From an early age, sailing and history were passions for Whitney Browne.
Growing up in the historic district of Philadelphia, Mr. Brown, who has a home on the Island, said it was almost impossible not to feel a solid link to the past, living in a place where so many landmarks of the nation’s struggles for independence are preserved.
Family history had a lot to do with his passion for the sea, since his mother’s side of the family, the De Wolf’s of Bristol, Rhode Island, were a seafaring clan that amassed a fortune in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Mr. Browne’s love for sailing and adventure on the water was highlighted when he signed on to crew on a tall ship when he was just 15.
“We were always told they were scoundrels,” Mr. Browne said about his New England ancestors. “They were described as privateers and scallywags and I grew up with that romanticized view of them.”
Romance crashed head on with brutal reality, however, when a short family history, written by his grandmother, was discovered. Her document revealed the De Wolf’s were far from swashbucklers, but had made their fortune trafficking in human beings, bringing more than 10,000 Africans in bondage to Cuba and America.
In her booklet for the family, his grandmother wrote: “I don’t have the stomach to describe the ensuing slave trade. Suffice it to say, the whole town was involved.”
He didn’t know how to process it, Mr. Browne remembered. “One of my fascinations with that era was that the people were so successful,” he said, “but now I’d learned there was a streak of evil that had made them successful.”
Successful might be an understatement, since the De Wolfs of Bristol were the largest slave trading family in U.S. history, building the foundation of their fortune from 1770 to 1820. In the De Wolf family’s case, along with many other American families North and South, Honore de Balzac’s epigram is correct: “Behind every great fortune lies a great crime.”
Mr. Browne’s sister, Katrina Browne, has made a celebrated film, “Traces of the Trade: A Story From the Deep North,” which chronicles her family’s involvement in the slave trade along with various implications of northern involvement in keeping slavery alive for generations. The film will be screened at the Shelter Island Public Library as part of its Friday Night Dialogues series in association with Sylvester Manor — which has confronted and documented its own role in northern plantation slavery — this Friday, February 21 at 7 p.m. in honor of Black History Month. Whitney and Katrina Brown will be present for an after-screening conversation with the audience.
“Traces of the Trade” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008 and was nominated for an Emmy award following its showing on PBS.
Ms. Browne’s film follows 10 De Wolf descendants, retracing the “Triangle Trade,” where ships sailing from Rhode Island to West Africa loaded with rum were traded for people who were then shipped in chains on the “Middle Passage” to ports in the Americas to be sold at auction for sugar and molasses.
The family members in the film, ranging from sisters to seventh cousins, retrace the Triangle Trade, journeying from Bristol to Ghana and on to the remains of a family plantation in Cuba.
Speaking this week, Ms. Browne emphasized that “Traces of the Trade” is not just about one family, but explores northern compliance in the hellish transportation of enslaved people and the vast profits made from it.
For a story of memory, Ms. Browne’s film examines its opposite, amnesia, and how it affected her and also an entire region.
When she learned, at age 28, of her grandmother’s booklet, her immediate reaction was “total shock,” she said. “I felt upset, distressed, learning this horrible thing.”
But then within moments, a greater shock took over. “I realized I already knew and had repressed it,” she said. “It had been deeply buried.”
She still can’t place exactly where and when she learned of her family’s secret. As a girl, she and her siblings spent summers in Bristol were her first cousins lived. “It might have been mentioned in passing,” she said, but she immediately buried the memory.
Never having made a film, Ms. Browne, who had been a scholar and worked for non-profits, threw herself into the project. She read “Disowning Slavery,” by Joanne Pope Melsih, who studied the historical amnesia of an entire region, and how the majority of New Englanders don’t know the history of their forefather’s participation in the great crime. It’s a powerful book, Ms. Browne said.
“It documents the cultural process in New England of forgetting,” she added.
“This isn’t a regional story, but a national one,” Ms. Browne said, and wants people who see her film to note that it’s not “about guilt, but about grief.”
It’s also a spur to conversation, she said, “to get people talking about solving the inequities that are still with us.”
On Saturday, Sylvester Manor is inviting the community to join in an observance honoring the enslaved, indentured and freed people buried on the grounds. Sandra Arnold, founder of the Vanishing History Project which is creating the first national burial site registry of enslaved African-Americans, will be present at the observance.
Ms. Arnold said she was “proud and very moved by the work of Sylvester Manor and what they’re doing to memorialize the burial ground there.
Ms. Arnold said having a national registry is important for historians, but as important for non-scholars. “This will help people piece together their families, “ she said, “that were torn apart by slavery.”
Traces of the Trade will be shown Friday, February 21 at 7 p.m. at The Shelter Island Public Library as part of its Friday Night Dialogues series. The memorial for the buried at Sylvester Manor will begin at 10 a.m. at the Manor House on Saturday, February 22.