[1800’s Chinese rice-paper painting of a “cloud couch” (used for smoking opium) in a Chinese home : a Wild family heirloom.]
Saturday, I drove to Bristol, Rhode Island to spend some precious, one-to-one time with my twenty-year-old nephew, a student at Roger Williams University. My first time there, he showed me around the campus; touring the glitzy Global Heritage Hall, he referred to Bristol’s slaving trade history—in the way only a principled young man can bring up such a charged subject: with pain, horror, and outrage behind his widened eyes. Global heritage, indeed!
And I immediately remembered “Traces of the Trade: A Story of The Deep North,” an excellent documentary I’d seen years ago re the DeWolf family and its incredibly lucrative slave-trading “family business,” a film so powerful and eye-opening that my own horror—and realization that many New England families were very much complicit in this national shame—is still with me.
What hadn’t stayed with me was the name of the DeWolfs’ hometown. So while driving through the charming and well-appointed seaside village of Bristol before arriving at the Roger Williams campus, I had not thought: this wealth is the result of slavery! But going back into town for lunch, I saw that waterfront resort through informed eyes.
Which begs the question: what about my own New England family? Were Wilds (and Horries and Coghills and Miricks and Faulkners and . . .) complicit? And it seems to me that the Truthful/spiritual answer is: of course! In some way, large or small, all 18th and 19th century white families in New England were complicit, tainted; all had benefitted by slavery in some way. Family business, family secrets, indeed!
A Prayer: May that acknowledgement light my way.
A final note: That accompanying rice painting is one of a set of three hand-painted Chinese scenes that had been given to me by my Aunt Amy ( Prescott Wild Zlotnick) in 1980; they’ve hung on a hallway wall for years and years. But one day, prompted by that opium pipe and “Traces of the Trade,” I became curious: did my family have another, more explicit dark secret? Did we have anything to do with the opium trade? The rice paintings had been brought back from China by Isabella Faulkner Ranlett, the wife of a clipper ship captain, Charles A. Ranlett, Jr. Belle, who died in China, had been the sister of my great grandmother, Amy Faulkner Wild. Had Belle’s husband’s clipper ship, The Surprise,* delivered opium? Had Belle known?
Answer: It seems not for 2 reasons: a) the dates when that ship sailed the China seas and the (again, incredibly lucrative) period when the British and Americans sold opium to the Chinese do not align [see Jay Dolin’s excellent When America First Met China for an excellent account) and b) probably not since, unlike other New England families of that era, like the Delanos and the Forbes and the Cabots, my family isn’t that rich!
- This link, re the Delano family aboard The Surprise, briefly and covertly acknowledges the source of their wealth!