In The Logbooks: Connecticut's Slave Ships and Human Memory, journalist Anne Farrow explores a part of U.S. history that she says we, as a nation, have collectively forgotten. Farrow writes, it's the history of "a labor system that held millions in bondage." At the same time, slavery was an economic machine that generated great wealth for some families and made Connecticut prosperous.
The 18th century logbooks that Farrow researched document the voyages of three different slave ships. Their pages illustrate a part of history we seem to have lost. Farrow explores not only that history, but also why and how it was lost. And, she weaves in a personal story about her mother and the nature of memory.
Was it difficult to create a human story from ships logbooks which are basically lists of data such as weather patterns, supplies, names and dates?
I think it wasn't, only because when I looked at these logbooks first, I knew I had everything to learn. I needed to understand the mechanisms of ships going from New England to the west of Africa and what kinds of things they encountered. I needed to explore the slave trade in the part of upper West Africa where my mariners had gone.
I needed to understand the function of how a logbook worked. I needed to understand about their lives. As I began to connect the names in the logbooks to real men in local history I began to study about them. So I thought I need to build an understory for the logbooks to explain to the reader why they matter. This is part of the rise of capitalism, and it's entirely based on human suffering. And I thought I need to make the trade itself, and its players and its history, crystal clear.
We don't often hear about the history of the Northeastern U.S. role in the slave trade. Why is that?
That's the great question. And the question that I will spend the rest of my writing life pursing. I believe that the story of enslavement is a story that fairly early on was recognized as painful. It didn't dovetail with the way that we wanted to think of ourselves. The great scholar David Blight at Yale says this is the piece of the American narrative that doesn't fit. We have not taken into our narrative and our histories the immensity, the huge proportional importance of human bondage and its damage. And New England has its own very particular part of this story. Connecticut, in particular was a major provisioner of the English Caribbean islands where enslaved people from Africa and their descendants were growing sugar for the Western Hemisphere in an agricultural system that shortened their lives, was every kind of misery. I knew about that when I saw the logbooks, but what I had not understood is that Connecticut men also were in Africa trading directly for human beings whom they then transported to the Caribbean, and some of whom they brought back to New England. So I began looking and finding that even though Connecticut did not have as great a role as Rhode Island in the slave trade, still we played our part.
You were asked at one point, "What gives you the right to walk into our history?" Was that question hard to answer?
Yes. And yet, from the first moment that I saw these logbooks in May of 2004, I felt an imperative to study them and bring their stories forward. Of the people who were transported upon these ships, I felt so deeply that their lives were taken from them to profit us in New England, and yet their names, I don't know where they would exist if at all. And I felt called to bring their story forward and try to explore it as much and as deeply as I could.