The Middlesex County Historical Society’s new exhibit is only three rooms, but don’t let that fool you: It’s packed with a Smithsonian’s worth of local history. “A Vanished Port: Middletown & the Caribbean, 1750-1824” focuses on the role of Middletown in the sugar trade of the 18th and 19th century. By examining the maritime history of Middletown, the lives of merchants, and the working conditions of the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, the exhibit has two main goals: to educate visitors on the city’s past and to spark discussion on the implications of slavery in the modern world.
The exhibit is divided into four displays: the Middletown Gallery, the Slave Quarters, the Maritime Gallery, and the Caribbean Gallery. The first portion of the Middletown Gallery describes the town’s past and its port. Old wooden barrels, coils of rough rope, and crates of Caribbean luxury goods such as sugar and tamarinds are stacked up against the walls. Atop the barrel are ships’ leather-bound manifests and logs, which record ships’ inventories in grandiose, loopy handwriting. A banner depicting New England women farming for local “Wethersfield onions” is juxtaposed with a drawing of a female slave, staring harshly and blankly ahead. Adjacent to these images, Romantic oil landscapes of Middletown depict a hilly hamlet framed by glinting water dotted with sloops and other vessels. Several crinkled parchment maps of Middletown from the pre-Wesleyan era present a town that seems impossible to reconcile with the Middletown we see today.
Further into the Middletown Gallery, viewers delve into the lives of the Middletown merchants, the town’s original one-percenters. Wooden barrels are replaced by elegant furniture made of Cuban mahogany. Oil portraits of Stephen Clay, a Middletown merchant, and his wife, adorn the walls. The stately pair are dressed in the finery of the day and could easily be confused for a founding father and his wife. The same could be said of Captain William Van Duersen, whose portrait lies directly across the room. The desks and chairs could be in an exhibit all their own; they’ve got rich, contoured wood that’s sanded to chocolate-y smoothness. Atop the desks are more ledgers, like those of Samuel Willis, who carried candlesticks, spades, wool, pork, “fashionable tongs,” tea, hay, shoes, and turpentine on one of his ship’s voyages.
In a display case, there are smooth, glassy, china bowls and pewter silverware made by a family of artisans in Danforth, Conn., which at one time was the “pewter Mecca” of the East Coast. On a wall, three embroideries done by the daughters of merchants illustrate quaint fall trees and houses, as well as the numbers and letters of the alphabet. You get the feeling you’re in the house of that one uptight relative who tells you not to touch anything.
Throughout the room, there are plenty of short captions, written by Wesleyan students, to tell you about the opulence of the household objects. However, the most interesting information provided is on the merchants themselves. When not working on ledgers or issuing directives to the captains of vessels they owned, the merchants were hosting dances with those in their social classes, as a recording of a young woman’s journal on a “sound stick” (a plastic recording device of ’90s cell phone proportions) will tell you.
To cap off the last room, there’s a display case about the Middletown customs house, the building where government officials managed traffic and bureaucracy in the port. There are more old ledgers and directives issued by customs house workers, as well as a metal instrument to measure the volume of rum in barrels. As an important part of the shipping process, the customs house display case belongs in the exhibit, but given the abundance of other paper documents and tools in the exhibit, it’s not particularly attention-grabbing.
In the adjacent hall lies the sobering slave quarters. There’s a slave bed, with a weathered and brittle-looking wicker frame, topped with ratty blankets. A display case without labels houses an eerie pair of metal shackles, discovered in the Society’s attic. A sign adjacent to the bed notes the roles of local slaves, who were involved in construction or worked in local taverns. On a sound stick, a merchant chillingly rattles off names of the slaves he will free after his death.
The Maritime Gallery offers a nuts-and-bolts look at the tools crucial to the maritime practice. There are a variety of navigational tools, including a sextant, and a whole shelf filled with a panoply of screws and hammers, used by local shipbuilding artisans. Humorously, there’s a section of the room devoted to taverns, where sailors would spend much of their time. Even in the 17th and 18th centuries, drinks were extravagant, such as one beverage that combines sugar, rum, and wine, served warm. There’s a wooden model ship on display, the rigging of which casts a spectral shadow that looks like a pair of hands trying to escape from below deck.
The last room focuses on the Caribbean itself. There’s a display case with sugar and a knife used to harvest cane, and an actual cane, which you can smell, resting on the wall. Drawings on the walls show slaves working through each backbreaking aspect of the sugar-harvesting process. Working day and night, slaves and animals alike were frequently worked to death. In the room, there’s another sound stick of a sea captain’s diary, and an iPad with a digitized logbook. It includes nearly 90 documents describing a ship’s voyage, all of which you can look through.
Overall, the exhibit is worth a visit, and you can’t beat a suggested donation of $2. Going through it will likely take two hours or longer if you get a chance to talk to Deborah Shapiro, the Society’s director. Whether it’s an aside on Middletown’s agricultural history or a spur-of-the-moment translation of a French drawing depicting slaves, Shapiro always has nuggets of unheard information to share. As a first-year student, it’s nice to get an introduction to the Middletown area and its past. Technologically speaking, the exhibit is well stocked for its size; the sound sticks and iPad add variety to the largely print-based displays. However, the exhibit was lacking in a crucial larger discussion of slavery. Certainly, the exhibit acknowledges how slavery underpinned most commercial practices, but it avoids all the gritty details and facts needed to facilitate a modern discussion on race. Despite this, the exhibit is much like one of the maps adorning its walls: a guide to Middletown’s past.