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Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North

Traces of the Trade is a feature documentary in which Producer/Director Katrina Browne tells the story of her New England ancestors, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Cameras follow as Browne and nine fellow descendants undertake a journey of discovery to Rhode Island, Ghana, and Cuba. Retracing the steps of the notorious Triangle Trade, we uncover a family's, a region's, and a nation's hidden past. Simultaneously, viewers will follow descendants of the DeWolf family as they grapple with the contemporary legacy of slavery, not only for black Americans, but for themselves as white Americans. The film is intended as a catalyst for dialogue and education through screenings in communities and classrooms, and discussion guides and other materials are being developed.

Film Synopsis

In Traces of the Trade, Producer/Director Katrina Browne tells the story of her forefathers, the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. Given the myth that the South is solely responsible for slavery, viewers will be surprised to learn that Browne's ancestors were Northerners. The film follows Browne and nine fellow family members on a remarkable journey which brings them face-to-face with the history and legacy of New England's hidden enterprise.

From 1769 to 1820, DeWolf fathers, sons and grandsons trafficked in human beings. They sailed their ships from Bristol, Rhode Island 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 such ports as Havana and Charleston. Sugar and molasses were then brought from Cuba to the family-owned rum distilleries in Bristol. Over the generations, the family owned 47 ships that transported thousands of Africans across the Middle Passage into slavery. They amassed an enormous fortune. By the end of his life, James DeWolf had been a U.S. Senator and was reportedly the second richest man in the United States.

The enslavement of Africans was business for more than just the DeWolf family. It was a cornerstone of Northern commercial life. The Triangle Trade drove the economy of many port cities (Rhode Island had the largest share in the trade of any state), and slavery itself existed in the North for over 200 years. Northern textile mills used slave-picked cotton from the South to fuel the Industrial Revolution, while banks and insurance companies played a key role throughout the period. While the DeWolfs were one of only a few "slaving" dynasties, the network of commercial activities that they were tied to involved an enormous portion of the Northern population. Many citizens, for example, would buy shares in slave ships in order to make a profit.

The film follows ten DeWolf descendants (ages 32-71, ranging from sisters to seventh cousins) as they retrace the steps of the Triangle Trade, visiting the DeWolf hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, slave forts on the coast of Ghana, and the ruins of a family plantation in Cuba. Browne pushes the family forward as they struggle through the minefield of race politics. One year later, the family reunites in order to confront the thorny topic of what to do now. In the context of growing calls for reparations for slavery, family members struggle with the question of how to think about and contribute to "repair." Meanwhile, Browne and her family come closer to the core: their love/hate relationship with their own Yankee culture and privileges; the healing and transformation needed not only "out there," but inside themselves.

Distribution and Timeline

Traces of the Trade has been independently produced for national and international distribution. The film is also intended as a catalyst for dialogue and education through screenings in communities and classrooms. We will partner with civic and community associations, race dialogue groups, museums and historical societies, religious congregations, high schools, college and universities, etc. We are developing discussion guides, study guides and other materials to facilitate use of the film, including the expansion of this website.

The film will be released on the occasion of the Bicentennial of U.S. Abolition of the Slave Trade. This law was signed by President Thomas Jefferson on March 2, 1807 and went into effect January 1, 1808. Major cultural institutions in the U.S. are now organizing commemorative and educational events, partly inspired by events this year in England where they are recognizing the Bicentennary of their close of the trade. To tell the story of the outlawing of the U.S. trade is to tell the story of the politics and economics of Northern ships sailing to Africa, with Northern trade goods, and Northern financial backing.

If you would like to be on the mailing list to find out when the film is being released, please e-mail us at info@tracesofthetrade.org. Please indicate how you would like to be contacted (e-mail or postal address). If you have a professional interest, please indicate the nature of your interest as we will do specialized mailings for groups such as:

  • teachers and professors (indicate grade/class level)
  • museums and historical societies
  • religious congregations
  • media centers
  • race relations dialogue groups
  • workplace diversity training programs
  • civic and community organizations
  • youth programs

Ebb Pod Productions (2007)

Resource Link: www.tracesofthetrade.org


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