by Scott Whipple
There may be no such thing as a time machine. Still, the closest to a transient historical experience could be a visit to the exhibit at The Middlesex County Historical Society.
“A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824,” is at the society’s headquarters at the Gen. Mansfield House on Main Street. Visitors who step through the front door will find themselves immersed in objects from an age that might seem more at home to the august sea Capt. William Van Deursen, the 19th-century Alsops and other well-heeled families of the day.
The society received a $20,000 Connecticut Humanities grant for the show that explores Middletown’s forgotten connection to a rich and varied maritime past involving the Caribbean sugar trade.
Connecticut Humanities, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, provides grants for local historical societies to develop programs exploring and examining the state’s history.
Brenda Milkofsky, former director of the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, is an authority on New England’s maritime history. Milkofsky selected objects from the society’s collections and determined where to position them in the Mansfield House show.
The exhibit depicts the luxurious life of merchants as displayed in the society’s collection of furniture and decorative art. For example, Middletown was a pewter center in the early 19th century. The Connecticut State Library, a partner in the exhibit, has created 18th-century logbooks of three slave ships. The digital version of two of these logbooks will be introduced as part of the exhibit opening and showcased in a special kiosk at the museum and available online.
Deborah Shapiro, the society’s former executive director, explained that she and the board of directors agreed that the historical collection should be displayed in “a more human perspective.” Shapiro, also curator of the exhibition, says that starting late last year, a project team, with support from the Connecticut Humanities, began researching stories and objects.
“The exhibit forms a narrative of the maritime trade that produced the material wealth, evidenced by many objects in the society’s collections, as well as shipping documents in our manuscript collection,” she says.
This narrative, however, has a darker side.
The exhibit also shows that Middletown’s age of prosperity relied largely on the suffering of enslaved sugar cane workers in the British Caribbean.
“New Englanders, for the most part, don’t have a firm grasp on how the region was involved in human captivity and suffering,” says Anne Farrow, principal writer and guest curator for the exhibit.
Not only Southern states were made prosperous by the institution of slavery. Curiously, many Northern abolitionists came from families made wealthy by the slave trade. J. Steven Wilkins, founder and president of the Southern Heritage Society, points out that most blacks purchased by New England and foreign slave traders were bought from African slave dealers. Slavery was a common practice in Africa long before the Portuguese initiated the international slave trade in the 15th century.
Farrow, co-author with Joel Lang and Jenifer Frank of the book, Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged and Profited from Slavery, notes that New England also shipped huge amounts of food and livestock to the Caribbean to sustain the plantation system, where enslaved workers grew sugar for the Western Hemisphere.
“In a system that made a commodity of their human lives, black people were both the engine growing the sugar and the object traded for it,” Farrow says.
This transatlantic slave trade followed a triangular trade route. Journalist and past historical society president Erik Hesselberg researched the 18th-century port of Middletown for an article that appeared in Wesleyan Magazine in 2011, “Vanished Port: Middletown and the Great Era of West Indies Trade,” which became the spark for the exhibit. The article told the story of Van Deursen, whose extensive collection of shipping records, fine furniture and other memorabilia are now housed at the historical society.
Van Deursen also trafficked in slaves, which historical society records revealed, according to Hesselberg.
Planning for the exhibit began last February. Farrow worked through probate records from the society while Hesselberg started production on a film.
Hesselberg, together with classical composer and Middletown resident, Lee McQuillan, created a 12-minute film evocative of the period. That video will be shown to visitors.
“In terms of shipping, Middletown was once the fourth largest port in New England, ranking with Salem, Massachusetts; and Newport, Rhode Island,” Hesselberg says. “Fortunately, our historical society possesses a rich collection of artifacts, allowing us to bring this era to life.”
The exhibit came together when Milkofsky joined Shapiro in research for the exhibit. Wesleyan University students Maggie Masselli ’16 and Jonathan Crook ’16 researched potential objects, excavated lists and documents on enslaved people. Charlotte Scott, a Mt. Holyoke College graduate, helped Shapiro stage the exhibit.
Funding for “A Vanished Port” was additionally provided by the Maximilian E. & Marion O. Hoffman Foundation, the Return Jonathan Meigs Fund at Wesleyan University, Richard & Alexandra Adelstein, Jane Bradbury and Shapiro.
For information, call 860-346-0746 or visit www.middlesexhistory.org. Society members are admitted free to the exhibit; for others, general admission is $5; $2 for seniors and for children.