Early in 1781, Robert, a slave in Port Royal, Virginia, ran away from his master’s home with the hope of becoming a free man. However, for reasons that are unclear, Robert boarded a French vessel. This ship brought Robert to Newport, where he was sold at auction to Newport baker Godfrey Wainwood. After serving Godfrey Wainwood for nearly eight years, Robert’s status remained contested in the Providence courts for another two years. It was not until the fall of 1791 that, in the words of Providence Abolition Society members, Robert had been finally “[wrested] from the iron grasps of despotism and [restored] to the capacity of enjoying himself as a man.”
Arriving in Newport in June of 1781, Robert became a part of Rhode Island’s existing system of unfree labor. Rhode Islanders first enslaved Africans in 1637 following the Pequot War, when they sent captured natives to the West Indies and exchanged them for African slaves. Initially, the slave population increased gradually, but by 1750 there were approximately 13,000 slaves in Rhode Island. At the same time, slavery was also becoming a part of other New England colonies; by 1750, about one in twenty New Englanders was enslaved. 
In addition to owning slaves, some Rhode Islanders also took part in the slave trade, most commonly through participation in what is called the triangle trade. Rhode Islanders financed and outfitted ships that brought rum to West Africa to trade for slaves. The ships would then sail to the West Indies, where the majority of slaves were traded for molasses, which was then brought back to Rhode Island and distilled to make more rum. Although Rhode Island merchants sold most of the slaves obtained in the triangle trade in the West Indies, they also brought some slaves back to New England, and this contributed to the growth of New England’s slave population. In total, between 1709 and 1807, Rhode Island merchants, sponsoring at least 934 voyages to Africa, carried approximately 106,544 slaves from Africa to the West Indies and to North America.
However, by the time of the American Revolution, this system of slavery and the slave trade had begun to be challenged in Rhode Island. In 1774, the Providence Town Meeting urged the General Assembly to pass an act prohibiting the importation of slaves and manumitting all Rhode Island-born slaves once they reached adulthood. In June 1774, the General Assembly passed a bill which, while weaker than what had been initially proposed, did outlaw the importation of slaves. In 1775 slavery opponents brought an abolition bill to the General Assembly, but the General Assembly never passed the bill, which lacked both popular support and the endorsement of the Providence Town Meeting.
Like other colonies, Rhode Island saw challenges to slavery during the American Revolution. In February of 1778, the Rhode Island legislature approved the enlisting of slaves into the C ontinental Army; this was seen as one solution to Rhode Island’s shortage of troops to fight in the war. It was also a reaction to efforts by the British army to enlist African Americans with the promise of their freedom. As part of the Rhode Island measure, any slave who enlisted was to be manumitted and entitled to the benefits given to other continental army soldiers, and each master would receive up to 120 pounds to compensate him for the loss of his slave. However, the legislature rejected the controversial bill only three months later; only 88 or 89 slaves were manumitted as a result of the bill.
In the fall of 1779, the Rhode Island General Assembly banned the sale of slaves beyond Rhode Island without their consent. The legislature intended for the bill to serve as a temporary measure “until some favorable occasion may offer for [slavery’s] total abolition.” In addition to preventing the breakup of families, the bill prevented masters from selling their slaves to masters in other states in anticipation of slavery’s abolition in Rhode Island. In 1783, Moses Brown and other Quakers launched a petition campaign in support of a bill to abolish slavery. The legislature rejected the bill in February of 1784, but a Gradual Emancipation Act was passed by the legislature on March 1, 1784. According to this act, any children born to slaves after March 1, 1784 would not remain slaves for life. Instead, female children would become free after serving their masters for eighteen years, and males would become free after serving their masters for twenty-one years. The act also stated that, under the supervision of the town council, children of slaves could be bound out as apprentices after their first year and that masters would then receive compensation for the expenses associated with raising the children during the first year. However, the legislature repealed this portion of the bill less than two years later, as many saw it as assigning the public too much responsibility for free blacks. In addition to freeing slaves born after March 1, 1784, the gradual emancipation act decreased obstacles against the manumission of slaves; the act permitted masters to manumit healthy slaves between the ages of twenty-one and forty without assuming financial responsibility. Then, in 1787, the Rhode Island legislature passed a law banning participation in the slave trade. The law imposed a one hundred dollar pound fine for every slave carried and permitted a maximum fine of one hundred pounds per ship. However, the law was only minimally effective, and Rhode Island participation in the slave trade, despite fluctuations between individual years, experienced an overall increase between 1787 and the federal abolition of the slave trade in 1807.
In addition to being challenged in the legislature, Rhode Island slavery was challenged in the courts through individual cases. The Providence Abolition Society, which held its first meeting on February 20, 1789, took the most active role in such cases. Moses Brown played a key role in the creation of the society, which was created largely in response to the government’s apparent unwillingness to enforce the 1787 statute abolishing the slave trade. Cases taken on by the Abolition Society fell into two general categories: those concerning an individual’s involvement in the slave trade, and those concerning the status of individual blacks.
The two cases titled Robert v. Godfrey Wainwood both serve as examples of the Providence Abolition society’s intervention on behalf a specific individual. In early 1781, Robert ran away from his master’s home in Port Royal, Virginia, leaving behind his mother and father who were also slaves. Robert hoped to obtain his freedom by serving in the British army during the American Revolution. However, before he reached the British army, Robert, along with some fellow runaways, boarded a French vessel stationed in the Chesapeake Bay and bound for Rhode Island. Perhaps Robert and the others mistook this vessel to be a British ship, or perhaps they decided that their changes of securing freedom could be improved by going to Rhode Island. In violation of the 1774 Rhode Island law forbidding the importation of slaves, the vessel brought Robert and the others to Newport and sold them as slaves on June 13, 1871. After trading bids with Henry Sherburne, Newport baker Godfrey Wainwood purchased Robert for 170 dollars. Five days later, justice of the peace Peleg Barker created a contract between Wainwood and Robert. The terms of this contract are unclear; Barker’s deposition states that Robert was to be free after nine years of service, while Robert insisted that he was promised his freedom following seven years of service. On May 9, 1789, Robert allegedly broke into Godfrey Wainwood’s closet, stole Wainwood’s copy of the initial contract, and ran away. Wainwood responded by having a warrant issued for Robert’s arrest, and, shortly before Robert was apprehended on May 15, 1789, he contacted Moses Brown and the Providence Abolition Society.
During the summer of 1789, members of the Providence Abolition Society pursued two courses of action on Robert’s behalf. They initiated a lawsuit against Godfrey Wainwood on the grounds that he had failed to pay Robert according to the terms of the contract, and they also worked to have Robert released from jail. By August 21, 1789, the Abolition Society had secured a writ of habeas corpus for Robert and had successfully secured Robert’s release from prison. Then, in November of 1789, Robert, with the assistance of Abolition Society members, initiated a second lawsuit against Godfrey Wainwood in order to seek restitution from Godfrey Wainwood. In this suit, Robert accused Godfrey Wainwood of trespass and demanded one hundred pounds as damages.
In December of 1789, Robert’s unpaid case was heard in the Providence Court of Common Pleas. While Robert argued that Godfrey Wainwood had failed to uphold the terms of the initial contract, Godfrey Wainwood asserted that Robert was a slave at the time the contract was signed and that, for this reason, the initial contract was invalid. The trespass case was then heard during the December 1790 term of the Providence Court of Common Pleas. Robert asserted that Godfrey Wainwood “did…beat imprison & evilly treat him” on the day in question, and Godfrey Wainwood again justified his actions on the grounds that Robert was a slave. During the time of this suit, Robert lived as a free man in Providence. According to the 1790 census, he had assumed the surname Wainwood and was living with three non-white free persons.
In June 1791, the court decided the unpaid wages case in Godfrey Wainwood’s favor , but not before the jury attempted to deny satisfaction to all of the parties involved. In its verdict, the jury stated both that Robert was still a slave and that he belonged to a man in Virginia, thereby both invalidating Robert and Godfrey Wainwood’s initial contract and denying Godfrey Wainwood ownership of Robert. However, the judge threw out all portions of the verdict except the statement of Robert’s status as a slave; this revised verdict allowed Godfrey Wainwood to claim Robert as a slave. Robert was also ordered to pay Godfrey Wainwood for the legal fees he incurred as a result of the trial.
The Providence Abolition Society lawyers then appealed this verdict, but, before the case could be heard in the Superior Court, Robert and Godfrey Wainwood reached an agreement. According to the terms of this agreement, Robert would withdraw his demands for compensation from Wainwood, and that, in exchange, Wainwood give up his claim to ownership of Robert.
Like numerous other cases heard in Rhode Island Courts, the two cases Robert v. Godfrey Wainwood demonstrate that slavery in Rhode Island was not only challenged through broad legislative action but also through specific contests concerning particular individuals. Furthermore, these cases are notable because of Robert’s own agency in obtaining his freedom. In addition to running away from his Virginia master and later Godfrey Wainwood, Robert personally sought out the members of the Providence Abolition Society. After stealing his indenture papers and traveling to Providence, Robert sought out Moses Brown and Abolition Society members to tell them his story. Providence Abolition Society members then took on Robert’s case when he was arrested less than a week later. Without taking such initiative, Robert likely would not have received the legal assistance necessary to challenge his imprisonment or to bring Godfrey Wainwood to court.
Robert’s story also illuminates the tensions surrounding slavery and manumission. According to the 1781 contract, Godfrey Wainwood agreed that Robert would become free following a period of indentured servitude. Creating a specific process by which Robert would ultimately obtain his freedom, this contract can be seen as undermining Robert’s status as a slave. Yet, legally, a person is either a free or unfree person; no “in between” status exists. As such, Robert’s status as a slave repeatedly formed the basis of Godfrey Wainwood’s claims. In May 1789, Wainwood argued that Robert was “an apprentice…for a term as yet unexpired” in order to have him arrested as a runaway. This claim would indeed have legal merit if Robert’s indenture lasted for nine years (as asserted by Peleg Barker) rather than for seven years (as Robert insisted.) Similarly, at the Providence Court of Common Pleas in December 1789, Godfrey Wainwood again argued that Robert “was and still is a slave and not a free man” as part of his legal defense. Wainwood and his attorneys could simply have used such language in order to assert that Robert’s nine-year term of indenture had not yet ended and that Robert was still therefore an unfree person. Alternatively, in referencing Robert’s status on “the day of purchase of his aforesaid writ,” Wainwood and his attorneys may have been challenging the validity of the 1781 contract; as a slave, Robert would have lacked the right to sign contracts and therefore his contract with Wainwood would not have been legally binding. Regardless of which argument was made by Robert’s attorneys, this emphasis on Robert’s status as a slave demonstrates how slavery could exist and be invoked even once it was put on the road to ending.