“he inhumanly order’d her thrown over board”

For one last entry before the end of Black History Month the story related by JANE PRINCE ROBBINS is worth remembering. Jane was married to Chandler Robbins, minister of the First Congregational Church of Plymouth, Massachusetts. On October 5, 1792, she wrote to her daughter, Hannah Robbins Gilman, what she had heard of an outbreak of smallpox on board a ship and the fear it inspired.

I read a letter to day that come from Hannah LeBaron. she is in the West Indias, went there with a Capt De Wolf that married a daughter of Gov Bradford. He has accumulated a fortune, in the African trade, the last voyage he made, one of the poor negros broke out with the small Pox a day or 2 after he saild. upon which he inhumanly order’d her thrown over board; when he got home, search was made for him, upon which he was obliged to fly the country.

At a young age James DeWolf of Rhode Island became a sailor on an American privateer during the American Revolution; he participated in several battles and was twice captured by the British. After the war as captain of the ship Polly he joined his uncle and father in the slave trade, becoming wealthy in the process. On a voyage from Africa to Cuba in 1789 his vessel contained 142 slaves and 14 crew. When one of the enslaved women became ill with smallpox she was separated from the others, brought on deck and tied to a chair. Because she did not respond to treatment the captain asked for a volunteer to push her overboard. When no-one was forthcoming, he had her blindfolded and gagged so her screams could not be heard and with the aid of a sailor he raised her with a grappling hook and had her lowered her into the sea where she sank and drowned. One of the crew later testified that DeWolf bemoaned the loss of a good chair.

DeWolf was indicted for murder in 1791 by a grand jury in Newport, Rhode Island. Murder on the high seas was a federal offense. When a warrant was issued for his arrest he fled to the Carribean island of St. Eustatius, leaving his wife and children behind in Bristol. Charged with murder in the West Indies, DeWolf got off again when the prosecuting attorney declined to move forward with the case, two crewmen testifying that he had drowned the slave girl to protect his crew and “valuable cargo” from smallpox. DeWolf relocated to St. Thomas where he was also charged with murder; when no one appeared as a witness, the charge was dropped.

Back in Rhode Island, relatives of his well-connected wife—Nancy Ann Bradford—managed to get the arrest warrant against him dropped. DeWolf then rejoined his family in Bristol where he continued to prosper from the illegal slave trade, from privateering, and his many investments. He became a state senator and in 1821 was elected to the United States Senate. When James DeWolf died in 1837 he was considered to be the second wealthiest man in the United States. (The first was Charles Carroll of Carrollton, Maryland.) It is estimated that members of the DeWolf family over the years were responsible for bringing 11,000 enslaved workers into the United States.

The letter is from In the Words of Women p. 177. Two other sources can be viewed HERE and HERE, though there are errors in the latter. John Jay was not the attorney general. He was the Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. At that time (1791), the justices rode circuit. Jay presided over federal courts in the northern circuit. It was in his jurisdiction that the case against DeWolf was brought. The book shown can be ordered HERE.

posted February 28th, 2018 by Janet, CATEGORIES: DeWolf, James, Jay, John, Robbins, Jane Prince


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