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Brown, Benson & Ives

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.