The taint of slavery

Dave Wylie, Special to The County
4 years ago

There’s no real accounting for what one’s ancestors did well before one was born, but the taint can linger if it’s bad enough. Slave-ownership is a for instance. One can account for it by noting that it existed somewhere in the family lineage.

I suspect that isn’t the case for many here in the Valley whose ancestors came from Acadia and Quebec. I haven’t come across any instances of people from the Valley having owned slaves — that is, if one follows the line of direct ancestors “back to the boat,” a phrase I use to denote the arrival to Canada of one’s antecedents from France.

It’s a fact that Acadians who were deported to Louisiana, sometimes held African slaves, mostly by sheer dint of their arrival in the South and the way in which the economy of that region worked. Most didn’t. Most remained too poor to own the amount of land and other factors required to hold other people in bondage as their main source of labor.

I worried that my paternal line of ancestors, the direct ones from Scotland and Northern Ireland, might have had a hand in that sad and gruesome activity, but no. They arrived too late and with religious affiliations that forbade ‘man-stealing,’ as the Scots Covenanters called it. Admittedly, they could be a blue-nosed lot when it came to spiritual matters, but I determined that some of them refused to take oaths of citizenship to the country because the Constitution permitted slavery at the time. Some were abolitionists by spiritual inclination. And the separation of church and state bothered those who held that the country had to be guided by the teachings of the Gospel. In Scotland, they had a motto, “Nae King but Christ,” which got them into a lot of trouble.

However, what one has to realize is before the Civil War, slavery generally ran the American economy. Few enterprises were in not in some way connected to the “peculiar institution.” Take northern Maine as a for instance. The logging that went on in the north Maine woods before the Civil War was designed in part to keep shipbuilders building ships to provide fish to feed slaves, to make boats to transport cotton grown on plantations worked by slaves and so on and so forth. Look for connections and you will find them. Indirectly and sometimes directly, the North as we define it was implicated in the institution of slavery.

I was reading somewhere that a certain rich and powerful family in the shipbuilding trade made their fortune from providing the ships that ferried slaves to the South and the products of that institution to the rest of the world. Certain prestigious institutions in the North, colleges with unparalleled reputations, were underwritten by the use and ownership of slaves.

I was both heartened and taken aback by the admission of our political figures admitting their ancestors owned slaves. For Beto O’Rourke, it was the apologetic implication that his family members were implicated in that institution. For Mitch McConnell, it sounded like an unapologetic point of pride he could wield as a cudgel against former President Obama whose mother’s ancestors similarly owned slaves. 

In a sense, it’s why history matters. None of us escapes the implications of history, both personal and political. It’s a means by which one gains a perspective on who we are as a people by knowing what we were. In matters of race and gender, it points up that part of our humanity is recognition of its frequent inhumanity, and it gives us the means by which we can better ourselves.

 Knowledge of our past can work to change the future.

Dave Wylie’s life and work experience runs the gamut from newspaper editor to carpenter to grant writer to boat builder with lots of other work wedged in-between. Wylie currently is president of a management company that oversees an elderly housing complex and president of the local historical society. He resides in Madawaska.