An Island by any Other Name…

Last week, the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted 70-3 in favor of holding a referendum to change the state’s name.

Since it was chartered in 1663, the state has been known as “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” In 1636, Roger Williams was banished from Massachusetts and founded a settlement which he named Providence Plantations. In 1637, Anne Hutchinson was banished from Massachusetts as well and led a group of colonists to settle at the large island in the mouth of Narragansett Bay called Rhode Island. When the settlements were joined into a single colony in 1644, the names were combined into “The Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”, and since independence “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

Now, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations state representative Joseph Almeida has introduced a bill to hold a referendum to remove “and Providence Plantations” from the name. Says Almeida, “It’s high time for us to recognize that slavery happened on plantations in Rhode Island and decide that we don’t want that chapter of our history to be a proud part of our name.”

Now, it is true that slavery happened in Rhode Island. In fact, it is a little-known historical fact that slavery existed in all northern colonies. In fact, slaves made up a higher proportion of the population of Rhode Island than any other New England state. There is a fascinating history of slavery in New England which is largely unknown to most people.

Roger Williams, founder of Providence Plantations
Roger Williams, founder of Providence Plantations

However, the name “Providence Plantations” has nothing to do with slavery. As has already been mentioned, the colony of Providence Plantations was founded by Roger Williams,  a pastor whose theological and political views (he was an Anabaptist, opposed the Church of England and criticized the way Native Americans were treated by the colonists) ran afoul of the Puritan authorities of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and was sent into exile. He founded Providence Plantations as a community where freedom of religion and the separation of church and state would be respected. He chose the name in thanks to God for his providence in providing for the colonists. The name had nothing to do with slaves, for Williams was an ardent and outspoken abolitionist. In 1652, Rhode Island and Providence Plantations became the first colony to formally outlaw slavery.

Enforcement of this law waned by the end of the 17th century, but slavery was again abolished in 1784, this time for good.  It was one of the first states to do so.

Rep. Almeida is showing an ignorance of the history of his state. Rather than being a reflection of one of the worst episodes of state history, the name actually reflects the history of the state as a beacon of freedom in the colonies, a bastion of ideals that would later be expressed in the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, it appears that 69 other state representatives share his ignorance.

And that is the real tragedy of this. Reading about this inspired me to look into Rhode Island’s unusual name, and I learned a lot about the state’s unique history. I’m sure that many others over the years have done the same. The unique name of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations is a window into learning the history of the state, and should be preserved as such.

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