess "internal" taxes on the colonies but also insisted that to compel people to pay taxes that had not been levied by their own representatives was to reduce them "to the miserable condition of slaves." It is unclear whether Hopkins ever received the letter, which was presumably forwarded to Africa on some other outbound ship.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; July 15, 1765
By mid-July, 1765, ten months after the Sally's departure, the Brown brothers had still had no word from Esek Hopkins. Their anxiety was increased by conflicting reports from Africa. In May, word arrived from another Rhode Island slave ship captain who had seen Hopkins near the Gambia River and reported "all well on board." A month later, however, another report arrived, suggesting that Hopkins had lost all his hands on the Bassa River. On July 15, the Brown brothers wrote another letter to Hopkins, which they expected would be his first port of call in the Americas. The letter included updated information about market conditions in different plantation colonies. Having previously suggested that Hopkins might most profitably sell his slaves in South Carolina, the Browns now offered Jamaica as the best destination for the ship and cargo. Two days after penning this letter, the Browns finally received a letter from Hopkins.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; July 17, 1765
On July 17, 1765, ten months after the departure of the Sally, the Brown brothers finally received a letter from Esek Hopkins. The letter, which Hopkins had dispatched from Africa in May, disconfirmed recent reports that the Sally had been lost or that its crew had perished. (A second letter from Hopkins, written in March, arrived subsequently.) Moses Brown, who had come to Newport to organize the family's affairs in light of the reported loss of the Sally, was elated. "Such favourable Accts of your Circumstance from what we had heard Quite alleviates our Misfortune," he wrote. In this letter, dated July 17, Brown went on to offer advice about where Hopkins might most profitably dispose of his cargo. The letter was sent to Barbados, Hopkins's expected destination in the Caribbean. Like other letters posted by the Browns, it appears not to have reached the captain.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; July 19, 1765
On July 17, 1765, the Brown brothers finally received a letter from Esek Hopkins, sent from Africa in May, describing his progress in acquiring a cargo of captives. (A second letter, written in March, arrived subsequently.) The news revived the hopes of the financially overextended brothers, who had feared that the Sally was lost. On July 19, they wrote two letters to Hopkins, one of which they directed to Africa and this letter, which they sent to Barbados in the hands of a Rhode Island ship's captain named Joseph Tillinghast. In both letters, the Browns offered information about market conditions in different colonies and reiterated their request that he return to Providence with "five likely boys for our use at 13 or 15 years old." In this letter, they also asked Hopkins to forward up to half the proceeds realized from the sale of his cargo immediately to them in Providence, as "we shall be much in want of Cash." The letter appears never to have reached Hopkins.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; July 19, 1765
On July 17, 1765, the Brown brothers finally received a letter from Esek Hopkins, sent from Africa two months before. The news revived the hopes of the financially overextended brothers, who feared that the Sally had been lost. On July 19, they wrote two letters to Hopkins, one of which they sent to Barbados and this letter, which they directed to Africa. In the letter, the Browns suggested Jamaica as the colony offering the best prices for enslaved Africans and reiterated their request that he return to Providence with "Five Likely boys" for the family's own use.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; June 4, 1765
By early June, 1765, the Brown brothers were growing anxious about the fate of Esek Hopkins and the Sally, having received no word of either since the ship's departure nearly nine months before. On June 4, they sent a letter to the island of Barbados, where they hoped Hopkins might soon arrive with a cargo of slaves. The letter, sent via a ship's captain named Daniel Bushlin, included the latest intelligence on market conditions in different plantation colonies, touting in particular the advantages of South Carolina, where slaves were apparently fetching high prices. The Sally did eventually reach Barbados but only in late November, nearly six months later. Hopkins appears never to have received this letter, nor any of the others that the Browns directed to Barbados.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; November 16, 1765
The Brown brothers only learned the full scope of the Sally disaster in mid-November, when they received a letter from Hopkins, dated October 9, 1765 announcing his arrival in Antigua. In this November 16 letter, written in Moses Brown's hand, they acknowledge the "Disagreeable" news of "yr Losing 3 of yr Hands and 88 Slaves" but add that "your Self Continuing in Helth is so grate Satisfaction to us, that we Remain Contented under the Heavy Loss of our Int[erest]s." The balance of the letter offers information on Caribbean markets and suggestions on the commodities Hopkins that might purchase for his return journey to Rhode Island.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Hopkins, Esek; November 9, 1765
Esek Hopkins and the Sally finally reached the West Indies in October, 1765, thirteen months after departing from Rhode Island. Of some two hundred enslaved Africans purchased by Hopkins, fewer than ninety ultimately survived, and most of them were in extremely poor health. Still unaware of the scope of the disaster, the Brown brothers drafted this letter, which was carried to the Caribbean by Nicholas Power, captain of another Brown-owned ship. The letter offered elaborate instructions on the disposal of the Sally's enslaved cargo and what Hopkins might purchase with the proceeds.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Mason, Benjamin; December 12, 1769
Letter, dated December 12, 1769, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Benjamin Mason, merchant in Newport. The letter, probably written by Nicholas Brown, informs Mason of John Brown's intention to launch a "Vessel bound for Guinny" in a few weeks time, and asks for help in locating 2,000 gallons of rum to complete the ship's cargo. It also asks Mason "to Recommend the Gentlemen in the West Indies who Sold your Last Cargo of Slaves," in hopes that the captain of John's vessel might also use his services.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Mason, Benjamin; June 17, 1765
Letter, dated June 17, 1765, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Benjamin Mason, a merchant in Newport. The Brown had recently received reports that Esek Hopkins had lost all but one of his hands on the African coast; the reports apparently originated with a Captain Morris, who had just returned to Newport from Africa. In this letter, the Browns ask Mason to seek out Morris and to gather information about "when Captain H. was last seen or heard from + all the finer [details] of his Voyage." A month later, the Browns received a letter from Hopkins contradicting the reports.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Mason, Benjamin; November 24, 1765
Letter from Nicholas Brown and Company to Benjamin Mason, merchant in Newport, dated August 23, 1765, discussing payments on an additional insurance policy that the brothers had taken out on "Captain Esek Hopkins's adventure."
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Mason, Benjamin; November 24, 1765
Letter, dated November 24, 1765, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Benjamin Mason, merchant in Newport, discussing various business arrangements. Near the end of the letter, the Browns refer to the "Disagreeable Nuse from Capt. E. Hopkins," who had reported from the West Indies with news of the Sally's disastrous return voyage. The letter also refers to a legal judgment that the Browns had recently received "against our Philad[elphia] underwriters for the original sum with Int[erest] and very large Costs." It is unclear whether this refers to insurance payments on the Sally or some other venture.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Power, Nicholas; November 9, 1765
Letter of instructions, dated November 9, 1765, from the Brown brothers to Nicholas Power, master of the brigantine George, bound for Surinam, a Dutch colony on the coast of South America. The letter instructs Power to rendezvous in Surinam with another Brown-owned ship, the sloop Four Brothers, under the command of Abraham Whipple, to assume command of the sloop, and to proceed to the West Indies in hopes of locating and assisting Esek Hopkins and the Sally, arriving from Africa with a cargo of slaves.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Sheldon, Pardon; December 12, 1763
In addition to launching at least a thousand transatlantic slaving voyages, Rhode Island merchants routinely trafficked in small lots of slaves in the course of trading expeditions to the southern colonies or Caribbean. In this letter, dated December 12, 1763, the Brown brothers offer instructions to Pardon Sheldon, master of the sloop Four Brothers, for a voyage to Virginia. A postscript advises: "The Negro man Corodon you are to sell for the most he will fetch." Accounts from the voyage reveal that Corodon, who appears to have been owned jointly by the four Brown brothers, was sold for 40.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Vanhorn, David; August 5, 1765
Communicating with a slave ship at sea was an uncertain business. Owners often sent letters and instructions on other ships bound for Africa or the West Indies, hoping that they might eventually find their way to their destination. In this letter, dated August 5, 1765, the Brown brothers ask a New York business partner, David Vanhorne, to forward a letter to Esek Hopkins to the island of Barbados, where Hopkins and the Sally are soon expected to arrive. The enclosed letter, presumably instructions to Hopkins on where to dispose of his cargo of enslaved Africans, does not survive. The letter seems never to have reached Hopkins, who put in briefly at Barbados but found no letters or instructions awaiting him. The Sally proceeded on to Antigua, where Hopkins sold the Africans who had survived the passage.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Vanhorne, David; August 14, 1765
Letter, dated August 14, 1765, from the Brown brothers to David Vanhorne, a New York merchant and business partner, enclosing an invoice for a shipment of candles and requesting an account of how much they still owe. Financially overextended, the Browns seek a further advance from Vanhorne to enable them to buy whale headmatter for their spermaceti candleworks. They pledge to repay the money with profits from the sale of enslaved Africans on the Sally, which they expect to reach the West Indies in two months time.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Vanhorne, David; May 14, 1764
Letter, dated May 14, 1764, from Nicholas Brown and Company to David Vanhorne, a New York banker and business partner, discussing the dismal state of the economy in the American colonies. "[A]t present the Prospect of all Business Seems to weare a Gloom not before seen in America," the letter observes. A short time later, the Browns began to make preparations for the voyage of the Sally, which they hoped would yield a quick profit and relieve their financial distress.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Wanton, Joseph and William; August 11, 1764
Letter to Nicholas Brown and Company from Joseph and William Wanton, merchants in Newport. The letter, dated August 11, 1764, conveys details for a purchase of 185 barrels of rum, a portion of the 17,274 gallons of rum loaded onto the Sally before its departure for West Africa.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Wanton, Joseph and William; July 19, 1765
Letter, dated July 19, 1765, from Nicholas Brown and Company to the Joseph and William Wanton, merchants in Newport. Two days before, the Browns had finally received a letter from Esek Hopkins, contradicting earlier reports that he and the Sally had been lost on the African coast. It appears that the news moved the brothers to take out additional insurance on the voyage. In this letter, they ask the Wantons to advance two hogsheads of sugar to a James Burney on their account, apparently as part of that insurance arrangement. The Browns also asked the Wantons to forward letters of instructions to Hopkins on ships departing from Newport for Jamaica and Barbados.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Wanton, Joseph and William; October 12, 1765
Letter, dated October 12, 1765, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Joseph and William Wanton, merchants in Newport. The letter seeks the proceeds from the sale of twelve boxes of spermaceti candles that the Browns had consigned to a Captain Morris, a slave ship captain who had recently returned from Africa on a Wanton-owned ship. The candles had been used to acquire slaves. "You can Either give us the Money at what the Candles Sold for [or] we will take our proportion of what the Slaves Sold for Deducting Freight +c," the Browns write.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Warner, Samuel; April 7, 1761
In addition to launching at least a thousand transatlantic slaving voyages, Rhode Island merchants routinely trafficked in small lots of slaves in the course of trading expeditions to the southern colonies or Caribbean. The following document, dated April 7, 1761, is a letter of instructions from the Brown brothers to Samuel Warner, captain of their sloop George, for a voyage to Surinam, a Dutch colony on the coast of South America. The letter instructs Warner to use the proceeds from sale of his cargo to purchase molasses, duck (coarsely woven cotton fabric), and bills of exchange, as well as six "Young male Slaves from twelve years and upwards."
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Whipple, Abraham; December 3, 1765
Letter, dated December 3, 1765, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Abraham Whipple, captain of the George, one of four Brown-owned ships trading in the West Indies at the time. The letter informs Whipple of the arrival of the Sally in Antigua and its various travails, and amends his orders accordingly.
Nicholas Brown & Co. to Whipple, Abraham; July 29, 1765
Letter, dated July 29, 1765, from Nicholas Brown and Company to Abraham Whipple, the captain of a Brown-owned ship, passing on recently arrived news from Esek Hopkins. On July 17, the Browns had belatedly received a letter from Hopkins, contradicting earlier reports that he and the Sally had been lost on the African coast. The original letter from Hopkins does not survive, but it placed Hopkins on the River Grande in mid-May with a cargo of 75 slaves. It also apparently reported heavy losses due to leakage from the rum barrels in the ship's hold.
River, Jacob to Nicholas Brown & Co.; March 21, 1770
In 1770, the College of Rhode Island, what is today Brown University, moved from its original location in Warren, Rhode Island, to its present site in Providence. The first building erected at the new site was the College Edifice, now known as University Hall. Costs of construction were paid for through a public subscription campaign. Wood for the building, some ten thousand board feet, was donated by Lopez and Rivera, a Newport merchant house and one of the colony's leading slave trading firms. In this letter of March 21, 1770, Jacob River reports the delivery of the wood to Nicholas Brown and Company, who were overseeing the construction project.
River, Jacob to Nicholas Brown & Co.; March 21, 1770
In 1770, the College of Rhode Island, what is today Brown University, moved from its original location in Warren, Rhode Island, to its present site in Providence. The first building erected at the new site was the College Edifice, now known as University Hall. Costs of construction were paid for through a public subscription campaign. Wood for the building, some ten thousand board feet, was donated by Lopez and Rivera, a Newport merchant house and one of the colony's leading slave trading firms. In this letter of March 21, 1770, Jacob River reports the delivery of the wood to Nicholas Brown and Company, who were overseeing the construction project.
Wanton, Joseph and William to Nicholas Brown & Co.; June 26, 1765
Letter from Joseph and William Wanton, merchants in Newport, to the Brown brothers, June 26, 1765, discussing business affairs and offering condolences for the reported loss of the Sally and its crew on the African coast. The Wantons also share information about the state of the slave trade on the Gold Coast, which was reportedly awash in slave ships and rum. Had the Sally "proceeded down Anamaboe it would have been no better with Regard to Trade," they note, adding: "[T]here was on 6th April 17 Sail of Europeans and Rum men [i.e. Rhode Island slave ships] + the latter could not get a Slave at any price..."
Wanton, Joseph Jr. to Brown, John; June 20, 1766
Letter from Joseph Wanton, Jr., a Newport merchant and slave trader, to John Brown, concerning some "paper hangings," dated June 20, 1766. In a postscript, Wanton requests permission to inspect the account book from the recently completed voyage of the Sally, in hopes of gleaning information about trading conditions on the African coast.
Wanton, Joseph Jr. to Nicholas Brown & Co.; August 13, 1764
Letter to the Brown brothers from Joseph Wanton, Jr., a Newport merchant and slave trader, regarding Thomas Underwood, who has agreed to serve as first officer of the Sally on its forthcoming voyage to Africa in exchange for a wage of £60 per month and a privilege (i.e. a commission) of four slaves. The letter, dated August 13, 1764, also advises the Browns to replace the Sally's master, Esek Hopkins, who had no experience in the slave trade, with a more experienced captain named Crosswell. "[S]uch times as will be when your vessel gets there, never were before," Wanton warns, "and having a Stranger must make it worse." In a letter sent the previous week, Wanton had volunteered his own services to command the ship.
Wanton, Joseph to Nicholas Brown & Co.; August 4, 1764
In addition to being brutal and inhumane, transatlantic slave trading was also a complex, competitive business, placing a premium on experience and knowledge of local conditions on the African coast. Having determined to send the Sally to Africa, the Brown brothers offered the ship to William Earle, who had commanded their previous slave trading vessel, the Wheel of Fortune, in 1759. But Earl declined, having already accepted the command of an Africa-bound ship owned by Simeon Potter, a leading Rhode Island slave trader. In this letter, dated August 4, 1764, Joseph Wanton, a Newport merchant and ship's captain, offers his services. Being "well acquainted and well experienced in the Ginea Trade all Down the Coasts," Wanton was confident that he could give the Browns satisfaction. In the event, the Browns offered the ship to the inexperienced Esek Hopkins, a decision that Wanton predicted they would regret
Willock, Alexander to Nicholas Brown & Co.; November 25, 1765
The returning Sally's first port of call on entering the Caribbean was Barbados. The Browns had posted several letters to the island offering Hopkins advice on where he might most profitably sell the enslaved Africans in his hold, but none of the letters seems to have reached him. Hopkins proceeded to Antigua where he sold what remained of his cargo. Most of the surviving captives were desperately ill and fetched very low prices at auction, a fact acknowledged in this letter, dated November 25, 1765, which accompanied the account of Alexander Willock, an Antiguan slave trader who handled the sale of twenty-four captives. Willock apologized for the low prices, which he attributed to the slaves' "very Indifferent" quality, and assured the Browns that, if they ever wished to "try this Markett Again with good Slaves I should be able to give you Satisfaction."