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Economic development


The breaker in Rhode Island
The breaker in Rhode Island

When the royal charter was issued in 1663, the white population of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations was probably no more than 1,000. By 1700 that had increased to about 7,000, and five new towns had been incorporated: Westerly; New Shoreham, on Block Island; Kings Towne; East Greenwich; and Jamestown, on Conanicut Island. During the 18th century the colony’s population increased substantially, rising to nearly 60,000 by the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775.

Initially, Rhode Islanders farmed and fished, mostly to meet their own needs. By the early 18th century, Rhode Island farmers and planters were producing surplus livestock and crops, sometimes with the use of slave labor. Leading agricultural produce included corn, wool, cheese, and horses, notably the famous crossbreed known as the Narragansett pacer. Agricultural produce, lumber, and fish were shipped mainly to the West Indies, with smaller amounts going to other colonies, England, and southern Europe.

In exchange for their goods, Rhode Island traders received commodities and money they used to purchase manufactured products from England. But mostly they received molasses from the West Indies. This brought them into the so-called triangular trade that developed in the early 18th century between the New England colonies, Africa, and the West Indies. The molasses was made into rum at Newport and other sites. Merchants transported rum to Africa, where it was exchanged for black slaves. The next stop was generally the West Indies, where slaves were in great demand on vast sugar plantations. The slaves were exchanged for molasses, which was brought back to Rhode Island to be made into more rum.

This trade flourished during most of the 18th century, providing much of the wealth that made Newport a leading social and cultural center in the colonies. Newport also served as a major slave trading center until 1774. That year Rhode Island, the leading slave trader among the British colonies, imposed a partial ban on the importation of slaves. A gradual emancipation act was adopted in 1784, which declared that children born to slave mothers after that date were considered free. By 1808, when Congress banned the foreign slave trade, most blacks in the state had achieved free status. Another important economic activity in colonial Rhode Island was privateering, the practice of commissioning private vessels to attack enemy ships during wartime.

Rhode Island’s colonial assembly encouraged privateering against the French during several wars between France and Britain for control of North America, which lasted until 1763. The privateers made high profits from captured ships and spent much of their money in Rhode Island ports. "Rhode Island" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia

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