"Any Scheme of Trade"
IF IN SOME WAYS Newport was like any other eighteenth-century urban seaport, the geography of Rhode Island gave it one singular characteristic: comparatively speaking, Newport had no hinterland. Roughly ⅛ the area of Massachusetts, and 1/47 the size of New York, Rhode Island alone could not supply Newport, its commercial center, with enough local products to develop a thriving Atlantic trade. 2 To compound this difficulty, Rhode Island merchants were constantly short of cash because, as Dr. William Hunter explained, "This colony produces nothing that will procure a Dollar in any of the Nightbouring provinces."3 Despite these problems, the colony's commerce was flourishing by the mid-eighteenth century because Newport's merchants managed, nonetheless, to assemble cargoes from other colonies to supplement Rhode Island cattle, horses, and cheese. 4 The town's unique predicament did not go unnoticed, however, and in one of many reports, customs officials pointed out that "the exports from hence are most collected from the neighbouring Colonies; the natural productions of its own, being quite insufficient to support its navigation." 5 Merchants were willing, as they themselves often said, to consider "any scheme of trade." 6
In a Report to the Board of Trade in 1741, Governor Richard Ward indicated that Rhode Island's commerce was not only varied but widespread: "We have now one hundred and twenty sail of vesseles belonging to the inhabitants of this colony, all constantly employed in the trade; some on the coast of Africa, others in neighboring colonies, many in the West Indies, and a few in Europe." 7
Merchants rarely specialized geographically. There were few, if any, whose dealings were limited only to England, southern Europe, the West Indies, the American coast, or Africa. Newporters could not afford to be that selective. With war and less predictable disasters a constant threat, it was not good business to restrict trade to one corner of the globe. Governor Stephen Hopkins was quite accurate when he stated that "these people...