Arts display reflects on R.I.'s role in trans-Atlantic slave trade

The WaterFire exhibit in August 1997 showcased bonfires built in metal pans. This year's event will be held Saturday. The WaterFire exhibit in August 1997 showcased bonfires built in metal pans. This year's event will be held Saturday. (Michael Delaney/Providence Journal via Associated Press)
By Eric Tucker
Associated Press / September 29, 2008
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PROVIDENCE - One of Rhode Island's most celebratory occasions will be tainted next weekend by reminders of one of the ugliest chapters in its history.

WaterFire, a nighttime public arts display that draws tens of thousands of people to downtown Providence on weekends in the summer and fall, will reflect on Rhode Island's role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade Saturday.

Actors spread throughout the crowd and accompanied by torchbearers will read aloud the names of slaves sold on ships that departed from Rhode Island. Ceremonial paper chains will be burned. And 1,000 participants from the crowd will simultaneously pour water from bottles into the river in a mass libation reflecting the 1,000 slave ships that traveled from Rhode Island to Africa.

The observance, called "A Thousand Ships," lends a somber tone to WaterFire, which has become one of the most popular arts events in New England since arriving in Providence in 1994. Held on select Saturday evenings from May to October, the installation consists of dozens of bonfires built in metal pans, or braziers, placed along the city's three rivers.

"We just think it's very important to bring the entire perspective of the community into the heart of a community celebration such as WaterFire," said Barnaby Evans, who created WaterFire and designed Saturday's event.

The event marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

It is also part of an ongoing public accounting of Rhode Island's deep-rooted participation in the slave trade, starting in the early 1700s and continuing into the 19th century.

A Brown University commission in 2006 completed a study of the Ivy League school's centuries-old relationship to slavery. John Brown, a major early benefactor of the university, was a slave trader who defended the institution until his death while his brother, Moses, who worked to relocate the university from Warren to Providence, was an ardent abolitionist. Slave labor was also used to construct the oldest building on campus, now called College Hall.

The Brown report estimated that about 60 percent of slave ships launched from North America originated in Rhode Island, where wharves bustled with commercial activity linked either directly or indirectly to the slave trade.

"If we can get 1 percent who come along to WaterFire to say, 'Huh, I didn't know Rhode Island was involved in slavery,' then it means we've done something," said Andrew Losowsky, one of the event organizers.

Evans said one of the "most visually persuasive" parts of Saturday's event will take place in downtown Memorial Park, where 400 feet of chains - actually newspaper, construction paper, and wire - will be wrapped around a triangle of black locust trees in a display meant to invoke the triangular route of the slave trade.

The chains will then be burned, and the public will be invited to place luminaria - candles inside paper shades - in the triangle.

Actors will also read true accounts from the slave ships, including a list of items the vessels carried.

"The information really drives home how much this really is a business," said Lyra Monteiro, another organizer.

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