Zachary Sell, right, is researching stories from the Atlantic slave trade with help from Brown undergraduate students Jamie Solomon, Halle Bryant, Kaela Hines and Callie Bouton. All photos: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

Students uncover uncharted histories of the slave trade for upcoming documentary series

On the 400th anniversary of the start of slave trade in the British American colonies, students and faculty at Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice are engaging in research for a PBS miniseries directed by renowned documentarian Stanley Nelson, hosting a two-day symposium on the lasting effects of slavery and more.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — From its title and cover image, “Historia del Jardín Botánico de la Habana” appears to be a straightforward chronicle of the creation and evolution of Cuba’s national botanical garden. But as Brown history concentrator Jamie Solomon found out this fall, the book is so much more.

According to the book’s author, Solomon said, the history of the garden can’t be fully understood absent the context of the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave revolt in history. When enslaved people in Haiti — many of whom worked on sugar and coffee plantations — overthrew their wealthy French owners, those Frenchmen fled to Cuba to start over. There, they built new sugar plantations, amassed new slaves and drew up plans to landscape Cuba in France’s image — colonial squares, botanical gardens and all.

“The book essentially shows that the beginning of this botanical garden can be traced to European ideas of land and beauty and ownership,” Solomon said. “I don’t think it has ever been checked out of the library — I found the receipt from when it was purchased.”

Halle Bryant
Halle Bryant is drawing upon her knowledge of French to translate journals, reports and other records of the Atlantic slave trade in the Caribbean and elsewhere.

In libraries across the world, hidden in plain sight, are books like the “Historia” — lesser-known testaments to the ways in which the Atlantic slave trade transformed the Western Hemisphere. Solomon found the book while conducting research for a graduate-level course on Atlantic history — but it’s also proven relevant in her capacity as one of four undergraduate research fellows at Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice (CSSJ), where she’s dedicated to digging up those stories for potential use in an upcoming documentary titled “Creating the New World: The Transatlantic Slave Trade.”

The four-part miniseries, expected to air on PBS in 2021, is produced by Firelight Films and directed by Stanley Nelson, the filmmaker behind award-winning documentaries about the murder of Emmett Till, the history of the Black Panther Party and the life of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

Zach Sell, a visiting assistant professor who is directing the students’ research, said the CSSJ has been involved in the project since 2017. During the 2017-18 academic year, the center and Firelight jointly hosted a global workshop series, where top scholars gathered in Providence, Johannesburg, New York City and Leiden, the Netherlands, to exchange ideas and scholarship on the Atlantic slave trade. Since fall 2018, Sell and a group of CSSJ student employees have worked with Firelight to delve into critical stories, historical figures and sites of significance related to the slave trade. 

“College students don’t often have the opportunity to engage in this kind of hands-on, direct work in film production on such a dramatic scale,” Sell said. “This is a different way of learning and engaging in history. It’s not just content transmission — teaching and learning — but also knowledge production. They are studying topics that have rarely, if ever, been studied before, and the results of their research could be broadcast to the world.”

Slavery’s legacy, in and beyond the U.S.

Firelight debuted news of its coming documentary earlier this year, as institutions across the United States began to recognize the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of African slaves to the British American colonies. In August 1619, a ship arrived in colonial Virginia carrying more than 20 enslaved Africans. 

On this important anniversary, research for the documentary is one of many related projects underway at the CSSJ. The center is also gearing up to host a symposium titled “From Slave Ships to Black Lives Matter” on Dec. 5 and 6. The event will bring scholars to College Hill from across the globe for presentations, panel discussions and workshops focused on drawing connections between the transatlantic slave trade and racial injustice today.

“Racial slavery shaped the modern world, and hundreds of years later, it continues to do so,” said Anthony Bogues, director of the CSSJ. “You cannot solve current issues related to democracy, freedom or equality without thinking about the legacy of slavery.” 

At the symposium, scholars and members of the public can hear from the likes of Cheryl Finley, a Cornell University art professor who has studied the engraving of a packed slave-ship hold that is featured in nearly every K-12 history textbook; researchers from the National Museum of African American History and Culture who search for underwater wrecks of slave ships; and esteemed scholars from Sudan, Ethiopia and Brazil who study slavery and its legacies.

Bogues said the symposium will demonstrate the historical global reach of the slave trade and its reverberations today.

“Everywhere you look around the world, wherever there was racial slave trade, there were people who benefited from this injustice and people who suffered even after slavery was abolished,” Bogues said. “We want this event to focus not only on slave ships and on transatlantic slave trade but also on the reverberations and echoes of slavery in the U.S. and elsewhere today.”

Though 1619 marked the beginning of slavery in the American colonies, Bogues said, it was not the first time Africans had been transported across the Atlantic Ocean to the so-called “New World.” As early as the 1540s, the Spanish brought enslaved Africans to their colonies, including to present-day Florida. The Dutch, Portuguese, English and French followed suit, together with the Spanish bringing ships of millions of enslaved Africans to the Caribbean, Brazil and North America over the course of three centuries.

“On this side of the world, Brazil was the recipient of the most slaves during the Atlantic slave trade,” Bogues said. “We of course have to talk about the ways America was shaped by slavery, and we do often. But the rest of the world was also shaped by racial slavery, and we live in an age of increasing globalization. So this event is bringing people together to talk about topics like housing, segregation and activism in several countries.”

In addition to the symposium, the CSSJ and the Brown Arts Initiative have teamed up to mount a two-gallery exhibition of work by Haitian artist Edouard Duval-Carrié, who uses his art to delve into the Haitian Revolution and other stories of Caribbean slavery, migration, colonialism and Afro-religious practices. “Edouard Duval-Carrié and the Art of Embedded Histories” is on display through Friday, Dec. 13, at the CSSJ and at Brown’s Granoff Center for Creative Arts.

Manuscripts and microfilm

The Haitian Revolution has been a major focus of Jamie Solomon’s research work since she joined the CSSJ’s Atlantic Slave Trade Research Group in August. Under the guidance of Sell and Firelight producers, the Brown junior has assisted in tracking down letters, manuscripts and other written artifacts from the 1800s to better understand Haiti’s slave revolt and its international implications.

Solomon and the other student researchers — Halle Bryant, Callie Bouton and Kaela Hines — sometimes have the opportunity to view these centuries-old papers in person, which make for easier reading. But they are more often working from digitized copies provided by libraries thousands of miles away, and they grapple with issues such as blurriness, pixellation and missing pages. Some students have spent hours in Brown’s libraries viewing documents on microfilm, zooming in close to parse archaic phrases.

Racial slavery shaped the modern world, and hundreds of years later, it continues to do so.

Anthony Bogues Director, Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice

“I’m working on transcribing a bunch of letters from the 1820s,” Solomon noted in a mid-November meeting with Sell and the other student researchers. “They’re about Haiti, and they’re between the governor and his generals. It’s interesting reading, but it’s also super tough to read, because it’s in Spanish calligraphy.”

Solomon’s many years of Spanish instruction have proved valuable to Sell, who said much of the written record of the Atlantic slave trade is in Spanish and French and hasn’t yet been translated into English. Every student who has been part of the research, he said, brings a unique perspective and skillset.

“The history and impact of the Atlantic slave trade is so wide-ranging that individual students can look at it through the lens of their own interests, whatever they may be, and unearth new things,” Sell said. “I worked with one student who was particularly interested in film and thought about the visual representation of the slave trade. Another student, Halle Bryant, is drawing upon her knowledge of French to focus on French slave trade materials. It’s extremely impressive to see the extraordinary research that students can conduct.” 

Kaela Hines, a sophomore concentrating in English and modern culture and media, spent part of November reading the diary of a British official stationed in the slave-trading port of Calabar, Nigeria.

“I’ve learned about Britain’s role in the slave trade, citing the U.S. as a primary source for cotton,” she said. “I’ve learned about small and large slave revolts throughout the Caribbean. I’ve learned about slave traders who were of African descent, such as Antera Duke. I feel that the research we do is important and will educate people about a topic that is generally known, but often not in the intricacies we are researching.”

Sell agrees. While many may know that the transatlantic slave trade brought 12.5 million enslaved Africans to the Americas, they may not understand how the slave trade affected their own cities and still does.

For example, he said, Rhode Islanders may not know that the state produced textiles that were sent to the South and became clothing for the enslaved there — or that merchants in Rhode Island sold candles, meat products, farming supplies and agricultural goods to European slave owners in the Caribbean, whose sugar plantations ran the economy in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“The extent of slave trading, the depth with which it changed the world, is so far beyond what is often presented in schools,” Sell said. “Everyone involved in this documentary has put so much time, effort and care into finding well-known and lesser-known stories about slavery and recounting them accurately.”

Unearthing narratives that can teach us more about the history and legacy of slavery, both locally and globally, isn’t just at the heart of Sell’s work in partnership with students and Firelight Films. It’s also a key focus of the CSSJ, a regular gathering place for international scholars who examine stories of past racial slavery to make sense of present-day inequalities. For Sell, Bogues and others at the CSSJ, the search for those stories will continue well after the anniversary of 1619.

“Racial slavery is gone, but social structures and aspects of everyday life from that time period still shape people’s lives,” Bogues said. “The ongoing work of the CSSJ is to make those historical connections and examine how history affects the present.”