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Book Review

Slave trade helped build early New England economy

Because the climate and landscape were unsuited for large-scale plantations, slavery never got planted deeply in the forested territory that the Puritans claimed and named after their mother country. The best estimates put enslaved Africans and Indians at 10 percent of New England’s population as the 1600s ended. Slavery had wound down in the region by the 1800s.

Clues have surfaced of late that New England, better known as a hotbed of abolitionism, had much more to do with the immoral traffic in human beings than its slight history of slaveholding suggests. Brown University has confessed that its early benefactors, including its namesake, owned or operated slave ships. Newport, R.I., has been identified as a leading port for such vessels. Aetna in Hartford has acknowledged writing life insurance policies on slaves.

Isolated examples they are not. In “New England Bound,” Wendy Warren, a Yale history professor, widens the lens to show the early New England economy was enmeshed in the seafaring trade that developed between four Atlantic continents for the transport, clothing, and feeding of African captives. The region’s early growth and prosperity, Warren shows, sprang from that tainted commerce.

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The economic pattern started with white settlers enslaving indigenous people captured in wars or buying from one tribe prisoners taken in battle with another. Making slaves of natives, who knew the terrain better than their masters, didn’t work out that well. Solution: Sell them in Bermuda or Caribbean colonies in exchange for Africans so neither group of slaves would enjoy a home-field advantage over their masters.

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One colony, Barbados, figured large in the evolution of New England’s role in the triangle trade involving Africa, North and South America, and Europe. Growing sugar cane was such a sweet business that planters couldn’t bother wasting precious labor growing food for slaves. There was financial advantage to importing their sustenance — from New England.

The region shipped to Barbados, Jamaica, and other British colonies its surplus farm produce and leftovers from its bountiful stocks of fish, particularly mackerel and cod. Neither sellers nor buyers cared about quality. After all, it was slave food.

“And so it was that New England merchants and fishers and farmers provisioned the great sugar colonies and over the seventeenth century turned substantial profits in the process,” Warren concludes. “They were savvy exporters, for it turned out that some of the fish they sold to the West Indies was not considered worth eating in Boston. They shipped to the islands the cod rejected by both the local and the European markets.”

You might say there is something rotten about The Sacred Cod, the carved wooden symbol of the fishery’s historical worth that adorns the chamber of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. For their part, Caribbean slaves improvised and made meals out of what they had. The national dish of independent Jamaica is ackee and saltfish, a combination of a yellow fruit from West Africa and salted codfish.

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Warren notes example after example of food shipments to the slaveholding islands. In 1686, 80 percent of tonnage offloaded in Barbados came from New England, with better than a third from Boston. Lacking are other comprehensive statistics on New England exports to the Caribbean, no doubt because records of that kind do not exist for the era she writes about, primarily the 1600s.

“New England Bound,” with its double entendre of a title, also shows slavery in early New England foreshadowed Southern practices. In the self-justifying belief system of Puritan masters, God sanctioned holding African and native chattel, though masters had to rely on violence to enforce submission. Connecticut required slaves to have written passes and authorized settlers to detain those without one, just like patrollers did in the South. New Englanders trying to recoup financial losses circulated notices about runaways.

Southerners resentful of Northerners’ condescension about the slaveholding past may find some comfort in these pages. In them should be some Northern discomfort too.

NEW ENGLAND BOUND:

Slavery and Colonization in Early America

By Wendy Warren

Liveright, 345 pp., illustrated, $29.95

Kenneth J. Cooper, a former Globe staffer, is coauthor with Don West of “Portraits of Purpose: A Tribute to Leadership.’’