Nicholas Brown & Co.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
This document is an invoice from Jona[than] Ballore for ironware and implements being loaded onto the Sally for its upcoming voyage to Africa, August 13, 1764.
This document is an invoice presented to Nicholas Brown and Company by George Beverly and Johnston and Company for ten rum barrels to be loaded on the Sally for its African voyage, ca. August, 1764.
Compared to the massive slave ships sailing from Liverpool, some of which carried more than fifty crewmen and as many as five or six hundred captives, Rhode Island slave ships tended to be fairly small, with capacities ranging from fifty to two hundred captives and crews as small as ten or fifteen men. Few carried ship's surgeons, leaving the care of both captives and crew to the captain or some designated crewman. The Sally did not carry a ship's surgeon on its voyage to Africa but it did carry a small medicine chest, the contents of which can be gleaned from this document, a receipt, dated September 8, 1764, for the purchase of various medicinal supplies purchased from Jabez Bowen, Jr. The list includes various ointments, elixirs, and emetics, as well as such items as "laudin" (presumably laudanum), lancets, and sulphur.
This document is an invoice presented to Nicholas Brown and Company by William Chatte for unspecified work on ships owned by the Brown brothers, including ten days labor preparing the brigantine Sally for its African voyage, September 22, 1764.
Invoice, dated August 5, 1764, delivered to Nicholas Brown and Company by Donison and Clark for goods and services on two Brown-owned ships -- a brig, presumably the Sally, and the George. The invoice incorrectly identifies the masters of the two ships.
This document is an invoice presented to the Brown brothers by Thomas and Benjamin Hardy, Newport blacksmiths, for work and supplies related to the Sally's upcoming voyage to Africa, August 9, 1764.
This document is an invoice from Daniel Jackson for work on the Sally prior to its departure for Africa. The work appears to have involved lead piping.
This document, dated September 13, 1764, is an invoice presented to Nicholas Brown and Company by Prince Miller for 24 days of unspecified work on the brig Sally, valued at seven shillings per day. The bill also includes an additional 15 days of work, valued at two shillings per day, for "my boy." The reference is probably to an apprentice, though slave labor was also often employed in maritime trades.
This document, dated August, 1764, is an invoice from Joshua Smith for fifteen days of labor caulking the hull of the Sally by himself and his "boy," presumably an apprentice. The invoice also includes a bill for two and a half days caulking the hull of the George.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
This document, dated September 10, 1764, is a receipt for 121 ells of ticklenberg from Thomas and John Greene. A coarse linen cloth named for the German city in which it was first manufactured, ticklenberg was often marketed in the West Indies to make clothing for slaves, but it was also sometimes traded on the West African coast. An ell was a unit of length, usually about 45 inches.
This document, dated September 6, 1764, is a receipt for 51 loaves of sugar purchased by the Browns from William Mumford and included in the cargo of the Sally. Produced by enslaved workers in the plantation colonies of the West Indies, this sugar would be used in Africa to procure more captives and, in turn, more sugar.
This document is a receipt for a copper pump purchased by the Browns from a local businessman, Jos. Belcher, for use on the Sally during its transatlantic voyage, September 12, 1764.
This document is a receipt for a large iron pot purchased by the Browns from Jn. Vinable of Newport, September 12, 1764. Such pots were often used on slave ships to prepare the gruel that was fed to the captives confined below deck.
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.
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..."
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.
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
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."