Magazine article New African

My Ancestors Were Slave Traders: Vito Echevarria Reports on an Emmy-Nominated Documentary Which Details a New England Family's Prominent Role in America's Slave Trade

Magazine article New African

My Ancestors Were Slave Traders: Vito Echevarria Reports on an Emmy-Nominated Documentary Which Details a New England Family's Prominent Role in America's Slave Trade

Article excerpt

LAST YEAR, A NATIVE OF NEW England in the USA was nominated for an Emmy award for a film she made about her ancestors during America's colonial and post-colonial period. Katrina Browne made a fascinating documentary called "Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North", which uncovered unsettling aspects of her family's past from that period--the fact that it was a prominent trader in slaves.

During research on her family's background, Browne was disturbed to find that her privileged colonial-era ancestors, the DeWolf family, were significant Rhode Island-based entrepreneurs engaged in the slave trade. Going through ledgers, ships' logs, letters, and other documents, she found that between 1769 and 1820, ships owned by the DeWolfs transported rum from Bristol, Rhode Island, to Ghana where it was traded for African slaves (totalling over 10,000 unfortunate individuals). These Africans were then shipped to bustling slave markets in Havana, Cuba and Charleston, South Carolina. There were also slaves shipped to the sugar plantations in Cuba owned by the DeWolfs. Sugar and molasses produced by slave labour in Cuba were then transported to Rhode Island for rum production there, in a resumption of that triangular trade.

Traces of the Trade, which Browne worked on over a seven-year period, debunks the long-held perception among Americans that slavery only involved Southern US states and shows the stake that Northern US merchants, banks, insurers, shipbuilders, and others--rich and poor--had in that trade.

Like those who purchase Wall Street stocks nowadays, individual investors back then bought shares in American slave ships. Textile mills in the North processed slave-picked cotton, as part of the Industrial Revolution during those times--which attracted immigrants from various European countries.

DeWolf family members were pillars of their town's Episcopal Church, and were personal friends of President Thomas Jefferson. The most prominent member of the family was James DeWolf (1764-1837), who became a US senator and at one point was reportedly the second-richest person in America.

Apparently, old habits died hard for the DeWolfs, since they traded slaves well after it was declared illegal in America, and they owned plantations in sugar-rich Cuba long after the US Civil War ended in 1865. It is interesting to note that slavery did not officially end in Cuba itself until 1886.

Noting the significance of this history, Browne embarked on a difficult task-convincing 200 of her living relatives to accompany her on a trip to conduct a more thorough investigation of those ancestors. Of that number, only nine of her cousins came forward, and retraced their ancestry to the DeWolf family, from a cemetery site in Bristol, Rhode Island, to slave forts in Ghana, to the remains of a sugar plantation in Cuba.

With the DeWolfs' contact with Africa not venturing beyond Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, there was more on-site investigative work done in Cuba, where the family's physical presence was evident.

"The DeWolf family is believed to have owned at least five plantations in Cuba," said James DeWolf Perry when New African contacted him recently. The Cuba-based filmmaker Boris Ivan Crespo lent his support in researching Perry's family's Cuban connection. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.