Traces of the Trade: An Interview with filmmaker Katrina Browne

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Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution, part of the North/South compromise that allowed to Constitution to be ratified, stipulates that Congress shall not prohibit “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit . . . prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” Individual states could ― and Massachusetts did ― prohibit the importation of slaves earlier, but there could be no national law until 1808.

Nonetheless, there were efforts at restricting what was even then seen as a heinous practice ― the Atlantic slave trade. A 1790 law prohibited U.S. citizens from engaging in the slave trade to foreign ports. In 1794 it became illegal to manufacture, equip, or otherwise assist any vessels destined for the slave trade.

Congress being then much like it is now, it took from 1805 to 1807 to negotiate bills acceptable to a majority in the House and Senate, and on March 2, 1807, Thomas Jefferson signed the bill that made the importation of slaves illegal in the United States. That did not stop the practice. It took until 1820 to pass a law that equated participation in the slave trade with piracy and thus punishable by death. (source: www.american.edu/TED/slave.htm)


“People who have seen the film are as shocked as we were to learn this history – especially that is was so widespread, that people bought shares in the slave trade. You have to start thinking about the sugar in their tea, the cotton clothes, the coffee. That creates a real parallel to today.”

First-time filmmaker Katrina Browne’s documentary Traces of the Trade premiered at Sundance this year. She and nine other descendants of the DeWolf family, a Bristol, RI, slave trading empire, trace their ancestors` activities both before and after the slave trade was abolished in 1808 ― a quest which takes them from outside the gates of the family mansion-turned-house museum to the archives of the Bristol Historical Society, to Ghana and Cuba.

To mark the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the legal importation of slaves into the United States, and examine critically the centrality of the commerce surrounding slavery to the economy of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Massachusetts, Mass Humanities will feature Traces of the Trade in its Massachusetts history programming this fall. Program Officer Pleun Bouricius interviewed Katrina Browne by phone.

Pleun Bouricius: Katrina, First of all, thank you very much — not only for doing an interview with Mass Humanities — but also for making a very difficult project come to life.

Your film, Traces of the Trade, just premiered at Sundance to mixed reviews. Though I think it is one of the most powerful films – testimonials — I have ever seen, I am not surprised: the film is too realistic about race relations to be uniformly popular with the film crowd. I think it will be uniformly popular with the “humanities” crowd, though, because it raises many issues surrounding the power of history in today’s world, the long-term ramifications of economic choices that were made hundreds of years ago, and the relationship between citizen, state, and conscience in making those choices. What got you started on this project?

Katrina Browne: The starting point was my grandmother sending me a booklet she’d written for her grandchildren.  She was worried that we did not care enough about their family history. She put in a couple of sentences about our ancestors being slave traders. It wasn’t the focus of her booklet, but it was something she could easily have skipped over but she didn’t, and I give her so much credit for that. She was 88 – coming to the end of her life.

PB: It was her legacy.

KB: I had a double shock. First that I was descended from slave traders, and the second was that I realized already knew.  It gave me a sense of total disbelief, this feeling of shame that I had buried it. I subsequently talked to my college roommate who said, “you talked about this in college, “ and I said, “I did? I have no memory of that.” The only reason you’d forget something that big is because it is too painful.

PB: Or maybe because it was presented to you as normal.

KB: I think I would have remembered it if it was presented to me in a really dramatic way  — you know, my mother saying, “sit down, there’s something I have to tell you, let’s talk about it.” That didn’t happen, I think it was treated casually, mentioned in passing, in a way that trivialized, it, romanticized, even.  Because there was this kind of mystique that my mom’s generation got –”oh yeah, we heard about those pirates – those seafaring pirates” in a boys will be boys’ kind of way. A lot of people in my family have memories like this – a kind of romanticized, vague awareness that there was slave trade.

I assumed, initially that the fact that they were Northerners [was an anomaly]. I had a very rosy colored picture of my Yankee family as good citizens, contributing members of society, lots to be proud of, similarly about the North. All that was shattered by this news. But I actually assumed I was unfortunate enough to be descended from the only folks contradicting Northern goodness, and little did I know that they were very successful in something that was very pervasive in the Northern economy.  Right then Joanne Pope-Melish’s book, Disowning Slavery, came out, [which introduced me to the idea of] northern amnesia – it was a major epiphany to read her research and realize it was not just my ancestors, it was all of New England – it wasn’t just the slave trade, it was slavery itself. I thought, “How did I miss in school that there was slavery in the North?”

PB: The research is quite recent – it takes years to “trickle” from scholars to high schools.

KB: Black scholars have been talking about it for a while – which is important to name. W.E.B. Dubois did a major book on the slave trade much earlier [The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, New York: Longmans, Green, 1896], but that’s the kind of work that doesn’t get the attention it deserves. So it hasn’t been a secret in the work of black historians – in oral tradition also. But it is recent in terms of mainstream scholarship.

PB: That process of “discovery,” you might call it, parallels the way the practice of history has evolved – from history of institutions, heroes, to history of everyday, regular people, minorities.  If you look at the legal history surrounding the slave trade – which is what your film made me do – you find that, as of 1790, it was illegal for citizens of the United States to engage in the slave trade to foreign ports.

KB: There were various steps in making the trade illegal, and my cousin [James DeWolf Perry] is more articulate about them than I am. 1808 was the complete Federal abolition, but there were various phases so it is hard to make simple statements [about the legality or illegality of actions].

PB: So if you just look at the law then it looks like in New England slavery and the slave trade were outlawed as of the late 1700`s, and it was already gone. But the sources of historical study have started to change so much under the influence of historians who are not of the mainstream that we now know how pervasive New England`s involvement was, in the slave trade until the 1820`s and the economy of slavery until the Civil War.

KB: The slave trade was outlawed in Rhode Island in the late 1700’s – so the DeWolfs were breaking the Rhode Island law even prior to the 1808 Federal law, with the help of a customs officer appointed by Thomas Jefferson.

PB: Did Jefferson know?

KB: It’s not known whether he knew when he appointed their brother-in-law but he did know subsequently.  I have seen a letter from the collector of Ports in Newport — who was trying to obey the law – protesting to the government, so Jefferson would have known.

PB: Also, as of 1794, it was completely illegal, nationally, to equip ships that were used in the foreign slave trade. In other words, they could not outlaw the slave trade to the United States, because that was part of the compromise in the Constitution, but they did outlaw, nationally, so far as I know, the underlying industry. I think the language is “to manufacture, equip or otherwise assist any vessels destined for the slave trade.” All those ship builders, they were breaking the law, whether they knew it or not. That’s always the question, whether somebody knows it or not – which is a point in the film until one of your cousins exclaims, “they should have known that it was wrong, whether they did or not.” But you found out they knew what they were doing.

KB: Yes, and all of it created an intense feeling that I needed to deal with this.

PB: What made you tell the story as a film, since you aren’t a filmmaker by trade?

KB: I was in seminary, doing an academic Master’s thesis in Theology. I was drawn to Aristotle’s theories about Greek tragedies. Greek tragedies were part of civic festivals. People would go the plays and debate the politics of the day. Aristotle’s theory was basically that by watching a tragedy you go through an emotional catharsis by empathizing with the characters in the play: if they are experiencing tragic things you are brought to reflect on your life and the fragility of life. You become a better citizen by developing your capacity for empathy – and will create a better society as you participate in civic life.

That really clicked for me. I’d been working in race relations in Washington. I was aware that my white peers and I had a lot of emotional baggage that restrained our ability to “show up “ for racial justice work – from guilt to defensiveness to denial to fear to nervousness. [I felt that] the way to get past that isn’t to repress it, put it aside, but rather to own those feelings and then you can move on – a kind of catharsis.

Plays were the art form of the day back then but movies are the popular mass medium of today. Everybody talks about movies, but there aren’t as many really deliberate ways for us to talk about movies, learn from them, and talk about how they apply our political life, our civic life, and the decisions we make.

PB: No, outside of college that only happens in events that are sponsored by Humanities councils!

KB: So I was arguing we should use movies to talk about social and political issues, and simultaneously I get this booklet from my grandmother and embark on this investigation – this process of discovery around what turns out to be not only my family [history] but all of New England, all of the North and so I put two and two together.

I wasn’t about to write a play. With movies you can delude yourself into thinking that you can do it even though you have no training. Anyone can pick up a camera, right? Yeah right — I was totally kidding myself. I knew how to raise money and write grant proposals! But I am a technophobe. I had amazing co-directors, camera people, and editors. Though I would take credit for the vision, I give a lot of credit in particular to my phenomenal editor, Alla Kovgan.

PB: You contacted 200 family members, and nine made a journey of discovery with you, re-creating the triangular route the DeWolfs traded, from Rhode Island to Ghana, then Cuba, then back to Rhode Island. Were these “cousins” involved from the beginning?

KB: I felt from the start that it would be important to deal with what this history means in the present day, and since I was drawn to the idea that public life depends on emotional transformation and empathy, I knew it should be about talking to real people in the present day, and that I wanted to make it a family project. Very quickly, I was put in touch with more distant cousins who I’d never met before, like Holly, who is in the film, and got a lot of encouragement from them. From their reactions, it was clear that this was a collective issue for our family, that there were others who wanted to deal with it.

PB: You met with varying levels of success – which the film faithfully records. Ghana was a great success. In Cuba, however, the trip starts feeling weird, especially when you ate a five course “slave meal.” In public history there’s a fine line between conveying a real message and providing a cheap thrill. I am sure you gave that a lot of thought before filming at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, one of the “slave forts” where slaves were held prior to being shipped to the Americas? It has become a place of pilgrimage for African-Americans, and you had some difficult encounters there.

KB:  I would say one could never fully identify, even if you’re of African-American descendent. It’s impossible to completely walk in anyone else’s shoes. So I wouldn’t ever pretend that we could do that. However, going down into the dungeons in the slave forts forces a kind of reckoning. In our particular case, the impact was increased drastically because our camera-light battery died. Suddenly we were in pitch-blackness in one of those dungeons. The natural impulse is to just run for the door. We just stayed there, in silence, and everyone had very extreme reactions.

To a person, everyone in our group would say that it was the longest fifteen minutes of our lives. It was a turning point. And yet you can’t help but know that you are free to run out. You’re not even close to being under the circumstances of the people who were there in chains and yet it was enough of a jarring to be there in the dark – cockroaches, a little tiny window, and you can hear the ocean pounding against the fort. [Professor] Kofi Anyidoho had just explained to us that a lot of people were being marched from inland, didn’t know about the ocean. That itself would have been terrifying.

PB: The door in the fort is generally called the “door of no return.” I think you are telling me how clear it was that that dungeon, for so many people, must have brought some kind of realization that there was to be no return. In the film, dramatically, the Ghana part of the trip seems to take on some of that meaning: there was to be no return to life as usual for you and your family members.

KB:  I love it when people read something into the film that we weren’t conscious of. But I would hesitate to make that equation, since the “door of no return” was so extreme. The whole journey was a turning point. We will never be the same again.

One of the features of white privilege that really came home to us over and again is that you get to have these blinders on without realizing it. We walk around not aware of race and racism. We don’t think of ourselves as white, we just think of ourselves as people, as individuals. White Americans are sheltered. Those particular blinders are gone [for the members of the trip].

PB: Early 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?” As a historian, I knew about New England’s complicity in the slave trade and yet — I haven’t stopped wondering about my own complicity, today, ever since I saw the film. Are you getting a lot of reactions like that?

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 is 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.

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. One the other hand it is more disquieting –  “How about me and my participation today?”

PB: There are some parallels between your film and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, you have been accused of speaking comfortably from a platform of Northern privilege. I would argue that it could be more difficult for you to find a moral platform than Stowe.

KB:  I’m not going to perpetuate a comparison with Harriet Beecher Stowe, although I thank you for it. There’s a whole segment of white Americans who push us away because of our class background. They say, “this is your problem, you need to dig into your family vaults and pay reparations.” We don’t have family vaults, but we felt we had to own up to our elite position – hence a dinner scene in which we talk about our fathers (except Tom’s) attending Ivy League schools. It was important to us to own and acknowledge that fact.

But I did not want to reinforce the idea that it’s just our problem and everyone else is off the hook because, just objectively looking at things, it is about more than just the descendants of certain elite families. So we found some of the connections [to today’s world]. The Arkwright Mill, which was built with James DeWolf’s capital from the slave trade, is still doing business today. It is a way to talk about some of the history – the textile mills, the southern cotton, the sugar. Hopefully we found the right balance, to inspire people to do some more digging of their own.

PB: But even if people say “this is not my family” – the film shows a system that it still in place today – make a profit by getting labor cheap or for free, far away. How are people reacting to the film on that level? How was Sundance?

KB:  The audience response at Sundance was a great affirmation that we’re striking a sensitive chord.  I am getting intense emotional reactions to the film. It pushes people’s buttons that I am raising issues of white guilt. And that, to me, is exactly was the reason that I made it, in order to get those reactions. My hope is that people will talk about them rather than just complain about it and go away.

I hope with the Mass Humanities programming we can take a look at some of that– the process of taking stock, taking responsibility. My working class ancestors – I have those, too—were Irish and were able to move up due to the fact that they were white.

One of the theories going into the film – it stems from diversity training—is that white people need to do “white work” separate from an interracial setting, as much as blacks do. Audiences appear to appreciate the “naming” of that. It is proving to be true that white Americans do crave a space in which to talk about stuff that they typically find it really hard to talk about, like the history of slavery.

PB: The film opened on Martin Luther King day. How did the reactions of African-Americans compare to those of white Americans you just mentioned?

KB: The setting at Sundance wasn’t very diverse. But we had sneak previews in Rhode Island for various audiences. In diverse African-American communities, some people took the film in a way that I hoped it would be taken, as an apology, in and of itself. [Others] wished they had not watched it, and felt like they do not need to watch a white family struggling with this stuff, putting their foot in their mouth, while they already know the history. Some feel like they want whites to watch it, even if they do not because it is very painful. So we are not sure how to advertise it – do the programming around it—which is why we are happy to be having a dialogue about that with Mass Humanities.

For more information about Traces of the Trade, go to www.tracesofthetrade.org


Suggested readings:

Disowning Slavery: gradual emancipation and “race” in New England, 1780-1860 by Joanne Pope Melish (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1998).

The suppression of the African slave trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 by W.E.B. Du Bois; introduction by Saidiya Hartman. (New York, NY :Oxford University Press, 2007).

Inhuman Bondage: The rise and fall of slavery in the New World by David Brion Davis (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

The Final Victims: Foreign Slave Trade to North America, 1783-1810, by James A. McMillin (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2004). Includes a “Database of North American Foreign Slave Arrivals, Slave Voyages, and Foreign Slave Sales.

The Door of No Return: A spiritual pilgrimage for Africans in America by Mary A. Flowers (Philadelphia: Xlibris, 2000).

The Voyage of the `Frolic`: New England merchants and the opium trade by Thomas N. Layton (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997).


Published Mass Humanities. Spring 2008

©2008 The Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities