CORRECTING THE RECORD Mestad Johnson.
American historical understandings are often tethered to our collective memory of ourselves as an emerging nation. The costumes and ceremonies of last week’s 4th of July Parade in Bristol were a classic example.
Cynthia Mestad Johnson’s debut book, James DeWolf and the Rhode Island Slave Trade, however, seeks to grapple with our accepted historical narrative and, to do so, it focuses on a man from that same Rhode Island town where the streets are painted down the center with a red, white, and blue stripe.
While many are familiar with Bristol royal family head James DeWolf’s significant slave trading legacy, few are aware that DeWolf moved to the Caribbean outpost of St. Eustatius Island to evade murder charges. Or that he made considerable efforts to skirt federal slaving laws by falsifying shipping records. (Johnson cites two vessels, Amastad and Minerva, that departed from Bristol in November of 1802. The manifests of both ships listed fraudulent destinations: Cadiz, Spain for the Amastad and Barbados for the Minerva. Both ships, in fact, sailed to Africa to kidnap humans.) Johnson also highlights DeWolf’s work as a US senator to champion successful legislation in 1823 that undermined the toughening of existing slave-trading laws. DeWolf’s political campaign stood as a gross conflict of interest given the fact that he was actively managing his three Cuban plantation estates at the time.
The Phoenix recently swapped emails with the author, a California-based historian and teacher. Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE DEWOLF STORY THAT YOU FOUND SO COMPELLING? I teach United States history during the Colonial Period and had never heard of the guy. When I found out that he was, to date, the most successful slave trader in the history of the nation, this was my motivation to do scholarly research. I wrote the book to correct our historical narrative. I would like to see the textbooks rewritten. It’s a journey. . . that I may never see to fruition, but somebody has to start the mission. My challenge is not to enhance how we collectively remember history, but to challenge how history was once recorded, correct it, and move forward from there.
WHAT WAS IT LIKE TO MEET A DEWOLF DESCENDANT FOR THE FIRST TIME? HOW HAS THE FAMILY RESPONDED TO THE BOOK? I
met my first DeWolf descendant five
years ago in the town of Bristol. She was lovely, still is, and we are very good friends. I have met and become quite close to 30-plus descendants. [These] descendants have responded to my book with overwhelming support. There is an extremely small group [that], while supportive, question[s] my motivation. Clearly, it was to correct the historical record as authentically and unbiased as possible while not having a malice[-driven] bone in my body. With time, I believe that they will see that.