NEW LONDON — A plaque at Amistad Pier will mark the 1761 arrival of a slave ship called the Speedwell — an event that directly implicates the city as a participant in the transatlantic slave trade.
The Speedwell arrived in New London on July 17, 1761, after a journey of several months from Western Africa to the Americas. The boat departed with 95 enslaved persons. Only 74 survived the journey.
The ship sailed up the Connecticut River to Middletown after a few days in New London. Although records don’t show where the Africans aboard the Speedwell ended up, they do show that Normand Morison, one of the ships owners, had 21 slaves of his own who worked on his farm in Bolton, CT.
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The plaque will be unveiled in a ceremony on Sunday, July 17, the 261st anniversary of the ship’s arrival in New London.
Former City Councilman Curtis Goodwin said the plan to create a plaque in memory of the event had been in the works for several years. The city has been recognized as a UNESCO Slave Route Project Site of Memory — one of 53 sites across the United States, two of which are in Connecticut.
Goodwin, who is also project manager for the city’s Black Heritage Trail, said New London modeled its plaque after the one in Middletown, the other UNESCO Slave Route Project Site of Memory in Connecticut. Middletown dedicated a plaque in memory of its role in the Middle Passage in September 2019.
“It’s just another layer in telling more of the stories that don’t get the visibility that [they] deserve,” he said.
Laura Natusch, executive director of New London Landmarks, who also worked on the Black Heritage Trail, said it was hard to find records of slave-carrying ships in New London because the city’s original custom house was burned in 1781. But Natusch said information about the Speedwell and the enslaved Africans carried on it was also recorded in a weekly newspaper called the New London Summary.
According to the plaque, the Speedwell is the only ship known to have come directly from Africa to New London carrying enslaved Africans. But there is reason to think that New London played a larger role in the multi continental system that drove economic prosperity in the early colonies and the U.S.
“Slave traders often sailed from New London to Africa and the West Indies to purchase enslaved Africans and sell them throughout the Americas,” the plaque reads.
The plaque notes that the slave trade directly benefitted New London economically. By 1774, nearly one in 10 New London residents was either Black or Indigenous — of whom the majority were slaves — making New London County “one of the largest slaveholding areas in New England.” Additionally, shipments of food, livestock and lumber were sent from New London to support the sugar cane plantations in the West Indies.
Goodwin said the city was designated as a UNESCO Site of Memory in 2018, but the history isn’t well known to the greater New London community. He said he believes it’s critical to talk about New London’s past connection to slavery accurately and clearly, without “whitewashing.”
“There’s no sugarcoating what happened. It’s a slave ship. It should be called such a thing,” said Goodwin. “I want people to know things for what it is, respect it and remember it for what it is.”
Lonnie Braxton II, a former senior assistant state’s attorney in New London and a navy veteran, said knowing this history underscores the undeniable role that slavery played in the greater economy of the U.S, including in the Northern states.
“When we think of slavery, we only think about the south, but really the first slave ships were built in Massachusetts. And it was actually a part of the commerce for this country. That’s something that no matter how we try and pretend or deny it, it happened,” said Braxton. “Instead of just saying that people are trying to rewrite history, why don’t we spend some of the time looking at some of the old logs, going through some of the actual records — and we will find out that a lot of history that’s been ignored for years actually happened and still impacts us today.”
Tom Schuch, an amateur historian and New London native who has done extensive research into New London’s history, said New London supported the harsh conditions on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, where enslaved persons died, on average, within five to seven years and were continually replaced.
“New England and New London’s farms, fisheries and forests were the enablers and the provisioners of the Caribbean gulags,” said Schuch.
Schuch said the plantations were so lucrative that the owners, wanting to maximize profit, refused to grow anything but sugar on their land. This meant they relied on places like New London to send livestock and vegetables for food. He said 6,000 to 8,000 horses from all over New England were shipped through New London, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds of onions coming from Wethersfield.
“This became a very lucrative business for the people in New England, as well as for the planters — all at the expense of the kidnapped Africans who were enslaved and dying there,” said Schuch.
Cows, sheep, barrels of salted fish — all of these commodities came from New England and traveled to the West Indies through New London, Schuch said. In the opposite direction, molasses, rum and human slaves were brought into the port of New London.
Schuch said that, in his research, he’s found references to 40 ships connected to New London that carried slaves from the early 1700s all the way through 1860 — despite a federal law that outlawed the slave trade in 1808.
Additionally, he said, the slave trade involved prominent New England families such as the Saltonstalls and the Winthrops. Captain Dudley Saltonstall served as a naval commander during the Revolutionary War. His father was a probate judge in New London and his mother was related to John Winthrop, the founder of New London. Saltonstall was “an aggressive and successful slave trader,” according to reporter and historian Anne Farrow, author of two books on Connecticut’s role in the slave trade.
Braxton pointed out that recognizing the enslaved individuals on the Speedwell is a reminder of how much enslaved persons and indentured servants contributed to the building of the United States.
“Without their labor, what would we be?” he said. “Those buildings were not built on their own. Those stone walls weren’t built by themselves. That land wasn’t cleared just because someone wanted it cleared. Someone had to clear it.”
Goodwin and Braxton both emphasized that recognizing the past was essential to how we look at the future.
“If you don’t tell the past correctly or with authenticity, then how do you correct your past? How do you heal from it?” said Goodwin.
Braxton said that in a time when people are divided over how history should be taught — and, in some instances, claiming that certain pieces of history are not true — the documentation of the Speedwell provides more evidence of the role that slavery played in the development of the U.S.
“The more we know about our history, the less likely we are to repeat things,” said Braxton. “All we are asking is – examine the history. No one is saying that anyone alive today ever owned a slave or sold a slave, but that we’re all connected through slavery.”
The ceremony is scheduled for July 17 at 4 p.m. at Amistad Pier. The event will include a dance and blessing of the lands by Miss Mashantucket, African drumming and dancing and a libation ceremony. New London Poet Laureate Joshua Brown will also recite poetry.
This story originally referred to the event as a commemoration, a phrasing that does not express the intent of the event, that has been changed.