Blogs > HNN > Luther Spoehr: Review of Thomas Norman DeWolf's Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History (Beacon, 2008).

Feb 4, 2008 9:51 pm

Luther Spoehr: Review of Thomas Norman DeWolf's Inheriting the Trade: A Northern Family Confronts Its Legacy as the Largest Slave-Trading Dynasty in U.S. History (Beacon, 2008).

“Behind every great fortune,” Balzac observed, “is a great crime.” Certainly that applies to the DeWolfs of Bristol, Rhode Island, whose great fortune derived from the slave trade. Their 80 voyages (most of them illegal) indeed made them “the largest slave-trading dynasty” in American history.

In 2001, Katrina Browne, a direct descendant, set out to film a documentary about her family’s involvement by journeying from Bristol to Ghana and then to Cuba. “Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North” has been released and made it to the Sundance Film Festival. (I haven’t seen it.) Thomas DeWolf, one of nine relatives who accompanied her, wrote this book as a kind of companion piece.

Thomas DeWolf is only distantly connected to the slave-traders. His ancestral roots are in Connecticut, not Rhode Island; he’s an Oregonian, and, unlike his nine traveling companions, has not lived a life of privilege: “My dad worked for the phone company and he went to night school to get his college degree,” while “for me it was the University of Oregon,” he tells his Ivy League-educated cousins.

DeWolf does not distance himself, however, from the trip’s purpose: to confront the family’s past and deal with their feelings about it. Perhaps because he had known so little about slavery and the slave trade, he writes with a convert’s zeal, which provides much of the book’s energy--and undermines its effectiveness.

Setting out from Linden Place, the family’s Bristol mansion, and accompanied by various academics and other advisors (and the film crew), the group tracks the infamous Triangular Trade. For DeWolf, each stop evokes the same, self-abasing emotions. He concludes his description of the slave dungeons at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana: “It inspires shame…guilt, embarrassment, and anger.” He rages repeatedly about the “whitewashed…history books from which I was taught in school.”

As this last comment indicates, DeWolf’s anger isn’t directed just at himself. Virtually everyone, especially schools and historians, is “complicit” (a favorite word) in what the travelers see as a cover-up of America’s racist past. Which leads one to wonder: Where have they been? A mighty stream of writing about slavery—accessible and, one would think, unavoidable--has poured from the presses for nearly half a century. It began trickling into textbooks when DeWolf was still in school. He apparently remembers even “Roots” only dimly.

Then again, the book isn’t primarily about slavery and the slave trade. It’s about this “Family of Ten’s” feelings about them. The narrative is larded with encounter groups, structured discussions “in the fishbowl” and “dialogic learning.” Condescending facilitators speak of “healing” as the group debates whether and how and to whom to apologize. Attempting to engage the slave experience in Cuba, they eat a “‘slave meal’ that is being specially prepared” for them by a chef.

Who knew that a guilt trip could be catered? Evidently nobody warned these moral tourists that earnestness does not guarantee insight, and exhibitionism is inappropriate baggage for a journey to understanding and atonement.

[A slightly different version of this review appeared in the Providence "Sunday Journal" on February 3, 2008.]

comments powered by Disqus