Bound for Havana, the Schooner Prudent was taken as a prize by the USS Ganges about 10 miles off the coast of Cuba near Matanzas, on the afternoon of July 19, 1800.[i] Built in [New] Bedford, Massachusetts in 1787, she was a two-masted, singled decked vessel of 35 tons, 44 feet long, 15 feet wide with a 6 foot draft.[ii] This is roughly equivalent to two modern shipping containers placed side-by-side,[iii] hardly a Leviathan of the seas.
The Prudent’s owners were James Weeden and Benjamin Fairbanks of Newport, Rhode Island. She was registered there on September 30, 1799, which made her an American vessel. She cleared Newport for Africa the same day.[iv] The Prudent’s captain, Pardon Bennett, was also a Rhode Islander, born in Tiverton in 1768.[v]
Rhode Island slaving vessels were typically smaller than their European counterparts, but at 35 tons, the Prudent was small, even by these standards. At a capacity of 1.1 slaves per ton, the Prudent could carry about 39.[vi] For the voyages where Jay Coughtry provides a head count estimate, only 9 out of more than 500 carried fewer slaves. [vii]
Neither owner appears to have been particularly wealthy, but they must have has capital or credit sufficient to outfit a voyage.[viii] Weeden was a Newport blacksmith. Fairbanks was a trader and owner of a guest house there.[ix] It was not that unusual for modest tradesmen to try to take advantage of the high returns possible in the slave trade. Such men were, though, subject to considerable financial risk if things went awry. Surprisingly, even though the foreign slave trade was illegal for American merchants, they could still buy insurance. However, we do not know if Weeden and Fairbanks took advantage of it or not.
The fact that owners and captain were new to the trade only amplified the risks.[x] Given that, as we shall see, their entire investment was forfeited, it is not surprising that small players like Weeden and Fairbanks only appear once in Coughtry’s compilation — for the Prudent. Neither left this world a rich man. Both their estates were insolvent.[xi]
The Prudent’s planned voyage was an example of the triangular slave trading enterprise. First, Rhode Island-distilled “Guinea Rum” would be shipped to European-held islands off the west coast of Africa; second, the rum was traded for slaves who were shipped to the Caribbean for work on the sugar plantations; third, the slaves were traded for molasses which was then shipped back to Rhode Island and distilled into yet more rum. It is this practice so forcefully described in the musical 1776’s song: “Molasses to Rum:” [xii]
Whose fortunes are made
In the Triangle Trade?
Hail slavery: the New England dream!
Yet, as pernicious as this trading pattern was, in sheer volume it paled in comparison with the other triangular trade centered on Liverpool, England. We will have more to say on this in the discussion of the other Ganges prize, the schooner Phoebe.
Given all the risks involved, it remains a fact that the Prudent successfully completed the round-trip voyage across the Atlantic to Africa and back only to fall a few miles short of completing the second leg of the triangle. Conditions on board could not have been very pleasant for anyone aboard, especially the African slaves who would have been confined in the hold for most of the voyage.
After her capture, John Mullonwy, a Philadelphian and captain of the Ganges, designated midshipman William M. Robbins[xiii] as the Prudent’s prize captain and ordered her to Philadelphia with additional provisions and her human cargo. She arrived there several weeks later.
[i] Journal of Lieutenant John Mullowny, U. S. Navy, commanding U. S. Ship Ganges, 19 July 1800. Pleasant weather; at 12 in chase of a Schooner, at 1 fired a Gun at her; Sent our boat on board the Schooner Prudent, Pardon Bennet Capt from the coast of Africa (38 [or 58] days) with slaves on board. Bound to Havannah; Sent Mr Robins (Midshipman.) as prize master and order’d her for Philadelphia after supplying her with provisions. at. 23° 30′ N. [NA.] Naval Documents Related To The Quasi-War Between The United States And France, 5:163.
[ii] Ship Registers And Enrollments Of Newport, Rhode Island 1790 – 1939, WPA, 1:523.
[iii] About 40ft x 16ft x 8.5ft . See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intermodal_container.
[iv] Newport Mercury, Tuesday, Oct 01, 1799 Newport, RI Issue: 1955 Page: 3 (genealogybank.com)
[v] Rhode Island Births and Christenings, 1600-1914, familysearch.org.
[vi] Coughtry, Jay, The Notorious Triangle, Rhode Island and the African Slave Trade 1700-1807, Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 1981, p75. This book provides an excellent overview of all aspects of Rhode’s Island’s role in the international slave trade.
[vii] Coughtry, pp 241-283.
[viii] Coughtry, pp. 45-102.
[ix] In an 1803 advertisement, Fairbanks announced the opening of his “genteel hotel” near Gardner’s Wharf, Thames St. Rhode-Island Republican Saturday, Apr 16, 1803 Newport, RI Vol: III Issue: 133 Page: 3 (genealogybank.com).
[x] Coughtry emphasizes that one of the best predictors of a successful voyage were an experienced captain and crew.
[xi] An insolvent estate is one whose liabilities exceed its assets. Weeden died without a will at Newport in May 1800. After setting aside funds for his widow, Abby, and estate expenses, Weeden’s creditors – who included Benjamin Fairbanks – received about eighty cents on the dollar. There is nothing in Weeden’s estate to indicate his part ownership of the Prudent.
[xii] Sherman Edwards, “Molasses to Rum” from the musical 1776.
[xiii] Robbins appears to have spent a good part of his adult life in the Navy. After the conclusion of the Quasi-War, he was commissioned as an officer in 1812, saw action at Sackett’s Harbor, and later served at the Navy Yards at Portsmouth, N.H., Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. He died at Baltimore, May 18, 1828. See: Ancestry.com. U.S., Navy Casualties Books, 1776-1941 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2012.