Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Old DeWolf warehouse on the Bristol
waterfront, built in 1818. Sugar and
rum came and went here.

We're watching, at the moment, the P.O.V. documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Here's a bit of the synopsis:

Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North is a unique and disturbing journey of discovery into the history and "living consequences" of one of the United States' most shameful episodes — slavery. In this bicentennial year of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade, one might think the tragedy of African slavery in the Americas has been exhaustively told. Katrina Browne thought the same, until she discovered that her slave-trading ancestors from Rhode Island were not an aberration. Rather, they were just the most prominent actors in the North's vast complicity in slavery, buried in myths of Northern innocence. Browne — a direct descendant of Mark Anthony DeWolf, the first slaver in the family — took the unusual step of writing to 200 descendants, inviting them to journey with her from Rhode Island to Ghana to Cuba and back, recapitulating the Triangle Trade that made the DeWolfs the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Nine relatives signed up. Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North is Browne's spellbinding account of the journey that resulted.
As a result of co-teaching the Radical America learning community with the historian, I have had some sense of the way that the economy based upon slave labor extended into the North, but I really had no idea to what extent. So, for instance, in Bristol, where the deWolfs based their monumentally profitable slave trading, every aspect of the town's economy was involved, from the people in the town who bought shares in the voyages, to industries like foundries, warehousing (for rum and molasses), everything.

An historian in the film quotes John Adams, who said, "Why should we shrink from the fact that molasses was intimately involved in this country's independence?" The historian said, "He should have extended that sentence to say, 'molasses, sugar, and the slave labor that produced it.'"

I don't know about you, but I don't think I had quite put it to myself that way: that the economic power of the colonies, a prerequisite to the viability of the colonies' independence, was utterly dependent upon the slave trade and slave labor.

One more fact: the deWolfs, who were supporters of Jefferson's presidential campaign and who had contributed money to it, drew a political favor from him. Much of the time they were trading in slaves, the trade was illegal in the U.S. Jefferson appointed a member of the deWolf family as the customs inspector in Bristol.

I'm not sure if or when the film will air again, but take a look at the material on the web. Riveting and mind-blowing.


  1. Heard the POV podcast re: this doc. It sounds riveting.

  2. it sounds intriguing but also, i think that if i were to watch it i would end up more annoyed than anything...but you probably knew that...



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