Will this November election be the first time voters anywhere change history? Our state’s official full name is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Supporters of the proposed name change want to drop “Providence Plantations,” claiming the name conjures up images of slavery.
This could not be further from the truth, as the word “plantation,” as used in our state’s name, has absolutely nothing to do with slavery. The word means “men banding together to form a colony” and the definition means the same today, as it did, when Roger Williams first used it, more than 50 years before the first slave ever arrived here.
Rhode Island’s black history and heritage is something to be proud of, but any positive accomplishments are mysteriously omitted by those who want the name changed. Let the facts tell the story.
The slave trade irritated the Quakers, who were the political force of our colony for almost 100 years prior to the War of Independence, who strongly believed that slavery was inhumane. They were the number one religion against slavery and our colony became a leader, as we enacted the first anti-slavery law in America (1652), the first conscientious objection law in America (1673) and the first Negro non importation law in America (1774).
Our colony was founded on individual religious freedom and separation of church and state (1663). These early statutes did not prohibit slavery, but marked a succession of laws that led to abolition. More importantly, our leaders voted with their “conscience,” as they were ridiculed by other colonies.
Native Americans, not Africans, were the first people enslaved in this region, following the Pequot War of 1637, a conflict in which Rhode Island did not participate. But our other neighbor Connecticut, wanted all of our land to the western shores of Narragansett Bay, and Massachusetts claimed the land on the eastern side of the bay.
This left our four settlements separated by water, not land. The Charter of 1663, authored by Dr. John Clarke of Newport, established Rhode Island’s sovereignty by proclaiming the legal right to exist, bound the island of Rhode Island (Portsmouth and Newport) together with the northern mainland towns of Warwick and Providence (Providence Plantations), forming the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,
The Oxford English Dictionary defines plantation as “A settlement in a new or conquered country; a colony; An estate or farm, esp. in a tropical or subtropical country,…; The action of establishing or founding anything, e.g. a religion; A company of settlers or colonists, etc.”
Those seeking to shorten the state’s name have no documentation to support their case. This misguided initiative is based on myth, not fact.
Falsely and mistakenly linking the “plantation” with slavery in Rhode Island could wipe out the accomplishments of founders Roger Williams and John Clarke and shred one of the most important pieces of our state’s history, which – when true and accurate – should be shared by all. In this case, the name had nothing to do with slavery – period.