Family confronts the North's slave-trading past

Descendants of the DeWolf family of Rhode Island retrace the infamous 'triangle trade' in a documentary film.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    'Traces of the Trade': In a film about the DeWolf family, descendants pore over historical records of slave trading.
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Katrina Browne was studying at seminary when her grandmother sent her a booklet she'd written on their family history. As she read it, one sentence stunned her: It mentioned the DeWolfs' slave-trading business out of Bristol, R.I.

"The first shock was as if finding out for the first time the horror of being descended from slave traders," she says. "But within moments, I realized I already knew, and yet had completely buried it."

It was that second shock of recognizing her own "amnesia" that spurred Ms. Browne to dig into the history further, and the surprises continued. The DeWolfs, she learned, created a wealthy dynasty that became the largest slave-trading family in early America. She assumed those forebears were an exception, but found they were part of a broad pattern of Northern participation in slavery.

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To explore what that participation meant for her family and the country, Browne contacted all the relatives she could identify, inviting them to travel their ancestors' trade route from Bristol to Africa and the Caribbean. Nine other DeWolf descendants signed on, and last week, a documentary of their journey produced by Browne premièred at the Sundance Film Festival. "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North" was purchased by PBS and will be shown as part of its Point of View (P.O.V.) series.

The US slave trade was abolished by Congress 200 years ago this month, and the family hopes their journey will help, along with commemorative events, to spark more open and honest dialogue among blacks and whites.

"We are really two parallel societies in America," says Dain Perry, a cousin and financial representative from Boston who joined the trip, "and those two societies don't know how to communicate.... [It's] only through telling our stories and listening to each other's stories ... that we can be healed as a nation."

Only a few family members knew each other before their travels. Ellie Hale lives in Seattle, and says her branch of the family had lost touch with its roots. She also felt little connection to the need for racial dialogue and reconciliation. But Katrina's invitation piqued her interest.

"I thought the trip would be difficult, and I was right about that," she says in a phone interview from Sundance. "But I started off with a readiness to listen, and now I feel like I can actually open my heart to hear."

The adventurous family members from around the country met on July 4, 2001, to begin their journey in Bristol. The DeWolfs were "the great folks" of Bristol in the late 18th and early 19th century, with James DeWolf becoming the second-richest man in America. They visited his stately mansion, Linden Place, which is now a city museum.

The group delved into files from the 1760s to the 1820s, which revealed the details of the family's burgeoning wealth, including ships, a rum distillery, plantations in Cuba, an auction house, a bank, and an insurance company. They found that Bristol was the center of the slave trade after the Revolutionary War.

"New England accounted for the lion's share of the slave trade," says historian Joanne Pope Melish of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and "Rhode Island accounted for half the slaving voyages." Northern ships, commodities, equipment, and investment provisioned slave plantations at home and abroad.

Dr. Melish argues that New England was built on slavery, and that that history has been buried beneath the story of the abolitionist movement. "It's not that rich men owned slaves," she adds, "but that slaves made men rich."

Prominent historian David Brion Davis of Yale Uni­­versity has written, "By the early 1800s there was hardly a business, in the South or the North, without ties to slavery."

The DeWolf descendants were stunned to learn that after the 1808 abolition of the trade, President Thomas Jefferson, at the request of James DeWolf, appointed a particular customs official for Bristol. That official looked the other way and let the slave trade continue for years. (Slavery within the US was abolished gradually in Northern states, but internal trading continued until 1865.)

The next stop on the "triangle trade" took the travelers to two slave forts on the West African coast of Ghana. There they learned how captives were sold by African elites, and that missionaries came along on DeWolf ships to baptize the slaves and give them Christian names.

A visit to the dungeons at Cape Coast castle, where thousands of slaves were kept in tiny spaces, was emotionally in­­tense. "The dank air, the darkness, and the pounding surf of the ocean at the base of the castle wall – you could hear it outside the one small high window," Ms. Hale says. "You could practically feel the ghosts – it was unbelievably powerful...."

Flying on to Cuba, where the DeWolfs had owned coffee and sugar plantations, the group learned the plantations were still operating with slaves in 1875. The DeWolf mansion, Linden Place, was built in 1810 from a year's illegal profits.

Later, the clan gathered to talk with experts and consider what their experience called on them to do. While their forebears were an extreme case, they concluded slavery was propped up by ordinary people. Farmers raised crops and industries forged tools sent to plantations. Middle-class folk bought shares in the trade. Owning slaves to grow food left Northern men free to start businesses.

It's not that everyone was evil, Browne says, but the outcome was evil. "How do we as a nation come to grips with that, and what does that call for today?"

Too many Americans fail to grasp the residual effects of slavery. They insist they aren't racist and that the nation should look to the future. The family says a great deal of healing is needed on both sides.

"Many white people carry a lot of unarticulated fears and assumptions about African-Americans, and it goes both ways," Hale says. "[To] have real connections with our fellow humans, we have to surface those."

The family supports a congressional bill, HR 40, that would create a commission to study slavery's legacy and remedies. The film will soon be out on DVD, and they hope that faith communities and others will use it as a basis for dialogue.

They're taking individual steps, too. Hale has joined the diversity advisory council at her workplace. "The trip changed how I view the world and brought me the courage of my convictions," she says. "It feels like my thoughts and my deeds are now better lined up."

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