Portsmouth Island and Transatlantic Human Trade

Recent research into the archives of ship arrivals and departures as well the diaries and journals of prominent merchants of the area show the connection of the Ocracoke Inlet area with what was known as the "triangular trade" from Africa to the Carribbean and North America, with the third leg of the trade being back to England and European markets.

Documentation shows that the snow (a type of sailing vessel) Hannah, sailed from England to Sierra Leone in Africa 1759, where she embarqued close to 300 people as part of the human trade. She then left Sierra Leone for Charleston, SC but ran into bad weather which blew her off course and left her "beating four weeks upon this coast" and unable to make her intended destination. Finally, she had to put into Ocracoke in North Carolina in search of provisions. While at Ocracoke Inlet at least 258 of the captive Africans were disembarked. While the Hannah's crew eventually made it to Charleston, SC, the records are silent on what happend to the Hannah and also on what happened to the human cargo that was offloaded at the Port of Ocracoke.

The schooner, Hope, is another ship found in the records delivering "a parcel of likely healthy slaves" from Africa to New Bern, NC in December 1774.

In June 1786, the brig (a type of vessel), Camden, arrived in Edenton from West Africa carrying 80 Africans which were being forcefully imported by the The Lake Company for the purpose of digging the new Dismal Swamp Canal. This canal would provide a protected shipping route from the Albemarle Sound in North Carolina to the waters of the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia by skirting along the edge of the Dismal Swamp. These 80 Africans joined more enslaved laborers for the 12 years it took to complete the hand dug canal.

Around 1783, John Wallace, a Portsmouth resident, entered into a partnership with an established merchant named John Gray Blount, from Washington, North Carolina. The two men saw an opportunity for a business catering to the large vessels and their crews who stopped at the Port of Ocracoke. Out in the deeper waters of the channel, where the deeper draft vessels could easily anchor, was a group of oyster beds called Old Rock. Wallace and Blount purchased this group of oyster beds and began bringing ballast stones and construction materials to the resulting island which they renamed "Shell Castle".

Within a year, Shell Castle was operational, although additions to the island and operations would continue for the next 17 years, the island eventually ended up being 60 feet across and a half mile long and supported wharfs, a warehouse, tavern, grist mill and homes as well as a beacon (lighthouse) to indicate its location at night.

While Shell Castle supported many different businesses connected to shipping, as with any of John Blount's stores on the mainland, enslaved people could be purchased at Shell Castle as well.

Last updated: August 12, 2022

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