Category: History Tags: Bunce Island, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, James D'Wolf, Thomas Walker, Traces of the Trade
Recently uncovered historical evidence shows that the family of George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush has something in common with the DeWolf family of Traces of the Trade: both are descended from notorious slave traders.
In the case of the Bush presidents, they are directly descended from Thomas Walker, a notorious English slave trader who transported enslaved Africans between the west coast of Africa and the Americas in the late 18th century.
The discovery was made by Roger Hughes, an amateur genealogist, and Joseph Opala, the curator of Bunce Island, a slave fort on the coast of Sierra Leone where Walker purchased slaves before taking them across the Middle Passage. Hughes, who had previously identified members of the Bush family as slave owners in the U.S., is the one who first suspected that the Thomas Walker known to be a Bush ancestor was also the Thomas Walker appearing in historical records as a slave ship captain. After Opala, a historian, became involved, handwriting samples from each Thomas Walker were analyzed at Yale University to confirm the match.
It appears that, like the DeWolf family, the Bush family retained little or no memory of their prominent ancestor’s slave-trading past. In retrospect, however, both families should have suspected the truth. In the case of the Bush family, Thomas Walker was known to have been a wealthy merchant in Bristol, England, one of the great centers of the transatlantic slave trade, and he continued as a merchant after emigrating to the United States, operating out of Baltimore, a U.S. hub for the slave trade. And as documented in Traces of the Trade, James DeWolf of Bristol, R.I., the leading DeWolf slave-trader, was one of the most prominent merchants in the U.S., operating a maritime fleet larger than the U.S. Navy’s and being, according to at least one newspaper account, the second-richest man in the country.
Update: We have learned from Roger Hughes, the genealogist mentioned above whose painstaking research uncovered this Bush family history, that there is a mistake in the otherwise excellent Slate article linked to above. It turns out that Thomas Walker did not operate out of Baltimore after arriving in the U.S. In fact, he went to New York City after arriving in the U.S. from England, then to Philadelphia, before finally buying property in Burlington, N.J. in 1795. The fact that a slave trader from England settled in the northeastern United States, and is believed to have continued operating as a slave trader from there, should surprise no one. Roughly 85% of the U.S. slave trade operated out of northern ports, especially prior to the U.S. abolition of the slave trade in 1808.
Neither slave-trader appears to have deserved their socially elevated reputations, either: Thomas Walker was eventually murdered by his crew in a mutiny during a slaving voyage off the African coast, while James DeWolf, during one of his own slaving voyages, was infamously accused of throwing overboard an enslaved African woman dying of smallpox, tied to a chair, and lamenting the loss of the chair.
Why was neither family aware of their slave-trading history, despite social prominence and ample documentation of their ancestry? The answer appears to lie in the fact that the United States has engaged in its own form of collective amnesia regarding slavery and the slave trade. In this public accounting of its history, involvement in slavery is confined mostly to the southeastern United States, with the vast complicity of the northeastern United States (and the rest of the country) in slave-owning, slave-trading, supplying slave plantations, and profiting from slavery elsewhere mostly ignored and implicitly denied. Our public memory of slavery, therefore, allows anyone outside the South to believe, falsely, that their family and regional history is disconnected from slavery, to the point where wealthy merchant families from Rhode Island or Maryland can talk about their past without anyone even thinking about a maritime activity as common, or as economically important, as “slave trading.”
Spokesmen from the Bush family have so far declined to comment on the discovery, but there is now new resonance in the remarks made by President George W. Bush on Goree Island, a major slave-trading center off the coast of Senegal, when he came close to apologizing for the U.S. role in the slave trade:
At this place, liberty and life were stolen and sold. Human beings were delivered and sorted, and weighed, and branded with the marks of commercial enterprises, and loaded as cargo on a voyage without return.
One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history.
Small men took on the powers and airs of tyrants and masters. … Christian men and women became blind to the clearest commands of their faith and added hypocrisy to injustice.
We can fairly judge the past by the standards of President John Adams, who called slavery “an evil of colossal magnitude.”
My nation’s journey toward justice has not been easy and it is not over. The racial bigotry fed by slavery did not end with slavery or with segregation. And many of the issues that still trouble America have roots in the bitter experience of other times. But however long the journey, our destination is set: liberty and justice for all.