Resistance to Slavery

By Peter Fay, Jamestown Historical Society

Slavery did not define enslaved people nearly as much as their masters may have hoped or believed. Enslaved men and women resisted, bargained, fought, fled, and used every available opportunity to direct their own destinies.

Hannibal

Hannibal, an enslaved African American in North Kingstown, had a well-documented history of refusing to buckle to authority. His owner, Reverend James MacSparran of North Kingstown, called him “headstrong and disobedient.” Hannibal repeatedly fled his owner to other Narragansett plantations, apparently flouting his “gift of chastity,” prompting MacSparran to ask the blacksmith to have “pothooks put about his neck” (an iron collar with protruding bars), and later to “expose him to the whip.” Apparently, none of this subdued Hannibal, as a week later he was overheard “concocting another escape,” so in 1751 MacSparran sent him to be broken by John Martin in Jamestown.

Martin, a close friend of MacSparran, had a particular advantage over his mainland friend. The 1715 “Act to Prevent Slaves from Running Away from their Masters” forbade ferrymen to “Carry, convey or transport, any slave… over any ferry… without a certificate” of their master. For slaves, Jamestown was an island prison. In addition, Martin’s son happened to be the ferryman at West Ferry and slave-holder David Greene, owner of Hannah, was ferryman at the East Ferry. Despite this supremacy of control, Hannibal seems to have remained indominable, as his owner apparently gave up and later ordered Martin to sell him. Sale was a dreaded fate, especially if Hannibal was sold, as was common for intractable slaves, into the West Indies where slaves died young.

With the turmoil of the Revolution, came many opportunities for self-determination, though not always in expected ways. Many slaves fought in the War of Independence. Many others sought refuge and freedom behind British lines.

 

Jenny Carr

Jenny Carr was owned by Daniel Underwood at the Underwood farmhouse, which foundation can still be seen on East Shore Road. She married a Black seaman and privateer, Lango Toney, who had been a crewman on the privateer Defiance in the French and Indian War.

She became free through purchase, perhaps by her husband, and carried as proof her own bill of sale. Now named Jenny Toney, she left her former owner on the island, moving to Newport in 1774 with two others, likely her daughters. She found refuge amongst the runaway slaves flocking to the British lines during the War of Independence, after slaves of rebelling owners had been promised freedom if they joined the British.

Toney fled Newport when the British withdrew to New York in 1779. From there she and her daughter Judith Weeden embarked with loyalist refugees on the ship L’Abondance in 1783, bound for British territory in Nova Scotia. She joined 3,500 other freed Blacks, many of them runaway slaves, from the North and South, including Harry Washington, who had escaped from his master, General George Washington of the Continental Army. Jenny Toney at 52 years of age was now not only free, but a landholder, given twenty acres of land by the British crown to settle with her daughters Judith, 15, and Patience, 23, in Birchtown, Nova Scotia.

Other enslaved Jamestowners leveraged other opportunities to their advantage.

Jabez Remington

Jabez Remington was born in Jamestown in 1759, a slave of Benjamin Remington (1733-1820), a deputy from Jamestown in the General Assembly who is buried in the Jamestown Common Burial Ground.

Jabez Remington became free upon joining the 1st Rhode Island Regiment at age nineteen during the War of Independence. However, like all slaves enlisting in the “Black Regiment”, his was not an act of free will nor a magnanimous act of his master, but rather a financial compact between buyer and seller, the slave being the object of exchange. The rebel government of Rhode Island purchased soldiers to bolster their flagging military recruitment.

Jabez Remington was delivered to Captain Dexter’s company of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment by his owner on March 15, 1778. His enlistment record noted his “black complexion with black hair.” He was “appraised and valued at £120” by the General Assembly, who then paid his owner.

Jabez Remington fought in the battle of Rhode Island in 1778, in a brutal fight on Butt’s Hill in Portsmouth, having no battle experience, minimal training, and meager equipment. Despite this, the Americans retreated in order, and the Black Regiment of 125 lost only three men.

Records of Remington’s remaining years in the war are sparse, but they were certainly filled with severe deprivation and hardship, often with insufficient food, clothing, and shoes. He likely participated at a battle in Croton River, New York, where Colonel Greene was “cut to pieces” in a loyalist attack. Later, in the Battle of Yorktown, Virginia in October 1781, the Rhode Island Regiment played a significant role, quickly storming Redoubt No. 10 while their Captain Olney took a bayonet to the stomach, almost dying. Later he marched on a final expedition in the bitter February winter of 1783 to Oswego, New York in a failed attempt to take Fort Ontario. He lost five toes from frostbite and was honorably discharged with a pension for invalids of one pound, ten shillings per month.

Robin Howland

Another Jamestown soldier came from Jamestown’s Howland farm. The Howlands descended from Job Howland, a Quaker yeoman whose estate was inventoried in 1763. The beds in the chamber were appraised at £670, and “in the kitchin, 1 Negro boy named Robin, £1000.” This enslaved boy Robin and another named Dick were inherited by John Howland.

When the colonial government evacuated livestock from Conanicut Island to prevent it from becoming provisions for the British, the Howland household moved temporarily to Warwick.

Robin Howland mustered with Captain Thomas Arnold’s all-Black and Native American company in Colonel Greene’s 1st Rhode Island Regiment, and within weeks found himself in pitched battle in Portsmouth in the American lines along with Jabez Remington. Later, he too marched to Yorktown, Virginia and took part in the final battle of the war.

Months after victory, with poor hygiene and cramped quarters, disease spread across the camps. Forty-three Rhode Island Regiment soldiers died in December 1781, including Robin Howland who died in Yorktown of an unknown illness and was buried there.

The Jamestown Town Council was well aware of Howland’s sacrifice. A decade later, in April 1792, it voted to appoint an administrator for the estate of Robin Howland, “a Negro man that once belonged to Mr. John Howland and enlisted into the Continental Service in Colonel Greene’s regiment and there deceased.” A century later the council would name Howland Avenue in the center of town after the slave-holding family, but the slave who gave his life would go unhonored and unremembered until now.

 

Dick Howland

While Robin Howland’s fate is now known, Dick’s is not. While John Howland was in Warwick with his slaves in 1777, there appeared an advertisement in the Providence Gazette warning of a “Mustee” (Black and Indian heritage) runaway.

Dick Howland, however, was never heard from again.

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The Old Plantation - By John Rose, circa 1785-1795

The Old Plantation - By John Rose, circa 1785-1795.

A 1908 image depicting an 18th-century iron collar used to punish slaves.

The Underwood Farmhouse in 1935. Photo courtesy of the Jamestown Historical Society.

Figure 4 – Jane (Jenny) Toney Land Grant – 20 acres, Birchtown, Shelburne, Nova Scotia, 1787.

Soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. By Frank Quagan, courtesy of the Varnum Continentals.

Colonel Christopher Greene

Figure 5- Mark of Robin Howland – military company Payroll June 12, 1779.

The Providence Gazette circa 1786.