By Karen Cadbury
“When people from Maine and vacationers look at the magnificent 19th-century houses still standing in Bangor, Portland, Searsport, Augusta, and Rockland, they often assume that the prosperity that built these mansions came from lumber, rum, and shipbuilding,” said Dr. Kate McMahon, who grew up in Maine and is now a museum specialist at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and a researcher at the museum’s Center for the Study of Global Slavery. But as an historian, when McMahon looks at the same mansions, and when she studies 18th- and 19th-century correspondence, trade documents, ships’ logs, and passenger lists, she sees something different.
In the 1850s, Maine had hundreds of rum distilleries operating in the state, and was the second largest importer of sugar in the entire country. The state also had a vibrant lumber trade and a thriving shipbuilding industry. But McMahon says that, in addition, a significant part of the state’s wealth in the 19th century came from economic engagement with the slave trade.
The vast majority of American ships were built in the region from New York north into Maine. Since Maine-built ships were considered some of the most technologically advanced ships during the age of sail, a huge number of trading vessels were from Maine, said McMahon. “And we are learning that the owners of many of the grand houses scattered throughout Maine’s towns were people who benefited greatly from the vigorous and deadly slave trade. Maine vessels regularly transported enslaved people as part of the legal domestic slave trade along the coast of the U.S., along with other cargoes such as cotton or sugar.
“And as we’ve begun to research where else the Maine-built ships sailed, we’ve found that after they left Maine, some of them traveled to places in Africa…. From there, ships sailed to the West Indies, and then returned to Maine and New England.” McMahon said this route is commonly referred to as the ‘triangle trade.’ Captives were shipped to South America, Cuba, and the West Indies, where these individuals were traded for sugar, and subjected to cruel and horrifying living conditions associated with the sugar cane industry. The ships then returned to Maine, loaded with sugar for Maine’s rum industry – and their owners prospered from profits derived from the sale of the kidnapped and enslaved Africans.
“We’ve just begun to untangle what it means that Maine had one of the largest maritime economies in the U.S. in the 19th century,” she said.
The astonishingly high level of profits made in the triangle trade can be gleaned from the example of a ship that was built in Robbinston, Maine, by J. J. Cobb in 1850. In 1859, it left the Congo River with 944 enslaved Africans inside the makeshift hold of the 350-ton vessel. Of the original occupants, 762 survived the Middle Passage to Cuba, where the American (primarily New England) crew sold the captives on average for $500 per person. These owners and merchants would have split approximately $207,000 in profit; after expenses and calculating for inflation, in today’s dollars this would be a profit of $4.85 million, according to McMahon.
Meadow Dibble is an independent, visiting scholar at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice and the founding director of Atlantic Black Box (ABB), a public history project focused on researching New England’s involvement in the slave trade. The grassroots program trains citizen historians to help determine how the trading of cotton, sugar, and enslaved people was intertwined, and how individual towns may have been involved.
“Historians have only recently begun to study the extent of northern New England’s involvement in the slave trade. This history is not being taught in our public schools yet,” said Dibble. She and McMahon, along with their ABB colleagues, are trying to change that. The ABB team recently taught two sessions at Casco Bay High School, and has additionally worked with students at Baxter Academy and Cheverus High School. They are also involved in conversations with the Portland Public School district about implementing an Africana studies program. “The Portland Public School district is involving community members, who are helping to integrate these stories into the curriculum. In order to tell this story that is different from the one we know, we need to have a lot of different voices at the table. At ABB, we are hoping to empower people by showing them how to do the research,” said Dibble.
“What we’ve inherited in Maine is the mythology of the ‘free North,’ which has been pervasive since the end of the Civil War,” said McMahon. “The idealized illusion of a kinder North was promoted in works such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Maine, we deeply love the idea that Maine was part of the path of freedom on the Underground Railroad, and we love Joshua Chamberlain, a Mainer who distinguished himself fighting for the North. We want to be able to think about the expanding Industrial Revolution and just ignore slavery in the 19th century. But we can’t. Global forces of capitalism created a system where we valued labor more than we valued people, and this is what drove slavery.”
She has established a database for the 15 years between 1850 and 1865 that includes 200 American vessels engaged in the slave trade between Cuba and the United States. Seventy-five of the ships in the database were built in Maine. Another 75 were from Massachusetts, and a smaller number were from other New England states. McMahon’s research has turned up some uncomfortable truths. One vessel that was built, owned, and captained by members of a Freeport area family participated in the domestic slave trade along the coast of the U.S., she said. In 1851, it went on a likely slave trading journey that ended in Havana, Cuba. This particular ship’s captain would go on to be the registered captain of at least a dozen slave ships, the majority of which were from Maine or Massachusetts, between 1851 and 1860. He eventually moved to Havana, temporarily, to work directly with the slave traders, and McMahan said he was able to secure a number of these vessels because of his deep New England maritime roots.
“A lot of information [about Maine’s participation in the slave trade] is buried in personal family collections and in the archives of historical societies throughout the state,” she said. “Meadow Dibble and I have been to some of these small historical societies, and they are treasure troves. Even in the larger archives, like the Maine Historical Society, Meadow and I are finding great documentation. The people who filed these things away originally may not have seen the importance of the materials.”
“The 75 vessels from Maine had annual revenues estimated at $11 million dollars that flowed back to New England. In today’s currency, this would be worth approximately $330 million. So, the trade in enslaved people yielded almost five times more money for New England than the trade in lumber. Maine’s timber industry during the same 15-year period was valued at only $2 million per year,” said McMahon.
During the same 15-year period for which McMahon has created the database, she has documented that 18,000 people were transported between Africa and Cuba. “The documentation is primarily from ships that were caught or had some legal problems, but many people in the business of the illegal slave trade never got caught,” said McMahon. “The research to confirm the actual numbers of Africans transported on Maine ships has only just begun. The number is at least twice as large as what we have on record. We’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.”
Dibble agreed. “I think we have a deep problem here in New England. It’s that the stories that we tell about this place are not reflective of the actual facts and history – and we are discovering this is a systemic problem throughout New England. It’s not a question of whether or not a town like Freeport wants to face up to the fact that its founding fathers were deeply invested in the slave trade. The connection with the slave trade is true for Freeport, but it’s true for Bath, and it’s true for New London, Connecticut, and my hometown of Brewster on Cape Cod. And it was not just the New England coastal areas that were involved with the slave trade. In rural places like Vermont, farmers were growing grains that were transported through river ways and such, and then carried by New England ships down to the brutal sugar plantations of the West Indies, which were entirely run on the labor of enslaved Africans.
“We don’t know this history well in New England, in part because the global economy of enslavement happened on ships, offshore, largely out of sight and out of mind,” said Dibble. “Most of our great New England merchants – the Boston Brahmins – who became our most esteemed and wealthy citizens, were heavily invested in the West Indies. Our research is showing that some of these individuals spent part of each year in Cuba or Barbados, or other areas of the West Indies, and that some families also had investments in the slave economies of the South.”
Enslavement disappeared in the North well before the South, thanks to the resistance movements among the people of African descent and the abolitionists. “Africans were influenced by the Revolutionary War rhetoric and the call for freedom from British oppression,” Dibble noted. “Many fought in the Revolutionary War. By the late 1770s and 1780s, a number of Africans were pursuing lawsuits – suing for their freedom in the courts – with ‘freedom suits’ and, in some cases, winning.”
As was true throughout the U.S., Maine’s early 20th-century history is full of examples of injustices perpetrated against African Americans. For example, the Black residents of Malaga Island were forcibly evicted from the island by the state of Maine in 1912. In Peterborough, an area near Warren, where a Black community had existed since the 1780s, residents were not allowed to work in the local factories. One of the first Ku Klux Klan parades held in daylight in the U.S. took place in Portland. The town of Milo, a major hotbed for the Klan, held a Klan march in 1923, and Maine had a large Klan presence at that time. The Klan maintained an anti-immigrant stance, which included condemning French Canadian Catholics and African Americans, and exhibiting behavior that spanned from micro-aggressions to overt white supremacy.
“Today, in the 21st century, the effects of African slavery in the U.S. and abroad is ever present,” said Dibble. “And the story of intrepid Yankee mariners is embedded in our environment, so it is going to take hard, deep work – not just reading a book, or attending a talk, or flipping a switch – to change our understanding and consciousness about Northern New England’s contribution to slavery and to trace a line backwards in time from Black Lives Matter.”