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An honest look at a slave-trading family's past

Thomas DeWolf tells of his voyage into some ugly chapters of family history.

By / February 19, 2008

Inheriting the Trade by Thomas DeWolf

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Thomas DeWolf was 47 before he made a horrifying discovery: An ancestor of his, James DeWolf, was the head of the most successful slave-trading family in American history. The DeWolfs financed 88 voyages which carried about 10,000 enslaved Africans to the New World – and in the process became one of New England's most wealthy and powerful families.

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Talk about having a skeleton in the closet. The only slightly mitigating factor was the fact that Thomas did not descend directly from James; James was instead the nephew of Thomas's direct ancestor, who was a carpenter from Connecticut.

But that bit of distance wasn't enough to cancel out the shame now associated with the name DeWolf. So when Thomas discovered a way to confront his family history head on, he jumped at the opportunity.

He learned that a distant cousin, Katrina Browne, one of the direct descendents of James DeWolf, was a filmmaker. She was hoping to gather as many DeWolf cousins as she could and to travel with them to Bristol, R.I. (where the DeWolfs had lived and traded), to Ghana (where their merchant ships used to pick up their human cargo), and to Cuba (where the DeWolfs had owned several plantations, all manned by slave labor).

Katrina planned to make a documentary of the 2001 journey, which she hoped would be a voyage of discovery for all involved.

The resulting film, "Tracing the Trade," has since been released and received a good bit of press (see "Family confronts the North's slave-trading past," Jan. 31, 2008). Thomas's book, Inheriting the Trade, shares his perspective on the journey; the making of the film; and the larger questions of guilt, shame, and recompense with which the family have struggled.

"How can the damage caused by slavery be repaired? How do we all heal? What are we, as white people, willing to give up? Can giving up something like money make a difference in the world? Are we responsible for everything our ancestors did and everything that will happen in the future? Who are we in respect to all this? Why should anyone care?"

There is much of this kind of musing laced throughout "Inheriting the Trade" – too much, in fact. It's hard at times for a reader not to get impatient and wonder if all this agonizing discussion this will ever add up to anything.

But if the discussion is abstract, the journey is not. The group of 10 family members stand in the places where their ancestors once trod and learn much in the process.

In Rhode Island, they have their eyes opened to the degree to which New Englanders were involved in the slave trade. (And it wasn't just a handful of wealthy merchants – money for the voyages were raised by selling stock to any number of ordinary citizens.)

In Ghana they stand in the prison cells that once held the terrified captives. Thomas in particular is sickened by the discovery that a slave prison coexisted in the same building as a church. The European clergy, apparently, found a way to make peace with the activity going on below them.

In Cuba there is less to see. The plantations the DeWolfs once owned there have disappeared almost without a trace. But even the sight of some crumbling ruins is enough to make an impression.

Then, finally, the journey is done. The cousins return to the US, share some final thoughts and reflections, and then – sadder but presumably wiser – return to their separate lives. For Thomas, "the summer of 2001 faded into a dot on my life's road map."

And if it had, this book would have had lost much punch.

But the summer did not disappear. Instead, it was overlaid with a whole new level of meaning when, in 2005, past indiscretions of Thomas's surfaced and threatened to lay waste to his life.

I won't give it all away here. Suffice it to say, Thomas was forced to take a good look at himself and he did not like what he saw. And as he thought back over his righteous indignation over the acts of his ancestors, he recognized that, "when I pondered the fundamental issues of power, privilege, and selfishness, I realized I wasn't quite as different from them as I imagined."

Thomas's actions do not equate with those of his ancestors, but nonetheless it takes an honest man to write such words and think such thoughts.

And it is that spirit of honesty and the willingness to confront the ugly parts of human experience that give "Inheriting the Trade" its value. Nowhere in the book does any DeWolf find any real answers to their questions about redressing the wrongs of their ancestors. But honest self-examination remains an excellent place to start.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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