Legacy Post NEU Public History of Slavery

Painting Northern Complicity

A New England Family, a Plantation, and a Portrait

By Melissa Drake and Sarah Hudson


This piece reminds us of how U.S. slavery was an international network. Perhaps the most notable (and notorious) Rhode Islanders involved in the slave trade are the DeWolf family of Bristol, Rhode Island. From the documentary by DeWolf descendants, Tracing of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North (which resulted in the foundation of the Tracing Center), Thomas DeWolf’s Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History, and Cynthia Mestad Johnson’s James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Tradeand more work is now being done on this part of Rhode Island–and the nation’s–history. Drake and Hudson build on this recent attention, while emphasizing an aspect of the family’s history that is not discussed as often: their role as absentee plantation owners in Cuba.

The painting of Noah’s Arc (the plantation in Havana) can be see at the DeWolf’s former home, Linden Place. In addition to regular tours of the house and grounds, the museum also holds monthly tours focused specifically on the family and region’s history of slavery.

Painting Northern Complicity:

The closest point between Cuba and the United States is ninety-four miles. Until recently, the travel restrictions and general hostilities between the two countries have made that distance seem much further. However, a picture is worth a thousand words, and an early nineteenth-century landscape portrait illustrates that Cuban slavery and North American complicity were more intertwined than one might assume.

Christopher Columbus claimed the Caribbean island of Cuba for the Spanish crown in 1492. The island had previously been inhabited by the Taino people, most of whom died from a combination of disease and exploitation shortly after his arrival. The island’s Spanish population, however, thrived. By the mid-seventeenth century, as many as 25,000 inhabitants and 5,000 slaves from mainland Central America and Africa may have lived in Cuba. One hundred years later, the island boasted more than 170,000 residents, including nearly 50,000 slaves. Most of those slaves cultivated tobacco, coffee, and sugar. They worked on plantations owned by Cuban-born elites and Spanish-government-sponsored enterprises. In 1762, the British attacked and occupied Havana, ending the state-controlled agricultural monopoly. European powers, including Britain and its North American colonies, finally had unrestricted access to Cuban trade—and they wanted sugar.

In 1762, Cuban sugar cane grew on 10,000 acres of land. By 1792, that number rocketed up to 150,000 acres. In order to cultivate more sugar, plantation owners required an ever greater number of slaves. Between 1774 and 1792, Cuba’s slave population nearly doubled, growing from 44,000 to 85,000. Those numbers continued to increase dramatically over the next thirty years, reaching its apex in 1862—370,000 souls. Some people inherited their enslaved status from their parents. Others arrived in Cuba by way of the Atlantic Ocean, a journey that we know as the Middle Passage.

Figure 1. Johannes Vingboons (1665–1670). Havana Op’t Eylant Cuba (Havana Harbor).

According to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, a database that compiles information on more than 30,000 slaving voyages, 16,564 slave trading vessels— each transporting approximately 300 enslaved men, women, and children—sailed from Africa to various West Indies ports including Santo Domingo, Monte Christi, and, of course, Havana, Cuba. From 1514 to 1866, 4.2 million slaves, mostly men, made the 72-day journey. Of those 4.2 million, , 13%, or about 38 people per voyage, died at sea. Of those who managed to survive the Middle Passage, an estimated 600,000 went on the auction block in Cuba.

But who brought these slaves into Cuba, and who bought them once they got there? Slaving vessels sailing under the U.S. flag made more than 800 voyages from Africa to the Caribbean. From 1783 to 1808 alone, at least nine American slaving voyages carried around 900 enslaved people to Cuba. U.S.-born Cuban plantation owners likely bought some of them. As many as fifty North Americans kept slaves and plantations in the Cuban region of Mantanzas by the 1820s. A New Englander named Nathaniel Fellows, for example, owned three plantations and rented a fourth; more than 400 slaves labored between them. Another New England family, the DeWolfs of Rhode Island, owned several plantations and hundreds of slaves in Cuba. They also orchestrated some of the shipments that brought them there.

A large house sits behind an iron fence
Linden Place, c. 1937 by Arthur W. Leboeuf. Courtesy of the National Park Service.

Based out of Bristol, Rhode Island, several generations of the DeWolf family actively participated in the slave trade. All told, between the years 1769 and 1820, the family funded eighty-eight slave-trading voyages, which brought approximately ten thousand Africans to the Caribbean and mainland America. The DeWolfs also owned several sugar and coffee plantations. More than one hundred slaves, ninety-seven of whom experienced the Middle Passage, labored on James DeWolf’s Cuban coffee plantation, Mary Ann. The Arca de Noé, or Noah’s Ark, plantation belonged to James’s nephew, George.

From 1810 to 1825, George, the quintessential absentee land owner, ran the plantation from his Bristol residence, Linden Place, where he also oversaw many other business ventures, including slave trading and privateering. However, a failed sugar harvest in 1825 and the ensuing economic fallout forced George to declare bankruptcy. He and his family fled Bristol under cover of night, seeking safe haven on their Cuban plantation. George lived until 1844, and it is likely that slaves at Noah’s Ark continued to produce sugar until well into the 1850s. This brings us to a modestly-sized painting, only about 10×14 inches, which now hangs in the Linden Place historic house museum.

Buildings sit in the background of a large plantation with animals and trees in the foreground.
Noah’s Ark, c. 1825 by unknown artist. Courtesy of Linden Place.

We know little about this painting, save that it belonged to George DeWolf and depicts his Cuban plantation.The painting therefore dates to the first half of the nineteenth century. We do not know who painted this “house portrait” either.   Prior to the Civil War, amateur painters from plantation owners’ families often completed paintings of this type. George brought his wife and children to live on the Noah’s Ark in 1825, so perhaps one of them executed this portrait. Perhaps George’s daughter Theodora DeWolf Colt, who regained ownership of Linden Place in 1865, brought the painting back with her from Cuba. On the other hand, a member of the DeWolf family may have commissioned the work prior to 1825 with the intent of displaying it at Linden Place.

Regardless of how it came to be, the painting serves a dual purpose. Nearly two centuries after its creation, it reminds us that a Northern family owned hundreds of slaves in Cuba while residing in a state that began gradually emancipating its enslaved population in 1784. It illustrates that well into the nineteenth century that family’s economic livelihood depended upon a trade outlawed since 1808. The DeWolf family directly participated in the Middle Passage and slavery, transporting Africans to Cuba and beyond, all the while holding hundreds in bondage. The painting also provides a glimpse into how the DeWolfs, like other plantation owners of the American South and Caribbean, viewed their property—not just the land but also the enslaved humans.

Several cows on a grassy field
Detail of Noah’s Ark, foreground

In many ways, this painting exemplifies plantation painting prior to the Civil War; by the second half of the nineteenth century such landscapes took a distinct turn for the nostalgic. But before the abolition of slavery, plantation paintings had much more in common with European estate portraits. The painting’s style follows the European picturesque tradition, with the feathery brushwork, an emphasis on lush nature framing the foreground, and the hint of a stream running through the rolling fields. The picturesque contains both orderly and poetic elements, celebrating the natural landscape in conjunction with the progress of Western civilization. Though providing a nearly panoramic view, the physical labor necessary to run such a plantation remains largely absent. A few cattle and a single person, presumably a slave, are visually overwhelmed by the surrounding scenery; small and insignificant, they add a bit of variety to the foreground and little else. The painting places the house itself at a respectful distance, slightly to the side and up, as if the viewer must lift his or her head in order to gaze at it. Just behind the house, two gently smoking stacks of a sugar house peek out from behind, communicating that this is, specifically, a sugar plantation. All is peaceful. All is calm.

A building with two smokestacks billowing smoke.
Detail of Noah’s Ark, Sugar House

In essence, the estate portrait functions as an emblem of wealth. It serves as a visual record of the plantation owner’s prosperity and, due to the positioning of the house, central importance over everything around him. Whether this landscape portrait was exhibited in Linden Place prior to George’s move to Cuba, or was primarily displayed at Noah’s Ark itself, the painting would have served as a physical reminder of George’s authority and status as a landowner and, implicitly, a slave owner.

For all its picturesque tranquility, this plantation house portrait is hardly representative of how the Cuban landscape was peopled. Enslaved people made up more than 40% of Cuba’s population in 1827, two years after George’s arrival. In contrast, plantation portraits generally refrained from depicting the presence of slaves in any real capacity. What little is known about the daily life of the enslaved population of Cuba comes from the only two surviving narratives by Cuban slaves. Esteban Montejo, a Cuban slave born in the mid-nineteenth century, described the barracks, or barracóns, where the slaves lived:

All the slaves in barracoon. . . The barracoons were large, though some plantations had smaller ones: it depended on the number of slaves in the settlement. . . There were barracoons of wood and barracoons of masonry and tiled roofs. Both types had mud floors and were dirty as hell. (The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave)

Noah’s Ark surely contained slave quarters, and yet the numerous slaves and their “dirty as hell” barracks remain absent from the estate portrait.

John Michael Vlach, Professor Emeritus of American Studies and Anthropology at George Washington University, wrote extensively on American plantation paintings in The Planter’s Prospect. He argues that the lack of a black presence in this pre-Civil War period of plantation landscapes stems from a combination of aesthetic, class, and racial biases. He points out that on an artistic level, the British landscape tradition from which these paintings originated focused on the natural world rather than labor and people. Vlach goes on to suggest that the artists from whom plantation owners commissioned such paintings, or their artistically inclined family members, would have sought to flatter the patron and his family, centering them or representations of them, as the work’s focus. Contemporary proslavery rhetoric debased the slave population, making black figures unsuitable for portraiture. All of these elements of a plantation house portrait would also play into assuaging white anxiety about the large black population and the possibility of slave revolts. The primacy of the family over the landscape, through their house and the suppression of a black visual presence, provides “soothing propaganda” that reaffirms the family’s power and authority over both their land and human property.

To be sure, the Noah’s Ark landscape is not the only example of plantation portraiture from the period. For $15,000 one can even purchase a Cuban sugar plantation landscape purportedly painted by Charles DeWolf Brownell in the 1850s. Nor was Cuban slave and plantation ownership the only, or even the most prolific, way that Northern families involved themselves with slavery. In addition to their Cuban plantations, the DeWolfs were the largest slave trading family in North America. And they were not alone. Before the ban on the transatlantic slave trade in 1808, nearly 1,000 slaving voyages left mainland North America from Rhode Island ports—more than from any other state. After 1808, an untold number likely departed in secret.

Northern complicity in slavery extended beyond Rhode Island to the rest of New England and beyond the direct trafficking and enslavement of people to trades that supported the slave plantation economies in Caribbean islands like Cuba. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Northern colonies produced foodstuff and other goods for shipment to West Indies plantations, an exchange known as the provisioning trade. Many people are also familiar with the Triangle Trade: vessels transported New England molasses or rum to the African coast, merchants bartered their wares for slaves whom they sold in the West Indies and mainland North America. The shipping industry in cities like Boston and Newport, Rhode Island, flourished. Northerners benefited from American slavery too. Slaves toiled in New England fields, labored on docks and at sea, worked as drudges and artisans, and cooked, cleaned, and kept house until the second half of the eighteenth century. Even after Northern states made slavery illegal within their borders, business owners throughout the region continued to profit from slave labor. Thanks to the cheap cotton produced by slaves in the south, the United States textile industry in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts, prospered.

More than 375 years after the ship Desire arrived in Boston and unloaded the first recorded shipment of slaves to the regions, historical organizations—from the exhibits at Lowell’s National Park to Boston’s Black Heritage Trail, from Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice, to the Tales of the Slave Trade Walking Tour offered by the Linden Place Museum—have begun acknowledging the myriad ways that Northerners promoted and participated in the institution of slavery. So too, have many individuals, including DeWolf descendants, begun to speak about Northern complicity. Several members of the DeWolf family, led by Katrina Browne, traveled from Rhode Island to Africa to Cuba, literally tracing their ancestors’ connection to the trade. The journey resulted in a documentary and a memoir about their experience and led to the founding of Tracing Center, an organization that, among other things, aims to “create awareness of the full extent of the nation’s complicity in slavery” (Tracing Center,) Some DeWolfs continue to speak and write on the subject, including James DeWolf Perry who recently co-authored a book on interpreting slavery at museums and historic sites.

Stone ruins of a house
The Ruins of Noah’s Ark. Courtesy of Thomas Norman DeWolf.

A photograph of the ruins of Noah’s Ark, shot by Thomas Norman DeWolf, author, speaker,and Executive Director of Coming to the Table, closes this blog post. The photos stands in stark contrast with the portrait of Noah’s Ark, which continues to hang on the walls of Linden Place. But both share a legacy that has become part of a conversation that will continue for years to some.

Works Consulted:

Bergad, Larid W. The Comparative History of Slavery in Brazil, Cuba, and the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Browne, Katrina. Trace of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Documentary film. Cambridge, MA: Ebb Pod Productions, 2008.

Chambers, Steven. “At Home Among the Dead: North Americans and the 1825 Guamacaro Slave Insurrection.” Journal of the Early Republic 33 no. 1 (Spring 2013): 61–86.

Cuba and the Slave Trade,” Traces of the Trade. Accessed April 17, 2015.

DeWolf, Thomas Norman. Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History. Boston: Beacon Press, 2008.

Estimates Database 2009. Voyages: The Transatlantic Slave Trade Database. Accessed April 17,2015.

Farrow, Anne, Joel Lang, and Jennifer Frank. Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.

Mack, Angela D. and Stephen G. Hoffius, eds. Landscape of Slavery: The Plantation in American Art. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2008.

Marques, Leonardo. “Slave Trading in a New World: The Strategies of North American Slave Traders in the Age of Abolition.” Journal of the Early Republic 32 (Summer 2012): 233–260.

Montejo, Esteban. The Autobiography of a Runaway Slave. Translated by Miguel Barnet. New York: Pantheon Books, 1968.

Taylor, Alan. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Vlach, John Michael. The Planter’s Prospect: Privilege and Slavery in Plantation Paintings. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.