Fri 20 Feb, 2009
Tags: History, Newport, Providence Plantations, Rhode Island, Slavery
There is an active movement within Rhode Island to amend the state constitution to change the official name of the state, “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”
This change would remove “Providence Plantations” from the name of the state, on the grounds that the word “plantations” now has an historic association with chattel slavery and has become offensive to many people.
History (and geography)
The name “Rhode Island” actually refers to an island within the state, the largest island in Narragansett Bay. This island, which is also known as Aquidneck Island, is home to Newport and two smaller towns, Middletown and Portsmouth.
The Mount Hope Bridge, prominently featured in the film Traces of the Trade, connects Rhode Island (or Aquidneck Island) to the town of Bristol and the rest of the mainland.
In 1636, Roger Williams left the Massachusetts Bay colony and founded the first settlement in what would become Rhode Island, which he named Providence.
In 1643, when Williams secured a charter for his growing colony, now including Providence and the towns of Newport, Warwick, and Portsmouth, the colony was named “The Providence Plantations in Narragansett Bay.”
In 1663, a new charter was obtained for the colony, at which time it gained the new name, “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations,” which became, after independence, the formal name of the state of Rhode Island.
So, as an historical matter, the word “plantations” in the name of the state predates plantation slavery in the American colonies and did not refer to plantations with slavery at all.
However, there have been sporadic efforts to change the state’s official name for years.
In 2008, there was an attempt to convince the state legislature to bring the question before the voters in November. That effort died after a hearing of the House Finance Committee in May, in which lawmakers in opposition pointed out that the choice of the name has no connection to slavery and suggested that a name change now would whitewash an important part of the state’s history.
In 2009, there is a joint resolution before the Rhode Island legislature, sponsored by state representative Joseph S. Almeida and state senator Harold Metts, to bring about the name change.
“We Are Not a Plantation”
There is now a blog, “We Are Not a Plantation,” sponsored by the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition (ULMAC), which seeks to promote this year’s legislative effort.
The blog takes what I think is an important and constructive position on the issue. It prominently acknowledges that the word “plantation” in the name of the state did not originally connote slavery at all, describing it as an archaic word which used to mean “new settlement or colony.”
Instead, the blog suggests, the name of the state should be changed because the word “plantation” now has a primary meaning which refers to agricultural forms of slavery. These institutions, in turn, are now considered morally repugnant and an apparent reference to them in the state’s name is deeply offensive to many people.