Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North In the 2008, documentary film, “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” written, co-produced, and co-directed by, Katrina Browne. Browne discovers that her New England ancestors were the largest slave traders in American history. She learned about her dreadful past when her grandmother compiled their family history. She discovered unbeknownst to her that she had been exposed to her family’s ugly secrets during childhood. Whilst reciting her favorite family nursery rhyme “Adjua and Pauledore” which was really about slave children. Slave children, her fifth great grandfather, James DeWolf, had given his wife for Christmas one year.
Moreover, Browne’s ancestors used their Bristol distillery to make rum, which they traded for African’s they captured off the coast of Africa. Their ships, loaded with rum and other goods, would then take their human cargos across the Middle Passage to ports in the Caribbean or South to the United States. There, they would sell the slaves and often buy cargos of sugar cane, molasses and other goods produced with slave labor to bring north to markets in New England. Distillers in the northeast would then make rum from the sugar cane, which in turn could be sold in Africa for more slaves.
For Browne’s slave trade documentary, she contacted two hundred DeWolf descendants. Browne said, only one hundred and forty of the two hundred relatives she contacted for the documentary responded. Many expressed concerns, including worries activists might demand reparations. And, one was worried about what his colleagues would think of him. In 2001, she, her sister and eight cousins retraced the so-called “Slave Triangle,” traveling from Rhode Island to the coast of Ghana and then to Cuba. During their expedition Browne gained a new perspective on the racial divide in the United States.
Her film discards the myth of the South being solely responsible for the African diaspora. Viewers will be appalled and often times moved to tears as they trek alongside the DeWolf’s during their documented voyage; revealing their Northern, New England heritage. Browne reveals her families legacy of slave trading and their inherited “slavery” dynasty. James DeWolf, sailed ships from Bristol, Rhode Island to West Africa with rum to trade for African men, women and children. Africans, who were baptized by so-called Christians, stripped of their birth names and confined to crowded dungeons beneath their captors.
The DeWolf captives were then taken to plantations that the DeWolf family owned in Cuba or were sold at auctions along the northern seaports. Also, sugar and molasses were brought from Cuba to the family owned rum distilleries in Bristol. If prices in the United States fell, the family would work the slaves on at least five Cuban plantations producing coffee, sugar and molasses until they could procure higher prices. Over generations, the family transported more than ten thousand enslaved Africans across the Middle Passage.
It is estimated that more than 600,000 Africans were taken from West Africa and shipped to Cuba over the course of three centuries, with tens of thousands dying during the brutal Atlantic Crossing. Throughout, this African holocaust, the DeWolf’s amassed an enormous fortune. A fortune built on a mountain of African corpses unwillingly led to the United States. The United States banned slave trading in 1808. However, Browne said family letters indicate the DeWolfs continued dealing in the African slave trade until the 1840’s by going through Cuba.
The slave trade, according to, Thomas DeWolf, “…it seems was not just one person or one family involved but the whole town. ” Almost every business and industry in the region traded or did business with merchants or shippers whose wealth was generated via the slave trade. In addition, those who invested in slaving voyages came from almost all walks of life. Oftentimes smaller shares were owned by ordinary tradesmen. Moreover, when the Newport, Rhode Island insurance companies stopped insuring slave vessels, James DeWolf founded his own firm.
James and his brothers owned the ships, plantations in Cuba, the rum distillery, the warehouse, and the insurance company, and they also owned the bank. Still, during the years slave trade was legal in the United States, James’s nephew Henry operated auction houses where cargoes of Africans were bought and sold. And the connections go on and on. A distant relative got himself appointed the customs collector in Bristol, by president Thomas Jefferson, he was responsible for inspecting all the cargoes that went in and out the seaports.
In addition, between 1790 and 1821, more than 240,000 enslaved Africans were brought to Havana, according to customs data, including the 53 captives who rebelled aboard the original Amistad in 1839, seizing the ship and sailing up the United States, East Coast. The Supreme Court eventually granted them freedom. The United States Congress has an apology resolution pending in the House of Representatives. In 2007, the legislatures of seven states had officially expressed regret for their involvement in slavery. Others had pending or proposed legislation in the works. Browne says she received hate mail from white people.
She also states, “It is a lot to ask black Americans to love white people, to forgive them…The accumulated rage passed down through the generations… needs an outlet, … how do we figure out how to honor and welcome those feelings and make up for the mistakes that were made without putting up our own brick walls? ” She then sighs.
“Maybe when white people, in word and deed, do everything in their power to apologize to black Americans…” In addition, Browne also supports payments to Americans of African descent to “level the playing field,” not “out of guilt, but grief,” though she is not in favor of cutting personal checks to individuals. The idea is “repair,” Browne states, “…best done through more systemic efforts, public and private to help people access the American dream. ” In my opinion that is quite noble of her. I commend her and her family for taking on such a momentous responsibility. The Bible says it best, in Luke 12:48, (NKJV) “…For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required…”
Courtney from Study Moose