Black History Month: Portland and Maine complicit in the slave economy


“Regardless of what should be the occupation or profession of a Maine boy, an indispensable part of his education was a voyage of trade in the West Indies.” So begins Chapter 6, titled “The West India Trade”, of William Hutchinson Rowe’s 1948 “The Maritime History of Maine”. Rowe describes how the young men of Mainer would take the opportunity to see part of the world and “sow their royal oats”.

Maine provided the lumber that built the Cuban sugar cane plantations and food for the enslaved Africans who were forced to work there. At JB Brown’s Portland Sugar House, above, molasses and other products from Cuba’s sugar cane became refined sugar, which graced the dining tables of well-to-do people.. Image courtesy of Maine Historical Society Collections

The author goes on to describe the many products that Maine shipped to the West Indies, including “ready-to-assemble frames, oxen and horses for the plow, sugar and conveyor belt, agricultural products such as parsnips, potatoes, onions and cereals, beef, mutton, pork, pickled fish, soap, candles and dried cod in “drums” of five to eight hundred pounds each. … The lumber from the banks of the rivers of Maine which there cost $8.00 a mile sold in Havana for $60.00. Beets and parsnips fetched $16 a barrel in the French islands.

Remarkably, Rowe’s entire chapter on the “West Indies trade”, also known as the “supply trade”, does not once mention the labor of enslaved Africans. This strikes me as an apt metaphor for how we have treated our maritime heritage in New England in general and the state of Maine in particular. We put our historic ships and sailors on a pedestal, but we don’t ask hard questions like: Where were these ships and crews sailing to? What cargo did the holds of the ships contain?

Historians have only begun to grapple with Maine’s complicity in the slave economy of the Atlantic world. Recent exhibitions, such as “Begin Again: Reckoning With Intolerance in Maine” at the Maine Historical Society in Portland and the ongoing “Cotton Town” at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, encourage the first steps in recognizing this history, but there is still much work to be done if we are to have an accurate historical representation of the importance of this trade to the city of Portland and the state of Maine.

The fact that 73 of the 89 ships that left Portland Harbor in 1787 were bound for the West Indies is indicative of the importance of trade in the region. The sugar-producing islands of the West Indies found the proceeds from sugar sales so lucrative that forests were cut down on the islands and sugar was grown almost exclusively in these localities. Consequently, Maine and other parts of New England provided the timber needed to build plantations, the barrels to ship molasses and rum and salt cod, and other commodities that fed enslaved Africans. .

Salt cod caught in the Gulf of Maine and dried on the Portland waterfront was of particular importance in this trade, since salt cod was the most affordable protein available before the advent of refrigeration. Due to cod’s low fat content, it withstood the salting process better than any other type of fish or meat. Only the lowest quality salt cod was shipped to the West Indies to feed enslaved Africans, as the better quality fish was sold to Catholic countries on the northern shore of the Mediterranean. There, cod was eaten on Fridays, when meat was banned.

Although today we think of “barrels” as “barrels”, a barrel is actually a barrel size with a “hogshead”, a “third” and a “firkin”. Historically, almost all goods were shipped in drums. Craftsmen who made barrels were known as “coopers”. The drums would have been broken down for shipping purposes into their basic components of numbered staves, headers and hoops and shipped to plantations in the West Indies. These casks would then be assembled once they arrived at the plantations and filled with molasses and rum for export. Coopers from Maine traveled to the West Indies to do this work.

These casks of molasses and rum would then constitute the return cargo of the Maine ships involved in this exchange. The seven rum distilleries that dotted Portland’s waterfront in the early 18th century bear witness to the importance and volume of this trade. Some of the rum distilled in Portland was then used as a trade commodity on the west coast of Africa to buy enslaved Africans. Large amounts of rum, as well as molasses, were consumed in Portland and inland Maine, where they were shipped using the extensive canal infrastructure, including the Cumberland and Oxford Canal.

After the Haitian Revolution in the late 1700s, Maine’s center of trade with the West Indies shifted from the island of Hispaniola to the Spanish colony of Cuba. Horribly, the life expectancy of an African enslaved in Cuba, if he were to survive the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, was seven years. Plantation owners coolly determined that it was more financially sound to import new enslaved Africans than to properly feed and care for these individuals. Enslaved Africans were literally worked to death.

In his essay “Comunidad Escondida: Latin American Influences in 19th- and 20th-Century Portland”, David Carey Jr. writes: “At a time when Cuba was the United States’ third largest trading partner, Portland was one of the main in this exchange and ships made in Maine were among the most common vessels trading in the West Indies. Ships laden with lumber, bricks and ice set sail for the Caribbean islands and returned with sugar, molasses, rum and goods to supply local grocery stores. The wealth generated by this trade affected Portland’s physical environment, from the sprawling docks at the landfill to the grand homes that remain central to Portland’s identity. The Portland bricks that dot the streets of Trinidad, Cuba symbolize the complex relationship between Portland and Latin America.

Carey uses the term “cognitive dissonance” to refer to Portland citizens’ relationship to the labor of enslaved Africans. While many Mainers supported abolition in the United States, he notes, they benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans overseas. Ornate sugar bowls in the possession of the Maine Historical Society add credence to Carey’s claim. Historically, the working poor would have used molasses to sweeten their food and drink, but wealthy Portlanders would have had a bowl of refined white sugar on their dining tables to gift and impress their guests.

The magnitude of this exchange is evident in the fact that Portland’s largest waterfront building in the 19th century was the JB Brown Sugar Refinery, which began operation in the 1840s. A thousand people worked in the seven-story building in the 1860s and the company processed 20% of the nation’s molasses, more than any other city in the United States. Its owner used some of the proceeds from this robust business to purchase a large swath of land on Portland’s West Drive. There he built a lavish mansion, which he named “Bramhall”, and sold plots of land to other well-to-do merchants involved in West Indian trade. Although Bramhall burned down, the area is still known by that name today, and the mansions of Brown’s other merchants are still evidence of the profitable trade.

After their father’s death, Brown’s sons, Philip Henry and John Marshall, built the JB Brown Building, which still stands on Congress Street, to honor their father. It is a testament to the power of generational wealth that JB Brown & Sons is still deeply involved in Portland commercial real estate today. According to the company’s website, they developed 51 residential units and retail space at 40 Free St. in 2020. The company is described as “still family owned”.

Another example of Portland’s architectural heritage that was built on the proceeds of sugar production activity is the Safford House at 93 High St. Now the headquarters of Greater Portland Landmarks (which recently announced plans to sell the building), the structure was built for the merchant William Safford in 1858. Safford earned much of his money by importing molasses from Cuba and traveled frequently to that island to tend to his sugar interests in the town of Cardenas. One of his children, his daughter Inez, was born in Cardenas in 1848.

The story of the African Diaspora is the American story and should not be relegated to the month of February. The labor of enslaved Africans built this country, this region, this state and this city. Until we recognize this painful but necessary history, we cannot acknowledge or address our current inequalities and the ongoing issues of race and racism in the state of Maine.

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