“Traces” in Massachusetts

by Pleun Bouricius

still photo from filmThis fall, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade, Mass Humanities will present Massachusetts and the Economy of Slavery in towns across the commonwealth. Featuring screenings at various historical sites of a Mass Humanities funded short version of Katrina Browne’s documentary Traces of the Trade, and paired with archival materials, the program will provide an opportunity for scholar-led public discussions of the centrality of the business of slavery to the Massachusetts economy prior to the Civil War, as well as the “traces” of this economy in our economy and landscape today. In the film, Browne discovers that her New England ancestors were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. She and nine cousins retrace the Triangle Trade and gain a powerful new perspective on the black/white divide.

The following is an excerpt of an interview with Ms. Browne about the film, conducted by Mass Humanities program officer Pleun Bouricius.

PB: In the film, your cousin Tom asks an important question of one of the historians telling the group about the deep involvement of all of New England, up and down the social scale, in the slave trade: “Is there anyone not involved?”

KB: The vast majority of people who have seen the film say that they are as shocked as we all were to learn this history—especially the idea that it was so widespread, that people bought shares in the slave trade. You have to start thinking about the sugar in the tea, the cotton clothes, the coffee. That creates a real parallel to today. Initially, I asked, “How could they do this? What allowed them to perpetrate such a cruel business for so many years? How could they be the ships’ captains with people screaming in the holds below?”

But then you do bump up against the mundane complicity of ordinary people—churchgoing people—not wanting to do harm explicitly and purposefully. We started talking to scholars and they told us that the trade routes and exchange of raw materials and manufactured goods between the North and the West Indies were simply a fact of life.

PB: Was the 1807 law abolishing the slave trade the end of New England involvement?

KB: If you just look at a legal history you can say slavery and the slave trade were abolished in the North early on. But then how is everyone making their money? They are still involved in trade with either the American South or the West Indies. The ship builders, the coopers who made the barrels to hold the rum, the ironworkers who made the chains and the shackles, and the farmers in Connecticut who grew foodstuffs that were traded both in Africa and to provision the West Indies. One layer after another of participation in this slave-based economy.

It was a real eye-opener for us. On the one hand it becomes less disquieting, you can wrap your head around it more—most people weren’t actively making the choice, they were surviving. On the other hand it is more disquieting—“How about me and my participation today?”

For the full interview, please visit www.masshumanities.org

Visit www.tracesofthetrade.org for more information about the film.

©2008 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities

Published Mass Humanities, Fall 2008