Legacy Post NEU Public History of Slavery

Horror Made Illegal

The Middle Passage and the U.S. Navy in the Nineteenth Century

by Cameron Boutin and Jordan Barnes


In this essay, Boutin and Barnes examine the ambivalent stance taken by the U.S. following the abolition of the slave trade in 1808, despite the continuation of enslaved labor within the country. They compare the mixed enforcement record of the U.S. Navy to that of Britain’s in terms of finding and capturing ships illegally engaged in transported captured African people across the Middle Passage.

Included in this discussion is the resistance of those on the ships to their forced migration, with the Amistad serving as a key example. Although the ship was seized near Long Island, New York, the ship docked in Connecticut (where the subsequent trial took place), in part because slavery was still legal in that state and Lieutenant Thomas R. Gedney, who had captured the ship, hope to claim the human cargo as his property under maritime salvage laws. For more on the Amistad, see our Resources page.

The Horror Made Illegal:

Laws put a legal and theoretical end to certain practices – such as the international trade in enslaved Africans, who for several centuries were subjected to the horrors of the Middle Passage. The United States abolished the international slave trade in 1808 and Great Britain had abolished it in 1807. Yet these laws abolishing the international slave trade were only as good as their enforcement by Great Britain and the United States, which was often sporadic, and the illicit nature combined with rising profits made conditions on slave ships even more wretched and fatal.

An underwater sculpture of 26 people forming a circle hand in hand facing out into the ocean
Davide Carozza, “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University, (accessed on July 25, 2015).

The process of abolishing, enforcing, and prosecuting the international slave trade after 1807 and 1808 was quite uneven, and for the decades between the abolition of the international slave trade and the abolition of slavery itself, Africans continued to endure the Middle Passage between Africa and the United States. Both the United States and Britain committed to ending the slave trade, but their unique situations led to vastly different results. In the U.S., the enforcement of the acts that banned the slave trade and condemned it as an act of piracy fell to the navy, which faced political and practical problems that prevented it from committing fully to the prosecution of the trade and the freeing of enslaved Africans.

Between 1807 and 1820, the Congress passed several acts in an attempt to find a legal solution that discouraged the illegal trade and provided effective enforcement. In March of 1807, Congress passed a law to close the slave trade, setting the next nine months as the period for traders to close their operations. The established penalties affected the various elements of the slave trade. Slavers, suppliers, and buyers all faced fines up to $10,000 and jail time as well as the forfeiture of slaves and ships. In 1818, a new statute was passed that lowered fines to $5,000 and imprisonment to no more than seven years. This alteration did not reflect new views of the trade as less heinous but rather brought the punishments into the typical range of the era. In the most influential legislation since 1807, Congress passed new laws in 1819 that condemned the enslavement of people through its provisions for returning enslaved people to Africa and setting rewards for rescues. This stands in contrast to earlier laws that focused merely on the suppression of an illegal trade. To facilitate these new goals, the law authorized the President to send “armed vessels of the United States, to be employed to cruise on any of the coasts of the United States … or the coast of Africa.” This new intent behind prosecution of illegal slave trading became more explicit when slavery was made an act of piracy, the worst crime on the sea, by Congress in 1820.1)

These pieces of legislation required constant enforcement on the seas. Trade in slaves was lucrative prior to the abolition and became more so once the United States officially shut it down. The United States deployed the African Slave Trade Patrol Squadron to the West Coast of Africa in 1819. Its presence for the next two decades was sporadic, however, due to rotations and the small number of ships in the U.S. Navy.2)

The Squadron failed to make any major captures during this time. This lack of captured slave ships, however, was not an accurate representation of the amount of illegal trade being conducted. In contrast, the British Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron was quite successful during this period. In 1828-1829, the HMS Black Joke successfully took eleven slave ships, a fraction of the overall accomplishments of the Royal Navy. Further proof of the endurance of the Middle Passage lies in accounts of ships taken over by slaves themselves. Most famously, the slaves on board the Cuban schooner Amistad seized the ship on July 1, 1839, and ordered the captain and crew to sail the ship back to Africa. On August 24, 1839, the U.S. brig Washington apprehended the Amistad off of Long Island, New York. On one level the Amistad trial documents testified to the illegality of the international slave trade. A court summary of the enslaved Africans’ experiences, for example, emphasized the “unlawfullness” of their capture and sale:

That on or about the 15th day of April, 1839, they were, in the land of their nativity, unlawfully kidnapped, and forcibly, and wrongfully, by certain persons to them unknown, who were there unlawfully and piratically engaged in the slave trade between the coast of Africa and the island of Cuba, contrary to the will of these respondents, unlawfully, and under circumstances of great cruelty, transported to the island of Cuba for the unlawful purpose of being sold as slaves, and were there illegally landed for that purpose.3)

A full page of handwritten words on paper
“The Slave Trade: The Amistad Africans: Answer of S. Staples, R. Baldwin, and T. Sedgewick, Proctors for the Amistad Africans, to the several libels of Lt. Gedney, et. al. and Pedro Montes and Jose Ruiz, January 7, 1840 (page 3)” National Archives. (Accessed 25 July 2015)

In terms of enforcement, however, the capture, sale, and trafficking of African people was not as illegal as the court summary insisted. The very fact of the trial, and the presence of the captive Africans who spoke there, revealed that the Middle Passage had not ended. The summary’s repeated insistence of the “unlawfulness” of each step in the captives enslavement, sounded hollow against the very evidence of slave trading that it provided.

The United States Navy was entirely ineffective at stopping ships like the Amistad, the slave trade, and the Middle Passage until 1842 when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was signed. Previously, the British Royal Navy stopped U.S. ships suspected of carrying slaves as part of its efforts to suppress the slave trade. This was a major point of contention with the U.S. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the issue by establishing a much more permanent American naval contingent off the coast of Africa to assist in the enforcement of the abolition of the international slave trade.4)

After years of not actively being involved in combating the international slave trade, and thus allowing thousands of slaves to suffer during the journey across the Atlantic Ocean, the United States began to once again suppress the illegal commerce in the 1840s. Despite the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and the U.S.’s renewed commitment to maintain a naval patrol near the coast of Africa, issues relating to the Navy’s leadership contributed to the Middle Passage’s continued existence. Matthew Perry, the commander of the African patrol, was a native of Rhode Island and connected to families with histories of slaveholding. Since his home state’s prosperity had been partly built on the commerce in slaves, Perry was inclined to turn a blind eye to the illegal trade. Perry was almost as keen to prevent the British from inspecting ships with United States flags as he was to abolish the trade.5)In a letter sent in September, 1843, Perry wrote: “I cannot hear of any American vessels being engaged in the transportation of slaves; nor do I believe there has been one so engaged in several years.” 6)An order dispatched to Perry’s eventual successor, Admiral Charles Skinner, further reflects that the Navy’s commanders were more concerned about protecting international commerce than saving Africans from the horrors of slavery by ending the illegal trade. Skinner was told that “the rights of our citizens engaged in lawful commerce are under the protection of our flag. And it is the chief purpose, as well as the chief duty of our naval power, to see that those rights are not improperly abridged.”7)

A typed manifest form listing the names of enslaved people
Slave manifests document the transportation of slaves throughout the southern ports, National Archives (Accessed 25 July 2015)

Even though the leaders of the U.S. Navy were not wholeheartedly dedicated to stopping the slave trade, the American ships patrolling the African coast began to show some effectiveness in their suppression efforts and several vessels transporting slaves were captured. One notable slaver that was seized was the Spitfire, a New Orleans vessel that was captured on the Pongo River in Guinea in March, 1845 by the naval warship Truxton. The Spitfire may have only been a relatively small craft, but it crammed 346 slaves in its hold and intended to sell them in Cuba. Henry Bruce, the commander of the Truxton, reported that “between [the Spitfire’s] decks, where the slaves were packed, there was not room enough for a man to sit, unless inclining his head forward; their food was half a pint of rice per day, with one pint of water. No one can imagine the sufferings of slaves on their passage across, unless the conveyances in which they are taken are examined.” 8)Bruce’s report clearly demonstrates that the Middle Passage was as nightmarish an experience in the nineteenth century as it was in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Confined to extremely tight quarters in the dark depths of a ship and given little food or water would have inflicted severe and potentially irrevocable physical, emotional, and psychological harm on the enslaved men and women.

The U.S. Navy’s success in capturing the Spitfire and several other slaver ships, such as the Pons, which was carrying 896 slaves when it was seized in 1845, led to the African naval patrol being strengthened in order to further increase its proficiency. However, the fact that the American warships needed to continue to hunt down and capture slaving vessels signified the persistence of the illegal slave trade. The Navy’s patrol ships did not only target vessels that were specifically carrying enslaved people at that time. The U.S. naval forces seized ships that contained evidence of regular slave trading activities, including paperwork indicating involvement in the illegal commerce or the actual physical restraints and other items employed  to confine slaves. One type of document that both signified a vessel’s ties with slave trading and the continued existence of the Middle Passage was the ship manifest which recorded detailed lists of the slaves being transported across the Atlantic, such as the manifest from a craft bound for Mobile, Alabama in 1844.

An example of the Navy capturing vessels carrying evidence indicating slave trading is the Martha, a large ship from New York that was seized by the naval vessel Perry in June 1850 near Ambriz, Angola. The Martha’s captain attempted to escape the Navy’s justice by throwing his desk containing documents on the ship’s slaving transactions overboard, but it was soon recovered and the naval officers discovered other evidence of slaving practices. The captain of the Martha ultimately “admitted that, had it not been for the interruption, he would have taken on board 1,800 slaves that night.” 9)The capture of the Martha was later depicted in an illustration because it was such a major success for the African naval patrol and saved a large number of people from being subjected to a life of slavery.

Two ships on the ocean facing each other
U.S. brig Perry [confronting] American slave ship Martha “off Ambriz June 6, 1850.” lithograph. Plate facing pg. 286: Foote, Andrew Hull. Africa and the American Flag. (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1854) Source: (Accessed 25 July 2015).

Navy ships continued to patrol the African coastline throughout the 1850s, but nevertheless the illegal slave traffic could not be completely suppressed and Africans still were forced to endure the Middle Passage. Even when slavers were captured by the naval patrol, not all of the enslaved people managed to survive and enjoy a life of freedom. For example, the naval ship Saratoga boarded the Nightingale of Boston at St. Thomas in January 1961 and found that she had 961 slaves on board and was expecting more. 10)The Saratoga seized the slaver ship and freed the slaves, but by the time that the liberated people were transported to Liberia, 160 of them had died from fever. The Middle Passage claimed the lives of Africans in both directions of the route, both from Africa to the Americas and from the Americas to Africa. Besides those liberated slaves who died at sea, others must have suffered from the same sickness. Additionally, the entire shipload of former slaves found themselves delivered to a region of Africa that was not necessarily anywhere near their original home, providing them with new hardships to face.

The outbreak of the American Civil War later in 1861 ended the operations of the African naval slave patrol, since essentially all of the Navy’s ships were utilized to blockade the Confederacy. In the approximately 40 years that the Navy patrolled the waters west of Africa, they captured more than 100 suspected slavers. 11)However, compared to the efforts of the British, whose West Africa Squadron was always much larger than the American contingent and captured hundreds of slavers, the American contribution to ending the illegal slave trade was minimal. Even those men who were arrested for engaging in slaving were rarely convicted or punished in any significant way. Rather than focusing on suppressing the illegal traffic, the U.S. was more concerned with using its naval forces in tasks such as protecting international commerce and participating in military conflicts. In an era in which the international trafficking of slaves was supposed to have been eradicated, tens of thousands of Africans were subjected to the harsh and life-threatening conditions of the Middle Passage, in no small part due to American policies and practices.


The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The U.S. Constitution and Acts.” New York Public Library. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861.” Naval History and Heritage Command. 9 May 2014.( Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Anti-slavery Operations of the US Navy Images from Publications in the Navy Department Library.” Naval History and Heritage Command. 23 April 2015. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Carozza, Davide. “Jason de Caires Taylor, “Vicissitudes”,” Deeps, The Black Atlantic, Duke University. 19 April 2014. (Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Dow, George Francis. Slave Ships and Slaving. New York: Dover Publications, 2002.

Foote, Andrew H. Africa and the American Flag. New York: D. Appleton & Co, 1854. Internet Archive.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Howard, Lawrence Cabot. American Involvement in Africa South of the Sahara. Michigan: Garland Publishers, 1989.

Hugh, Thomas. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.

Milestones 1830-1860: The Webster-Ashburton Treaty.” U.S. Department of State – Office of  the Historian.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)

Teachers’ Resources: The Slave Trade.” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.(Accessed 24 July 2015.)


1.“The Abolition of the Slave Trade: The U.S. Constitution and Acts,” New York Public Library, 2007,
2.“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861,” Naval History and Heritage Command, 9 May 2014,
3.“The Slave Trade,” The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration,
4.“Milestones 1830-1860: The Webster-Ashburton Treaty.” U.S. Department of State – Office of the Historian
5.Thomas Hugh, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 727.
6.Matthew Perry quoted in Hugh, The Slave Trade, 727.
7.Secretary of the Navy John Mason quoted in Lawrence Cabot Howard, American Involvement in Africa South of the Sahara (Michigan: Garland Publishers, 1989), 118.
8.George Francis Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving (New York: Dover Publications, 2002), 272.
9.Hugh, The Slave Trade, 762.
10.Dow, Slave Ships and Slaving, 274-276.
11.“Africa Slave Trade Patrol 1820-1861.”
Legacy Post

Mapping the Spread of American Slavery

By Lincoln Mullen

Lincoln Mullen is an assistant professor at George Mason University‘s Department of History and Art History. While finishing his doctorate at Brandeis University, he created this map and piece on the spread of slavery in the United States following the War of Independence.  Reposted with the permission of the author/copyright holder, the article below was originally posted to Dr. Mullen‘s blog (12 May 2014) with a revised version appearing on the Smithsonian Magazine‘s site (15 May 2014).

We selected this for our first post because it illustrates the movement of slavery in the United States as a national issue, not limited to the Southeast. The information is based on census data, which means that in the case of New England states, when they go “blank,” this signals that no slaves were counted in the census. In Massachusetts, slavery was legally abolished in 1783 through the court’s interpretation of the new state constitution established three years earlier. As we add more posts to this site, we will discuss the colonial history behind this moment. For the fully interactive version of the map, go here.

Mapping the Spread of American Slavery

In September of 1861, the U.S. Coast Survey published a large map, just under three feet square, titled a “Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States.” Based on the population statistics gathered in the 1860 census, and certified by the superintendent of the Census Office, the map depicted the percentage of the population enslaved in each county.

A 1860 map slowing the Distribution of the Slave Population of the Southern States of the United States
U.S. Coast Survey, Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states of the United States (Washington, DC: Henry S. Graham, 1861). Image from the Library of Congress.

The map showed at a glance the large-scale patterns of slavery in the American South: the concentrations of slavery in eastern Virginia, in South Carolina, and most of all along the Mississippi. It also repaid closer examination, since each county was labeled with the exact percentage enslaved. The map of slavery was one of many thematic maps produced in the nineteenth century United States. As Susan Schulten has shown, this particular map was used by the federal government during the Civil War, and it was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s.1

A detail from the U.S. Coast Survey map of slavery, showing the Mississippi River and delta
A detail from the U.S. Coast Survey map of slavery, showing the Mississippi River and delta.

Though such thematic maps, in particular of slavery, have their origins in the nineteenth century, the technique is useful for historians. As I see it, one of the main problems for the historians’ method today is the problem of scale. How can we understand the past at different chronological and geographical scales? How can we move intelligibly between looking at individuals and looking at the Atlantic World, between studying a moment and studying several centuries?2 Maps can help, especially interactive web maps that make it possible to zoom in and out, to represent more than one subject of interest, and to set representations of the past in motion in order to show change over time.

I have created an interactive map of the spread of slavery in the United States from 1790 to 1860.3 Using Census data available from the NHGIS, the visualization shows the population of slaves, of free African Americans, of all free people, and of the entire United States. It also shows those subjects as population densities and percentages of the population.4 For any given variable, the scales are held constant from year to year so that the user can see change over time. You can use the map for yourself, and I’ve also written briefly about what the map shows below.5 Historians have of course often made use of maps of slavery, in particular maps based on the Census, in support of their arguments. What I’ve tried to do in this interactive map is make it possible for users (including me) to explore the census data in support of making historical arguments.6

Screen shot of the interactive map of U.S. slavery
Screen shot of the interactive map of U.S. slavery.

The first thing to observe is that slavery spread more than it grew. The population of slaves in 1790 or 1800 was already very high compared the maximum population levels.7 In fact, in Charleston County, South Carolina (one of the counties with the highest populations of slaves) the number of enslaved people in 1860 was only 63% of what it had been in 1840. This is not to say that the total number of slaves in the eastern seaboard states did not go up over time. But the number of enslaved people in a particular place did not grow at anything like the rate of free people in the north. The free population in the north both grew in the same place and spread to the west. The slave population had a different dynamic. It grew in intensity in places around the Chesapeake bay, even as slavery was gradually abolished in the North. But primarily the slave population spread to the fertile crescent of lands in Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and most of all to the Mississippi River valley. Below you can see two animations of the density of the slave population and the density of the total population (keep in mind that the scales are different). What you see in these maps is the spread of slavery through the domestic slave trade.8 You also see the origins of the sectional crisis in the continual expansion of slavery.

An animation of the density of slave population from 1790 to 1860.
An animation of the density of slave population from 1790 to 1860. Notice that slavery spreads more than it grows. Taken from the interactive map.[GIF]

Figure 4: An animation of density of the total population from 1790 to 1860. Notice that population in the north both grows in place and spreads westward. Taken from the interactive map. [GIF]Another observation to make about slavery in the United States is what an extraordinarily high percentage of the population was enslaved. The majority slave populations of the Chesapeake, the South Carolina and Georgia coast were soon duplicated in the majority slave populations of the Mississippi River valley.

Figure 5: An animation of the percentage of the population enslaved from 1790 to 1860. Taken from the interactive map. [GIF]A striking way to see the importance of slavery is to look at a map of the total free population: a photo negative, if you will, of slavery. When looking at the density of the population that was free, large swathes of the South appear virtually depopulated. (Perhaps this is what a history book looks like that fails to take includes slaves?)

Figure 6: The population density of all free persons in 1860. Taken from the interactive map. [PNG]Finally, the dynamics of the free African American population looked more like the free white population than the slave population. The Free African American population seems to have primarily settled along the Eastern seaboard and especially in the cities of the northern United States. Free African Americans were almost entirely excluded from most of the deep South, except the cities.

Figure 7: An animation of the free African American population from 1790 to 1860. Taken from the interactive map. [GIF]
Historians have long used maps of slavery to advance their arguments.9 I hope this map finds some use in making more arguments about the history of slavery, and especially for helping students to grasp the big picture of the “peculiar institution” which made the nation “half slave and half free.”10

  1. See Susan Schulten, Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), especially chapter 4 on slavery and statistical cartography. Also see the book’s companion website, which includes many images of maps of slavery.
  2. For one discussion of the problem of scale, see David Armitage and Jo Guldi. “Le Retour de la longue durée: Une perspective anglo-saxonne,” Annales, in press. Whatever the reason for the blockbuster success of Thomas Picketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, it’s worth noting that the book is primarily a longue durée history of the structure of capital.
  3. I am grateful for suggestions from Yoni AppelbaumJohn Hannigan, and Caleb McDaniel, who each looked at the map in development, though they will each find more things they wished were different.
  4. You might think of the visualization as 88 maps = 8 decades ✕ 11 variables.
  5. The map represents a lot of data, and I have not been able to make it snappy enough for my satisfaction, particularly for mobile devices. Hence the animated GIFs below.
  6. Of course there is far more to the history of slavery than just the Census data, which alone cannot answer any of the interpretative questions that historians have asked.
  7. This is remarkable given that in the Revolution many slaves escaped to or with the British army.
  8. Steven Deyle writes, “I believe it is safe to conclude that between 1820 and 1860 at least 875,000 American slaves were forcibly removed from the Upper South to the Lower South, and that between 60 and 70 percent of these individuals were transported via the interregional slave trade.” Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 289.
  9. Perhaps I will provide a few examples in a future post.
  10. From Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech: “Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new—North as well as South.”
Legacy Post NEU Public History of Slavery

Locating Phillis Wheatley

Northeastern University’s Public History of Slavery

Featured Project I:

by Aubrey Butts, Lindsay Day, and Kerry McDonough

Northeastern University in Boston has one of the oldest Public History programs in North America. Students are prepared to work in museums, historical societies, social activism and more through a diverse curriculum. Their education includes theory and fieldwork, along with an emphasis on the digital humanities.

After decades of experiences as a historian and cultural resources manager for the National Park Service in Boston and LowellDr. Martin Blatt joined the program as Professor of the Practice in History and Director of Public History Program. In Spring 2015, his graduate course Public History of Slavery (Hist 7250) called on students to address the challenge of telling the histories of slavery in public history venues. Their final assignment was to research and present one of the many stories of slavery in New England in a way that would engage and educate a wide audience.

After reviewing submissions from the course, we have selected a few to feature on the site.

Our first curation by Lindsay Day, Aubrey Butts, and Kerry McDonough is an interactive map using Omeka’s Neatline that leads viewers through the life of Phillis Wheatley up until the publication of her first volume of poems.

For more on Wheatley’s later life, including her travels to London, see Vincent Carretta’s biography, Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage,  as well as our list of resources at the end of our Virtual Walking Tour of Slavery and Revolution in Boston.

Links Cited

Boston African American National Historic Site Massachusetts.” National Park Services. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.“Biography for Dr. Martin Blatt.” Northeastern University. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.Butts, Aubrey, Lindsay Day, and Kerry McDonough. “Locating Phillis Wheatley.” NEU Public History. May 1, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2015. Caretta, Vincent. Phillis Wheatley: Biography of a Genius in Bondage. UGA Press Website. n.d. Access July 15, 2015Kugler, Emily and Katherine Stevens. “Virtual Walking Tour of Slavery and Revolution in Boston.” January 2015. Access July 15, 2015.

“Lowell National Historical Park MassachusettsNational Park Services. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.

M.A. with Public History Concentration” Northeastern University. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. George Mason University.n.d. Access July 15, 2015.

Scholars’ Lab. Neatline.OrgUniversity of Virginia Library. n.d. Access July 15, 2015.

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.