Black History Month: Both Portland and Maine are accomplices in the economics of slavery


“Whatever a Maine boy’s occupation or profession, a journey in the West India trade was an indispensable part of his upbringing.” Thus begins Chapter 6, entitled “The West India Trade” of William Hutchinson Rowe’s 1948 The Maritime History of Maine Rowe describes how young Mainer males would take the opportunity to see the world and “sow their royal oats.”

Maine provided the lumber to build Cuban sugar plantations and food for the enslaved Africans who were forced to work there. In the above JB Brown Portland Sugar House, molasses and other sugar cane products from Cuba became the refined sugar that graced the tables of the wealthy. Image courtesy of Maine Historical Society Collections

The author goes on to describe the many goods that Maine shipped to the West Indies, including “frames made for the house, oxen and horses for the plow, the sugar, and the treadmill, produce such as parsnips, potatoes, onions, and corn, beef, mutton, pork, pickled fish, soap, candles and dried cod in ‘drums’ of five to eight hundred pounds each. … Lumber from the banks of the Maine rivers, which cost $8.00 per thousand there, sold for $60.00 in Havana. Turnips and parsnips fetched $16.00 a barrel in the French Isles.”

Remarkably, Rowe’s entire chapter on “Trade with the West Indies”, also known as “Supply Trade”, never once mentions the labor of enslaved Africans. This seems to me an apt metaphor for how we have treated our maritime heritage in New England in general and in the state of Maine in particular. We put our historic ships and sailors on a pedestal, but don’t ask hard questions like: Where did these ships and crews sail? What cargo did the holds of the ships contain?

Historians have only just begun to grapple with Maine’s complicity in the economics of enslavement in 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 early steps in the recognition of this history, but there is still work to be done to do if we want an accurate historical account 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 shows the importance of trade to the region. The sugar-producing islands of the West Indies found the proceeds from the sale of sugar so lucrative that forests on the islands were cut down and sugar was grown almost exclusively in those locations. Therefore, Maine and other New England regions provided the lumber needed to build plantations, the barrels to ship the molasses and rum, cod and other produce that fed the enslaved Africans.

Stockfish caught in the Gulf of Maine and cured off the Portland coast was of particular importance in this exchange, as stockfish was the cheapest protein available before the advent of refrigeration. Due to cod’s low fat content, it survived the salting process better than any other type of fish or meat. Only the lowest stockfish was shipped to the West Indies to feed the enslaved Africans as the better quality fish was traded to the Catholic countries on the north coast of the Mediterranean. There the cod was eaten on Fridays when meat was forbidden.

Although today we mean “kegs” by “kegs”, a keg is actually a cask size along with a “hogshead”, a “tierce” and a “firkin”. Historically, almost all goods have been shipped in barrels. Artisans who made barrels were known as “coopers”. Barrels were broken down into their basic components of numbered staves, headers and hoops for shipping purposes and shipped to plantations in the West Indies. These casks were then assembled once they reached the plantations and filled with molasses and rum for export. Coopers from Maine traveled to the West Indies for this work.

These casks of molasses and rum would then form the return cargo of the Maine ships involved in this exchange. The seven rum distilleries that dotted Portland’s shoreline in the early 18th century are a testament to the importance and volume of this trade. Some of the rum distilled in Portland was then used as a commodity on the west coast of Africa to buy enslaved Africans. Large quantities of rum were consumed along with molasses in Portland and inland Maine, where they were shipped via the extensive canal infrastructure, notably the Cumberland and Oxford Canals.

After the Haitian Revolution in the late 17th century, the center of exchange between Maine and the West Indies shifted from the island of Hispaniola to the Spanish colony of Cuba. Shockingly, the life expectancy of an enslaved African in Cuba was seven years, should he survive the dreaded middle passage across the Atlantic. Plantation owners coldly decided that importing new enslaved Africans made more financial sense than adequately feeding and caring 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 most important ports in this exchange Maine-made ships among the most common ships traded in the West Indies. Ships laden with lumber, bricks, and ice sailed toward the Caribbean islands, returning with sugar, molasses, rum, and goods to supply local grocery stores. The wealth generated by this trade impacted Portland’s physical surroundings, from landfill-enhanced wharfs to grand homes that remain central to Portland’s identity. The Portland bricks that line the streets of Trinidad, Cuba are a symbol of the complicated 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 noted, they benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans abroad. The ornate sugar bowls owned by the Maine Historical Society lend credibility to Carey’s claim. In the past, 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 offer and impress their guests.

The magnitude of this exchange is illustrated by the fact that the largest building on the Portland waterfront in the 19th century was the JB Brown Sugar Refinery, which began operations in the 1840s. In the 1860s, the seven-story building employed a thousand people, and the company processed 20 percent of the nation’s molasses, more than any other city in the United States. Its owner used a portion of the proceeds from this solid business to purchase a large tract of land on Portland’s West Promenade. There he built a palatial mansion which he called “Bramhall” and sold properties to other wealthy merchants involved in trade with the West Indies. Although Bramhall burned to the ground, the area is still known by that name, and the mansions of Brown’s fellow merchants are still a testament to the profitability of the trade.

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

Another example of Portland’s architectural heritage built on proceeds of sugar production is the Safford House at 93 High St. Today the building is the headquarters of Greater Portland Landmarks (which recently announced its intention to reclaim the building to sell). Merchant William Safford in 1858. Safford made much of his money importing molasses from Cuba and frequently traveled to that island to tend his sugar interests in the city of Cardenas. One of his children, his daughter Inez, was born in Cardenas in 1848.

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

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