The Rotch Fleet vessels Enterprise, Houqua, Pocahontas and William Rotch are pictured here among a school of sperm whales off the coast of Hawaii circa 1833. Photo: Mystic Seaport Museum

$4.9 million grant project to interrogate legacy of colonialism, subjugation in New England

Brown University, Williams College and the Mystic Seaport Museum scholars will use maritime history as a basis for studying the relationship between European colonization, dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — A $4.9 million grant to Brown University’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice will fund a partnership with Williams College and the Mystic Seaport Museum that will use maritime history as a basis for studying historical injustices and generating new insights on the relationship between European colonization in North America, the dispossession of Native American land and racial slavery in New England.

The collaborative project, titled “Reimagining New England Histories: Historical Injustice, Sovereignty and Freedom,” will create new work and study opportunities at all three institutions, particularly for scholars, curators and students from underrepresented groups. It will result in a new Mystic Seaport Museum exhibition on race, subjugation and power, and a “decolonial archive” spotlighting a diverse collection of stories from several New England communities.

The grant was awarded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of its Just Futures Initiative, which in Summer 2020 invited 38 colleges and universities to submit project proposals that would address the “long-existing fault lines” of racism, inequality and injustice that challenge ideas of democracy and civil society.

“A myth in the founding narrative of the United States is the idea of New England as a ‘city on the hill,’ a place founded on the idea of liberty for all,” said Anthony Bogues, director of Brown’s Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice. “But it is important to consider that this site of America’s founding was also a site of Native dispossession as well as racial slavery. Brown and Williams have told stories about both of those histories, but rarely have we explored the relationship between the two.”

Since its founding in 2012, the CSSJ has explored the history and legacies of the trans-Atlantic slave trade and racial slavery through research, study, public conversations, exhibitions and more. The groundbreaking work of the center’s researchers has catalyzed international scholarly conversations and inspired similar work at colleges and universities across the country. 

But Bogues, who will oversee the grant-funded project, said that in recent months, he and his colleagues felt their mission must expand to include the investigation of New England’s role in displacing Native Americans — something he believes is as foundational a part of American history as racial slavery.

To help draw connections between racial slavery and Native American dispossession, Bogues and his colleagues reached out to scholars at Williams College in Massachusetts — a growing group of whom focus on Indigenous peoples and racial slavery in early America — and Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport Museum, which for more than 40 years has worked with Williams to offer the program Williams-Mystic, a unique liberal arts-focused semester at sea for undergraduates on its museum campus. Together, the three institutions devised a plan for a three-year partnership that will draw on each institution’s strengths to generate new scholarship, student experiences, K-12 education programs, public events and more.

“We chose Williams as a partner because they have some very fine young historians who are thinking critically about Indigenous dispossession,” Bogues said. “The college has made it very clear that they sit on Indigenous land, and they are convening courses and programs that reckon with that. As well, we have wanted to partner with Mystic Seaport Museum on an exhibit that touches on racial slavery and the sea for quite some time. This is an opportunity for our three institutions to come together and think hard about the links between two major historical injustices in our country.”

Christine DeLucia, an assistant professor of history at Williams and one of the grant proposal’s co-writers, said the project will present both institutions with an opportunity to collaborate across academic departments — from Africana studies to religious studies to art history — to reinterpret the details and consequences of historical injustices in New England.

“This is an urgent time to reckon with the close ties between slavery and settler colonialism, and with the mythologies that have arisen from these profound violences,” DeLucia said. “The ocean is a vital focal point for understanding these histories as realities grounded in specific places, experiences and memories. As so many generations of communities and scholars have emphasized, enslaved people endured extreme trauma and loss aboard the ships trafficking them to and from New England. The ocean is also where many members of Native nations pursued risky livelihoods as mariners and whalers as essential survival strategies in the face of escalating colonial dispossession. We’re especially interested in connecting those histories with diverse communities’ longstanding pursuits of liberation and sovereignty, and emphasizing that history is a living process.”

The project has four major components, Bogues said: a new research cluster at the CSSJ, an online “decolonial archive,” a major exhibition at the Mystic Seaport Museum, and expanded courses on historical injustice in early America for students at Williams and Brown.

Bogues said the new research cluster, housed at the CSSJ, will focus on how societies founded on historical forms of injustice can become more inclusive and just. Faculty, staff and students from Brown and Williams will collaborate on scholarly projects, sometimes engaging in research work as part of joint Brown-Williams courses. Both institutions will regularly host community practitioners who take part in seminars and discussions. And two visiting faculty fellows with relevant expertise, one at each institution, will be in residence for five semesters beginning in Fall 2021.

If we don’t understand the full story of our nation’s founding — if we cannot understand and grapple with who we were and how that shaped our history — then we will never become a just society.

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

To create an online “decolonial archive,” the three partners will work with leaders in New England’s Black and Indigenous communities, Brown’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative, the John Carter Brown Library and staff at the John Hay Library to gather oral histories of New Englanders who have experienced the effects of centuries of institutional racism and dispossession. Bogues said part of the archive will consist of recorded community conversations organized by Brown and Williams, which will help ensure stories are gathered and shared in ways that reflect community desires, rather than in an exploitative, extractive manner.

The planned exhibition at Mystic Seaport Museum will run from Fall 2023 to Summer 2024 and will juxtapose well-worn maritime narratives about early New England with engaging artifacts that tell a different story about the past — from archaeological materials to documents and literature to music and oral histories. Some of those new insights, Bogues said, are hiding in plain sight, like the repeated allusions to racial slavery, Puritanism and Native American genocide in Herman Melville’s whaling epic “Moby-Dick.” Others live in historical archives rarely glimpsed by the public, including those at Brown, Williams and Mystic Seaport Museum.

“As the country’s leading maritime museum, we are uniquely positioned to be the venue for an exhibition that marks an imperative, transformative and inclusive reflection on how America’s activities on the world’s oceans have and continue to play a part in our country’s society from the position of race and slavery,” said Christina Connett Brophy, Mystic Seaport Museum’s senior director of museum galleries and senior vice president of curatorial affairs. “Working with our partners, and through the fresh lens of ships and the sea, we are excited to engage new audiences in critical conversations that have long remained unfinished.”

Over the next three years, all three partners will also offer a wide variety of learning opportunities for students of all ages. Brown and Williams will develop several cross-disciplinary courses focused on colonialism and historical injustices, and many of them will unite students from both institutions in one virtual classroom. The CSSJ and its grant partners will also build on their Mellon Foundation-funded academic work by developing a K-12 curriculum that helps the next generation of New Englanders understand the region’s complex past — a venture the center will fund itself.

Bogues said he hopes the project will help transform the CSSJ into a venue for the sustained exploration of how racial slavery, colonization and Indigenous dispossession were intertwined.

“Our nation was founded on two major acts of deep historical injustice: racial slavery and Native American dispossession,” Bogues said. “How can we confront that history and use it to transform this society into one that is equitable and just? I don’t pretend I have the full answer. But what I do know is that if we don’t understand the full story of our nation’s founding — if we cannot understand and grapple with who we were and how that shaped our history — then we will never become a just society.”