For centuries they were known as the “great folk,” wealthy and glamorous. In the seaside town of Bristol, Rhode Island, the DeWolfs were the luminaries: statesmen and professors, writers and wealthy merchants. The family’s wealth would have stood out anywhere, but in small town Rhode Island the family glittered with a special brilliance.
The DeWolfs shared one code: the “no-talk” rule. Never talk about sex, religion or politics. Or the fact that for years the DeWolfs were known as the ruthless US captains of the transatlantic slave trade.
After all, slavery belonged in the South. The North was supposed to be the home of staunch patriots and abolitionists, not of slave traders. Certainly not families like the DeWolfs, who from 1769-1820 adroitly manipulated every aspect of the Triangular Trade to become the largest slave traders in US history. Particularly once the Civil War was won, what was the sense in resifting through such old peccadilloes? Like others, the DeWolfs preferred to keep the memory of their New England forebears pristine.
But this year with the release of her first film, Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North, DeWolf descendant Katrina Browne is setting out to break her family’s silence. Part historical narrative, part chronicle of her clan’s efforts to grapple with their legacy, the film documents the journey of Browne and eight other DeWolfs as they retrace the Triangular Trade. From Bristol, where the family’s rum distilleries were based, the DeWolfs make their pilgrimage to the desolate dungeons of Ghana’s slave forts, where their ancestors bargained for enslaved Africans, to the ruins of a family-owned plantation in Cuba. Along the way, in tense and visceral meetings with Ghanians and African-Americans, the DeWolfs try to understand what their family’s historical responsibility means in a twenty-first-century America still highly segregated by race and class.
“I didn’t plan on being a documentary filmmaker,” says Browne, who first began researching DeWolf history as a 28-year-old student in seminary. “But this felt like a story that needed to be told.”
The film’s timing is fortuitous. This year marks the bicentennial of the US slave trade’s abolition–though to date the anniversary has received barely a nod. The Bush White House, bucking a past fondness for issuing celebratory bicentennial flourishes on behalf of events such as the Louisiana Purchase and the US Patent Office’s founding, has kept its press office quiet. A bill by Representative Donald Payne (D-New Jersey) that would establish a commission to pursue events in honor of the occasion inched its way through Congress in January, but only after all funding for such celebrations was stripped.
By contrast, last year when the United Kingdom marked its own bicentennial of the slave trade’s abolition, the British rolled out a lavish $40 million celebration ten years in the planning: national conferences, school programs and a crop of commemorative stamps and coins. Gordon Brown inaugurated an international museum–the first of its kind in the UK–dedicated to slavery.
In part, American reticence on this occasion can be linked to the anniversary’s double-edged significance in the United States. After all, while 1808 marked the formal US abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, nearly sixty years passed before the Thirteenth Amendment officially liberated the slaves in 1865. Meanwhile another hundred years of state-sanctioned lynching and Jim Crow would follow before blacks won the right to vote.