Page One: Enslaved Africans in the Colony of Connecticut

Connecticut was a colony with slaves. That sentence doesn’t look right, doesn’t feel right. And yet, in the Bush homestead in Greenwich and in hundreds of other households across the colony, the slavery of Africans and African Americans was a fact of everyday life.

Within 120 years of English settlers’ arrival in the 1630s, the Connecticut colony was booming. Connecticut, says one historian, “was designed by God for trade.” With 254 miles of Atlantic coastline and 60-mile-long rivers snaking inland, the colony was perfect for marine transport and small, fast ships. Even in its earliest history, Connecticut was part of a larger economic system that included slave labor: when the great city of Hartford was little more than a raw fort, a ship from Wethersfield was already ferrying onions and a horse down to Barbados, where African slaves worked the sugar plantations.

Connecticut grew crops, raised cattle and felled logs to send to the West Indies, because many Caribbean islands, though capable of growing their own food, were busy growing the vastly more profitable sugar cane. It would be more accurate to say that enslaved black people, in a labor that often killed them, were growing that sugar cane. And Connecticut was feeding them.

That sugar cane, produced by captive Africans, was brought north to the Connecticut colony as molasses and sugar products, which were distilled into rum in such quantities that Connectictut became the New World’s leading distiller. (There were 21 distilleries in Hartford County alone.) The fortunes of many of Connecticut’s earliest leading citizens were made through the British colony’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

With wealth coming from the food, lumber and livestock that settlers were able to wrest from the land and send to the West Indies, there was money to develop the North American colonies. But who would do the work? There were farms to tend, stone walls to build, ships to manufacture, roads and wharves and houses, all to be made by human hands…