Horses, Slaves, and Sugar: New England and the 18th-Century Atlantic World

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Diplomat Ballroom (Omni Shoreham)
Charlotte Carrington-Farmer, Roger Williams University
From the late seventeenth century through to the end of the eighteenth century, countless New England vessel braved the eighteenth-century Atlantic in a quest for profit by delivering horses to the sugar colonies. This paper will explore how and why Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut emerged as breeding grounds for horses, and how they came to dominate the equine trade to the sugar colonies. At every turn, the story of New England horses was entwined with sugar, slaves, and the slave trade. The horses were raised by slaves on plantations along Narragansett Bay, and then traded directly for sugar, molasses, and chattel slaves. If they survived the perilous ocean crossing to the Caribbean or South America, the horses then toiled alongside slaves crushing sugar on the plantations. In some instances, slaves only got meat in their diet when a horse died.

Writing in 1732, the anonymous pamphlet The British empire in America lamented that the British Sugar Colonies “will soon be reduc’d to a Condition too wretched to be name, and an End be put to the British Empire in America.” The pamphleteer was not alone, and others ranging from Members of Parliament to merchants, described how New Englanders undermined the British sugar colonies of Barbados and Jamaica. New England’s role in this controversy was clear; they readily provided the French and Dutch colonies with the one plantation necessity that they could not easily obtain elsewhere: horses. New England merchants were not concerned with upholding the empire, and they simply wanted to make money. Merchant account books and ship log books offer an insight into where the horses were sent, and with what frequency. The paper will argue that New England’s horse trading was directly tied to the wider currents of the Atlantic, notably the market for sugar and slaves.