Looking upon Newport to-day, and finding it all so fair, it seems hard to believe that the foundation of all its wealth and prosperity rested upon the most cruel, the most execrable, the most inhuman traffic that ever was plied by degraded men—the traffic in slaves. Yet in the old days the trade was far from being held either cruel inhuman—indeed, vessels often set sail for the Bight of Benin to swap rum for slaves, after their owners had invoked the blessing of God upon their enterprise. Nor were its promoters held by the community to be degraded. Indeed, some of the most eminent men in the community engaged in it, and its receipts were so considerable that as early as 1729 one-half of the impost levied on slaves imported into the colony was appropriated to pave the streets of the town and build its bridges—however, we are not informed that the streets were very well paved.
It was not at Newport, however, nor even in New England that the importation of slaves first began, though for reasons which I will presently show, the bulk of the traffic in them fell ultimately to New Englanders. The first African slaves in America were landed by a Dutch vessel at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619. The last kidnapped Africans were brought here probably some time in the latter part of 1860—for though the traffic was prohibited in 1807, the rigorous blockade of the ports of the Confederacy during the Civil War was necessary to bring it actually to an end. The amount of human misery which that frightful traffic entailed during those 240 years almost baffles the imagination. The bloody Civil War which had, perhaps, its earliest cause in the landing of those twenty blacks at Jamestown, was scarcely more than a fitting penalty, and there was justice in the fact that it fell on North and South alike, for if the South clung longest to slavery, it was the North—even abolition New England—which had most to do with establishing it on this continent.
However, it is not with slavery, but with the slave trade we have to do. Circumstances largely forced upon the New England colonies their unsavory preeminence in this sort of commerce. To begin with, their people were as we have already seen, distinctively the seafaring folk of North America. Again, one of their earliest methods of earning a livelihood was in the fisheries, and that curiously enough, led directly to the trade in slaves. To sell the great quantities of fish they dragged up from the Banks or nearer home, foreign markets must needs be found. England and the European countries took but little of this sort of provender, and moreover England, France, Holland, and Portugal had their own fishing fleets on the Banks. The main markets for the New Englanders then were the West India Islands, the Canaries, and Madeira. There the people were accustomed to a fish diet and, indeed, were encouraged in it by the frequent fastdays of the Roman Catholic church, of which most were devout