Saturday, April 3, 2010

US Family Finds Slave-Trade Past in Cuba, Doctorow: What We've Become

Sent: Friday, April 02, 2010 12:44 PM

Friends: Below is a sensational observation from E.L. Doctorow sent by my
friend Tom Sawyer. Yes that's his name, and he, like Doctorow, is a
terrific writer. Next Monday CONNECT THE DOTS will be hosted by Brad
Parker, author of LEFT TURN ONLY, and major leader in the Progressive wing
of the Democratic Party. Worth hearing. I do one interview on the show
with Helen Caldicott on Obama's plan to regenerate the nuclear industry.
That plus Obama's announcement that he's changed his mind, this time on
nuclear energy. He has approved drilling for oil in most of our few
remaining pristine areas, including Alaska. This means, what? The
fulfillment of the Bush-Cheney agenda? The decline and fall of the polar
bear? The last chance to take a healthy breath? All three?

I'll be back on the air April 12th. Meanwhile listen to Brad on Monday,
April 5th. He's knows everything. .. Lila

- - -

From: Thomas B. Sawyer
Subject: Ed Doctorow on What We've Become

Many of us have forgotten the effect on this country of the Reagan
administration. A powerful reminder is to be found in the words of E.L.
Doctorow, writing in 1989 -- words that resonate today:
"The philosophical conservative is someone willing to pay the price of other
people's suffering for his principles. And so we now have hundreds of
thousands, perhaps millions, of our citizens lying around the streets of our
cities, sleeping in doorways, begging... We didn't have a class of permanent
beggars in this country... fifteen or twenty years ago. We didn't have kids
selling crack in their grade schools, or businessmen magnifying their
fortunes into mega-fortunes by stock manipulation and thievery. I don't
remember such epidemics of major corporate fraud.

A decade ago you did not have college students scrawling racial epithets or
anti-Semitic graffiti on the room doors of their fellow students... So
something poisonous has been set loose in the last several years as we have
enjoyed life under the power and principles of political conservatism...part
of this poisonous thing that I'm trying to describe is its characteristic
way of dealing with criticism: it used to be enough brand a critic as a
radical or a leftist to make people turn away. Now we need only to call him
a liberal."


NO PLACE TO RUN is a thrill-a-minute ride. Members of the 9/11 Commission
who read this compelling, entertaining novel will squirm.
Gerald Petievich - Author of THE SENTINEL and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A.


Wed Mar 31, 2010 2:34 pm (PDT)

AP: US Family Finds Traces of Slave-Trade Past in Cuba

Scions of largest slave-trading family in US history confront ugly past in
Cuban countryside

The Associated Press


James DeWolf Perry VI's great-great-great-great-great-grandfather used
African slaves to grow coffee on this rocky hillside outside Havana, and to
him its thorny weeds and small sugar plots feel haunted.

"Do you feel the ghost of James DeWolf out here?" asks Katrina Browne,
Perry's distant cousin.

"Yes," he replies, drawing out the word in a long, awkward breath.

Both are descendants of the DeWolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island, who became the
biggest slave-trading family in U.S. history, shipping well over 11,000
Africans to the Americas between 1769 and 1820. It was a business that made
the family patriarch, James DeWolf, America's second-wealthiest man.

The cousins came to Cuba this week as part of a visit by the U.S. replica of
the 19th-century slave ship Amistad - which on Wednesday wrapped up a 10-day
educational mission to the island.

For Perry and Browne it's been a journey into their family's troubling past
that is far more personal than scouring genealogy records or government

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
U.S. East Coast. The Supreme Court eventually granted them freedom - an
inspiring end to a shameful chapter in America and Cuba's shared history.

Perry and Browne visited the sugar-growing, cattle-raising town of La
Madruga, 30 miles southeast of the capital, hoping to find vestiges of what
was once a family plantation called "Mount Hope."

"To gaze at these hills, to be in his fields, on the land that was his
holdings, it's another way to make a tangible connection," Perry, a Harvard
University Ph.D. candidate concentrating on the Rhode Island slave trade,
said of James DeWolf.

"There's no hiding the reality when you see the land."

Browne, who made a documentary of her ancestors' rum-for-slaves business,
noted how the royal palm trees swaying in the hot breeze matched drawings in
the diary of one of the family's overseers.

"It's sheer evil," she said.

Some of what likely encompassed Mount Hope is now land controlled by Cuba's
armed forces. But a dusty back road, deeply rutted by tractors and
horse-drawn carts, leads to stony highlands described in family records.

There isn't much there now, apart from scarecrows guarding cane fields and
banana trees, and an occasional cow. A nearby village is known today as "La
Esperanza," or "Hope," though locals are unsure whether the name has
anything to do with the DeWolfs.

James DeWolf owned Mount Hope until his death in 1837. He represented Rhode
Island in the U.S. Senate, and though the state outlawed the slave trade in
1787, it continued to profit enormously for decades afterward - belying the
popularly held belief that slavery was strictly a southern phenomenon.

Most of the DeWolfs' African captives were sold at auction in South Carolina
or Havana. If prices in the U.S. fell, the family would work the slaves on
at least five Cuban plantations producing coffee, sugar and molasses until
they could fetch higher prices.

Perry said the Cuban operations were a key source of income, but mostly
served as a side business to stoke the DeWolfs' U.S. slave trade operation.

The U.S. banned the slave trade in 1808, but Browne said family letters
indicate the DeWolfs continued dealing in African captives until the 1840s
by going through Cuba. They also got help from a DeWolf brother-in-law, who
served as a customs inspector in Bristol - thus ensuring family slave ships
continued to come and go.

Browne wrote, co-directed and co-produced "Traces of the Trade," a 2008
documentary detailing how her ancestors used a Bristol distillery to make
rum, which they traded for African captives.

She learned of the DeWolf past 14 years ago, when her 88-year-old
grandmother compiled a family history. Browne began digging and found she
had been exposed to her family's ugly secrets as a child. A favorite family
nursery rhyme "Adjua and Pauledore," she discovered, was really about child
slaves James DeWolf gave his wife for Christmas one year.

"Everything I learned just got worse and worse," she said, "and flew in the
face of my image of my family as good, sensible northerners."

For her documentary, Browne contacted 200 DeWolf descendants. In 2001, she,
Perry and eight other cousins retraced the so-called "Slave Triangle,"
traveling from Rhode Island to the coast of Ghana and then to Cuba.

While on the island, they used machetes to hack through jungle south of
Havana, reaching ruined walls and other relics of another family plantation
called "Noah's Ark."

For that trip, Browne hired a Cuban producer who put together a film crew,
obtained necessary government permits and scouted locations.

This time, the communist government was even more cooperative - as it often
is on U.S. historical projects, especially those exploring unsavory aspects
of America's past.

Authorities granted Browne and Perry special access to archives, and the
pair was featured on state television. That support helped them search
customs books for records of Bristol-registered vessels at Cuba's National
Archives and to screen her documentary. When shown the film, some
Afro-Cubans choked back sobs.

Perry and Browne, both 42, say they did not inherit proceeds from the slave
trade because family records indicate James DeWolf's immediate descendants
squandered the fortune within two generations.

"To that, I say, 'Thank goodness.' I would not want to find out that I grew
up wealthy because of that," Perry said.

Still, he said there is no doubt his family name and roots opened
educational and professional doors. Other branches of the family did receive
large inheritances, and establishing whether any of DeWolf's thousands of
descendants got slave proceeds is difficult.

Browne said 140 of the 200 relatives she contacted for the documentary
didn't respond. Many who did expressed concerns, including worries activists
might demand reparations.

Browne 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'," she said. "And that is best done through more
systemic efforts - public and private - to help people access the American

While both she and Perry have worked to uncover their family's role, they
say no Americans - even those whose descendants came to the U.S. after
slavery was abolished - should feel unaffected. The early U.S. economy so
relied on slavery that it fueled a boom, making America an attractive
destination for immigrants, they maintain.

"None of us," Perry said, "are untouched by the legacy of slavery today."

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