Poet’s Corner: Illuminated by the Light


It could be imagined

That a ship, sailing north to Newport with a cargo of sugar and molasses, was shipwrecked on Gay Head.

It is conceivable

When the ship broke up, the sugar dissolved, the casks of molasses sank, that the Wampanoag salvaged everything that didn’t float away, even the ballast stones.

It could be

That the ballast stones from a New England slave ship were the foundation of the first Gay Head Light.


They used 340 ballast stones, one for each slave captured in Madagascar, sailed round the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic, and sold in the Caribbean.

Historians say

The shipwreck would have been a disaster to Newport’s two dozen distilleries, wanting sugar and molasses to turn into rum, to ship out to Africa, to trade for more slaves.


The Southern states with vast arable tracts to farm needed slaves, the Northern states, with poor soil and good harbors, looked to the sea.


It was easier to catch people and sell them than it was to catch whales and boil them on board.

Records show

Newport had 150 ships dedicated, whole or in part, to the slave trade in 1750.

The economy of New England was based on shipping. Shipping meant slaving, whole or in part.

It is said

Everyone profited one way or another; rope makers, tanners, coopers, sailmakers, provisioners like cattlemen and farmers, candle makers, vintners, potters, weavers. Everyone had dirty hands; the Faneuils, the Browns, the Whipples, the Cabots. Ezra Stiles, while President of Yale, imported slaves.


Ships can’t be permitted to sink virtually within sight of home port. A lighthouse at Gay Head was essential.

After all,

Business is business.

It is recorded

That America’s most noble names endorsed the Gay Head Light. From Nantucket, a Coffin requested it. George Washington approved it. Alexander Hamilton funded it. Paul Revere was tinsmith.

It is established

That more than half the American ships involved in the African slave trade were out of Rhode Island. Over a span of two hundred years, Newport ships trafficked 300,000 slaves.

It would seem

On the rum leg of the Triangle Trade, ships sailed up Vineyard Sound, their way made safe by the Gay Head Light.

New England

Rectitude and pious protests notwithstanding, the Gay Head Light, three whites and one red, illuminated the long night of slavery, and waited with indifference for dawn.

– Julie Jaffe

Julie Jaffe is a seasonal resident of Chilmark, where her husband’s family has had a summer house on Stonewall Pond for more than 60 years. As she gets older, she finds that the past sometimes seems closer rather than farther away, which begins to explain how the history of the Gay Head Lighthouse might be conflated with the New England history of rum, sugar, and slavery.