An evil business that benefited a whole country

Slaving was a maritime trade in the 18th and early 19th centuries, a block in the very foundation of the United States. Anyone, particularly a white New Englander who likes to think he or she didn’t benefit from slaving because it was a Southern phenomenon, is sadly mistaken.

At least seven members of the DeWolf family were directly involved in the trade, buying, selling, captaining ships and otherwise overseeing the transport of Africans from Ghana to the New World, particularly Cuba and the United States. They made millions of dollars in the business. Based in Bristol, Rhode Island, DeWolfs owned shares in plantations in Cuba until the 1850s, where slaves produced coffee in addition to the sugar and rum of with the earlier “triangle trade.”

Such facts are the backdrop for a remarkable effort by several contemporary members of the DeWolf family, now scattered across the United States, to come to terms with their family legacy. Thomas Norman DeWolf, the author of this book, is an Oregon resident who served on that state’s arts commission for several years. Katrina Colston Browne, a younger distant cousin and a filmmaker, set out several years ago to make a documentary film about her family and its connections to the slave trade; she enlisted Thomas and eight other family members (some of whom had never met each other) to take part.

Katrina Browne’s project produced at least two tangible results: her film, a rough cut of which was screened for attendees at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church four years ago; and Thomas DeWolf’s remarkable book, which recounts his and his cousins’ trips to Bristol, Ghana and Cuba to take part in the filming and learn more about their family’s past. Less tangible but more compelling are the facts and lessons the DeWolfs and their entourage learned as they participated in the project.

“I had no clue how pervasive this business was,” writes Thomas DeWolf as he describes what amounted to a vertically integrated maritime business whose tentacles spread widely across New England and the rest of the early United States. “In the slave trade, it seems that it was not just one person, or one family, who was involved but the whole town – when the Newport [RI] 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. During the final four years the trade was legal in the United States, James’s nephew Henry operated an auction house in Charleston, South Carolina, where cargoes of Africans could be sold.” And the connections go on and on … a distant relative got himself appointed the customs collector in Bristol by Thomas Jefferson, and was responsible for inspecting all the cargoes that went in and out – a valuable position when one’s relatives are involved in a trade that Congress first legislated against in 1807 and completely banned in 1820.

Inheriting the Trade, however, is far more than a history book. At heart it’s a discussion among members of one family of what it means to be white and privileged in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, in a country where so much of the early economy was based on the labor of black people brought there against their will. Thomas DeWolf asserts his own belief that once whites become aware of how they have benefited, apologies are in order. Then “all members of society share an obligation to attempt to repair the damage inflicted due to the legacy of slavery.” And finally, he says, “the harmed party” (descendants of slaves) must “offer forgiveness.”

DeWolf doesn’t deny the difficulty of dealing with this legacy. “There are no simple answers,” he writes at the end of his story. “But if we don’t confront these challenging issues, we will resolve nothing.”

Inheriting the Trade is a courageous, introspective book that deserves wide attention. Americans who read it, and who take its message to heart, will become part of a healing process that this country desperately needs.


David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.