Monday, June 23, 2008

P.O.V.: Traces of the Trade | PBS

Film shows how North profited from slavery

JOANNE OSTROW; The Denver Post
Last updated: June 23rd, 2008 01:23 AM (PDT)

Katrina Browne’s wealthy Rhode Island clan has a secret. The well-mannered Yankees would rather not speak of it, but their forefathers were perhaps America’s biggest slave-trading dynasty.
After introducing her ancestors via distinguished-looking oil paintings in the family mansion, now a museum, Browne sets out to retrace the physical route and the rocky emotional terrain of how her forefathers built their fortune.

The journey – from tearful soul-searching to squirming at the dinner table when confronted with the family’s obvious elitism – makes for a stunning documentary.

“Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North,” airing Tuesday on PBS’ “P.O.V.,” is eye-opening and important, digging deeper than what may be comfortable into what stands in the way of race relations in this country.

The filmmaker, Browne, is a seventh-generation descendant of Mark Anthony DeWolf, the family’s first slave trader. From 1769 to 1820, the DeWolfs trafficked in human beings as part of what was know as the “Triangle Trade.”

They sailed their ships from Bristol, R.I., to West Africa with rum to trade for African men, women and children. Captives were taken to plantations that the DeWolfs owned in Cuba or were sold at auction in Havana or Charleston, S.C. The proceeds bought sugar and molasses in Cuba, which were shipped to the family-owned rum distilleries in Bristol.

Rum traded for slaves, slaves traded for sugar, sugar used to make rum.

Over the generations, the family owned 47 ships that transported thousands of chained Africans across the Middle Passage into slavery. By the end of his life, James DeWolf was reportedly the second-richest man in the United States. He was also a U.S. senator who was granted political appointments and other favors from none other than Thomas Jefferson.

The film upends stereotypical notions about the American North fighting for abolition while slaves toiled away down South. Browne documents how crucial the slave trade was to New England for more than 200 years.

Individual homes may have acquired one or two slaves, as opposed to the masses on plantations in the South, but the textile mills, banks and insurance companies in the North were built on profits from the slave trade.

The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, follows 10 of DeWolf’s descendants (ages 32-71, ranging from sisters to seventh cousins) as they retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade: the DeWolf mansion in Bristol, slave forts on the coast of Ghana and the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba.

Family archives document various trades: In one entry, nine slaves (one woman and eight men) were swapped for “tobacco, rum, hats, bread, mackerel.” James DeWolf once gave his wife two African children, a boy and a girl, as a Christmas present.

Back home, Browne delves into questions of repair: How do the sins of the fathers weigh on the sons and daughters; what should be done about it? Are financial reparations due, and what spiritual/emotional work is owed, as well?

The film was nine years in the making and ought to spark conversations on race for at least that long. “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” airs as part of “P.O.V.”

When: 10 p.m. Tuesday

Where: KCTS, Channel 9


Anonymous said...

Chinless white people feeling smugly guilty. Your tax dollars at work.

vrajavala said...

guess what? Obama's ancestors were slave traders and his Caucasian ancestors were slave owners.
Listen to Ted Hayes
Ted Hayes: Obama Stole Our Legacy


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