Some members of the Middletown and University communities know of Connecticut’s large role in the Triangular Trade, a trading system between Africa, the Colonies, and the Caribbean that began in the 18th century. Most, however, are unaware of the hidden harsh realities of Connecticut and, more specifically, Middletown’s relationship with the slave trade.
During the 18th century, many merchant, capitalist, slaveholders from Connecticut explored and traded in the Caribbean; their pursuits were organized within the Triangle Trade. In this arrangement, the Caribbean traded sugar, and New England traded rum and farm goods. Colonists in Africa, meanwhile, enslaved and traded black people to help produce the aforementioned farm goods, rum, and sugar from the Caribbean and New England, creating a cycle of oppression. This harsh reality is often glossed over in accounts of the luxurious lives of Connecticut’s merchant capitalist.
About a year and a half ago, journalist and historian Erik Hesselberg and historian and author Anne Farrow, both of the Middlesex Historican Society, started having coffee together to discuss the human oppression that came from Connecticut’s role in the Triangle Trade. The pair eventually decided to co-curate an exhibit based on this idea.
Although Hesselberg is primarily interested in Middletown’s 18th-century maritime history, and Farrow is primarily interested in Connecticut’s relationship with the slave ship and slave trade, their interests are naturally complementary. In the Middlesex County Historical Society, they ultimately decided to display items that belonged to the 18th-century merchant capitalists and, in this way, exhibited the ways in which they are linked to human oppression in the Caribbean. Hesselberg and Frank desire to tell the story of Middletown’s 18th-century economic success while exposing the oppression that made this wealth possible.
According to Anne Farrow, the process of curating has been time-consuming but rewarding.
“We have all been working on it as much as we can, so it is kind of weekly process,” Farrow said. “We get together every few weeks and talk about what we have found, what we are learning, and how to present it to the public in the context of this exhibition. We knew how very prosperous and important these merchants were, but we did not know how involved in human oppression they were.”
Planning for the exhibition started officially in February, when Farrow began working through probate records from the Historical Society. Around the same time, Hesselberg also began production on a film and conceived a design for the exhibit.
Farrow and Hesselberg, however, are hardly the only people working on the exhibit. Brenda Milkofsky, a longtime museum curator and authority on the West Indies trade, as well as Debbie Shapiro, the director of the Middlesex County Historical Society, have also offered assistance. Shapiro has been doing research for the exhibit, and Milkofsky has been involved in design work. University MEIGS scholars Maggie Masselli ’16 and Jonathan Crook ’16 also have devoted time to the exhibit, with Masselli researching potential objects and Crook excavating lists and documents on enslaved people.
Preparing for this exhibit has been a learning experience for all of the curators, including Farrow. Her goal is to make sure that the people who visit the exhibit learn about the harsh realities of Middletown’s history to put its glamorous moments in context.
“It is fascinating to see the depth to which Middletown was immersed in human enslavement and to see how important the captive people were,” she said. “It makes the story deeper for me, and that is so important to me. I want people to understand that this is a complex history. The great ships that have sailed from Middletown that successfully sailed down to these beautiful places in the Caribbean actually rested on human suffering. That human suffering needs to be acknowledged, and it needs to be part of the story.”
The curators are unsure when the exhibit, titled, “A Vanished Port: Middletown in the Caribbean 1650-1824,” will open. They hope to debut it sometime in 2016, tentatively in the early fall. When it does open, the exhibit will contain furnishings, decorative objects, and documents from the collections of the Society. It will also include the same kinds of things from other museum collections, including the Connecticut River Museum, the Connecticut State Library, special collections from Olin Library, and possibly the Connecticut Historical Society.
“This exhibit is significant to Middlesex County because the maritime history of Middletown is relatively well-known and has been much written about,” Farrow said. “However, usually, it is written about in a very romanticized way. We feel that it is important to show that this maritime success and the fabulous possessions, ships, and houses that came with it came from a population that was literally worked to death. To make the history whole, we need to know not only about the grand successes themselves, but also about their dark and tragic sides.”