A Thousand Ships

Last night, Jon and I attended WaterFire Providence‘s special ceremony “A Thousand Ships.”

2008 marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition in the United States of the transatlantic slave trade. Some of you may have seen last year’s movie, Amazing Grace, which chronicles the two decade long struggle of MP Wilbur Wilberforce to end the trade in Britain. The hymn itself was written by the former captain of a slave ship, who underwent a conversion and repented for his participation in the abomination of slavery.

You’ll be hard pressed to find much word of this bicentennial across the USA, so I’m proud to say that Rhode Island is uniquely leading the way. Broadleaf announcing abolition meetings

As it should. Here in the North, we like to pretend that our history with slavery was brief and on the side of the angels. But if you check the records of our early merchants, you’ll find that they made their fortunes in The Triangle Trade … a descriptive term, but one that obscures the human commodity those ships transported. Local economies depended on servicing that trade.

Rhode Islanders made roughly a thousand voyages carrying African slaves across the Atlantic. The Brown family of Providence and the DeWolf family of Bristol were leaders in the trade. In fact, the DeWolfs were the most successful American slave trading family, bringing 10,000 African’s to these shores.

Run out and find a showing or buy the DVC of the film Traces of the Trade, A Story from the Deep North which was shown at Sundance this year. Made by DeWolf descendant Katrina Browne, the film was shown at Sundance this year.

The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, (on whose board I served for seven years until my term ended in June 2008) in collaboration with many people and organizations through Rhode Island, is commemorating that anniversary in its Freedom Festival this fall.

In collaboration with a consortium too numerous to name, WaterFire’s artistic director, Barnaby Evans, offered last night’s WaterFire as a canvas of remembrance. WaterFire’s audience was invited to participate … from the opening ceremony with a? symbolic libation pouring into the waters that those ships sailed, to torchlight processions leading to readings of remembrance, to a dramatic burning of the chains of the Triangle Trade in Memorial Park. Throughout the evening, readings, dancing, fire, drumming, the music, were a feast for the senses and an opportunity to remember.

WaterFire 10-04-08One memory in particular stands out …I watched an adoring grandfather accompanying his young grandaughter to the water’s edge so she, too, could share in this ritual. Along with a thousand others among the thousands there last night, this little child and the grandfather poured their ritual libation into the river.



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