“Regardless of what was to be a Maine boy’s occupation or profession, an indispensable part of his upbringing was a voyage in the West India Trade.” So begins Chapter 6, titled “The West India Trade,” of William Hutchinson Rowe’s 1948 “The Maritime History of Maine.” Rowe describes how young male Mainers would take the opportunity to see some of the world and “sow their royal oats.”

Maine provided the lumber that built Cuban sugar plantations and food for the enslaved Africans who were forced to work there. At J.B. Brown’s Portland Sugar House, above, molasses and other sugar cane products from Cuba became refined sugar, which graced the dining tables of the well-to-do. Image courtesy of the Collections of the Maine Historical Society

The author goes on to describe the many commodities that Maine shipped to the West Indies, including “house frames all ready to put up, oxen and horses for the plow, the sugar and the treadmill, farm produce such as parsnips, potatoes, onions and grain, beef, mutton, pork, pickled fish, soap, candles, and dried codfish in ‘drums’ of from five to eight hundred pounds each. … Lumber from the banks of Maine rivers which cost there $8.00 a thousand sold in Havana for $60.00. Beets and parsnips brought $16.00 a barrel in the French islands.”

Remarkably, Rowe’s entire chapter on the “West Indies trade,” also known as “provisioning trade,” does not once mention the labor of enslaved Africans. This, to me, seems like an apt metaphor for how we have treated our maritime heritage in New England generally and the state of Maine specifically. We put our historical ships and mariners on a pedestal, but we don’t ask hard questions like: Where were these ships and crews sailing to? What cargo did the holds of the vessels contain?

Historians have only begun to grapple with Maine’s complicity in the economics of Atlantic World enslavement. Recent exhibits, such as “Begin Again: Reckoning With Intolerance in Maine” at the Maine Historical Society in Portland and the ongoing “Cotton Town” at Bath’s Maine Maritime Museum, are encouraging early steps in acknowledging this history, but there is still much work to be done if we are to have an accurate historical representation of the significance of this trade to the city of Portland and the state of Maine.

The fact that 73 of the 89 ships that departed Portland Harbor in 1787 were bound for the West Indies is indicative of the significance of the trade to the region. The sugar-producing islands of the West Indies found the proceeds from sugar sales so lucrative that forests were cut down on the islands and sugar was grown almost exclusively in these locales. Hence, Maine and other regions of New England supplied the necessary lumber to build plantations, the casks to ship the molasses and rum and the salt cod and other produce that fed the enslaved Africans.

Salt cod caught in the Gulf of Maine and cured on the Portland waterfront was of particular significance in this exchange, as salt cod was the most affordable protein available before the advent of refrigeration. Because of cod’s low fat content, it took the salting process better than any other type of fish or meat. Only the lowest-quality salt cod that was shipped to the West Indies to feed the enslaved Africans, as the better-quality fish was traded to the Catholic countries on the north shore of the Mediterranean. There, the cod was consumed on Fridays, when meat was banned.


Although we today think of “casks” as “barrels,” a barrel is, in fact, a size of cask along with a “hogshead,” a “tierce” and a “firkin.” Historically almost all commodities were shipped in casks. Artisans who crafted casks were known as “coopers.” Casks would have been broken down for shipping purposes into their basic components of numbered staves, headers and hoops and shipped to the plantations of the West Indies. These casks would then be assembled once they reached the plantations and filled with molasses and rum for export. Maine coopers would travel to the West Indies to do this work.

These casks of molasses and rum would then make up the return cargo of Maine ships involved in this exchange. The seven rum distilleries that dotted the Portland waterfront in the early 18th century are a testament to the importance and volume of this trade. Some of the rum distilled in Portland was then used as a trade good on the west coast of Africa to buy enslaved Africans. Large quantities of rum, along with molasses, were consumed in Portland and in Maine’s interior, where they were shipped using the extensive canal infrastructure, most notably the Cumberland and Oxford Canal.

Following the Haitian revolution in the late 1700s, the center of Maine’s exchange with the West Indies shifted from the island of Hispaniola to the Spanish colony of Cuba. Horrifically the life expectancy of an enslaved African in Cuba, should they survive the dreaded Middle Passage across the Atlantic, was seven years.  Planation owners coldly determined that it was more financially sound to import new enslaved Africans than to properly feed and take care of these individuals. Enslaved Africans were literally worked to death.

In his essay “Comunidad Escondida: Latin American Influences in 19th- and 20th-Century Portland,” David Carey Jr. writes, “At a time when Cuba was the United States’ third-largest trading partner, Portland was one of the major ports in this exchange and Maine-made ships were among the most common vessels trafficking in the West Indies. Ships loaded with lumber, bricks and ice set sail for the Caribbean Islands and returned with sugar, molasses, rum and goods to stock local grocery stores. The wealth generated in this trade affected Portland’s physical environment, from landfill-extended wharves to large homes that remain central to Portland’s identity. The Portland bricks that dot the streets of Trinidad, Cuba, are symbolic of the intricate relations between Portland and Latin America.”

Carey uses the term “cognitive dissonance” to refer to the relationship of Portland’s citizens with the labor of enslaved Africans. While many Mainers supported abolition in the United States, he notes, they benefited from the labor of enslaved Africans abroad. The ornate sugar bowls in the possession of the Maine Historical Society add credence to Carey’s assertion. Historically the working poor would have used molasses to sweeten their food and beverages, but rich Portlanders would have had a bowl of refined white sugar on their dining tables to offer and impress their guests.

The magnitude of this exchange is evident in the fact that the largest building on the Portland waterfront in the 19th century was the J.B. Brown sugar refinery, which began operations in the 1840s. A thousand people worked in the seven-story building by the 1860s and the company was processing 20 percent of the nation’s molasses, more than in any other city in the United States. Its proprietor used some of the proceeds from this robust business to purchase a large swath of land on Portland’s Western Promenade. There he built a palatial mansion, which he named “Bramhall,” and sold plots of land to other well-to-do merchants involved in the West Indies trade. Although Bramhall burned to the ground, the neighborhood is still today known by that name and the mansions of Brown’s fellow merchants still stand as evidence of the profitability of the trade.

Following the death of their father, Brown’s sons, Philip Henry and John Marshall, constructed the J.B. Brown building, which still stands on Congress Street, to honor their father. It is a testament to the power of generational wealth that J.B. Brown & Sons is still today deeply involved in Portland commercial real estate. According to the company’s website, they developed 51 residential units and a retail space at 40 Free St. in 2020. The company is described as “still family owned.”

Another example of Portland’s architectural heritage that was built on proceeds from business of sugar production is the Safford House at 93 High St. Today the headquarters of Greater Portland Landmarks (which recently announced its intent to sell the building), the structure was built for the merchant William Safford in 1858. Safford made much of his money through the importation of molasses from Cuba and frequently traveled to that island to look after his sugar interests in the city of Cardenas. One of his children, his daughter Inez, was born in Cardenas in 1848.

African diaspora history is American history and should not be relegated to the month of February. The labor of enslaved Africans built this country, this region, this state and this city. Until we acknowledge this painful but necessary history, we cannot recognize or grapple with our current inequities and continued issues of race and racism in the state of Maine.

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