By Meadow Dibble

What you are looking at is a document chest believed to have belonged to Elijah Cobb (1768–1848), one of New England’s most celebrated sea captains and the founding father of my hometown on Cape Cod. You might even call it a 19th-century black box, since the purpose of this object, like that of its modern counterpart, was to safeguard information related to what were often long and dangerous overseas voyages.

As you can see, of the many documents this chest presumably once contained—logbooks, ship manifests, port clearances, bills of lading, and correspondence—none remained inside when the item was acquired by the Brewster Historical Society two years ago. The black and weathered box was as void of Cobb’s belongings as his 1799 mansion had been when the BHS transformed the property into a historic house museum in 2016.

A thorough examination of local and state archives reveals that the private papers of Elijah Cobb—a man who was successively entrusted with the roles of Town Treasurer, Town Clerk, Inspector General, Justice of the Peace, Representative and Senator to the Massachusetts legislature, and Brigadier General—are quite simply missing, as if they had been tossed overboard and the wake created by their plunge had immediately repaired to form a seamless blue surface.

Though we will likely never know what actually became of them, pausing to consider possible causes for the dearth of primary source documents related to this public figure is nevertheless a worthwhile mental exercise. Given our penchant for historical preservation, it is a surprisingly common phenomenon here in New England. In effect, the empty black box serves as a good metaphor for the state of our region’s maritime archive, especially when it comes to our dealings with Africa and the West Indies over the centuries.

Anyone who has attempted to research this topic will report having encountered many gaping holes in the historical record. Fire was often to blame, of course, as it claimed Portland’s customs records in 1866 and Boston’s in 1872. But not all losses can be attributed to mere accident. Writing in the 1930s, maritime chronicler Henry Kittredge lamented of Cape Cod’s sea captains that “too often have tidy housewives among their descendants burned their log books and their letters.”[1] Historians in the growing field of scholarship related to Northern complicity in the global slave economy confirm that deliberate sabotage occurred more often than we will ever know.[2] In the course of researching Maine’s role in the illicit slave trade, for example, historian Kate McMahon has documented a case in which the crew of a Freeport brigantine tossed its papers overboard—along with the American flag—when boarded by the British navy on suspicion of slave trading. In one puzzling case, I learned that the Registrar of Barnstable County accused his predecessor of having absconded with all of the files related to Cape Cod’s maritime activities of the early 1800s.[3]

The question of how to interpret the extant vestiges of New England’s maritime heritage when there are so many holes in the historical record poses a considerable challenge. In the case of Cobb’s mansion and his sea chest, when gutted of their original contents these nested boxes tell us little about their former owner or in what sorts of trade he engaged over the course of an evidently profitable 40-year career on the Atlantic. To fill in the gaps, local historians and docents have for decades been relying on a memoir the captain wrote toward the end of his life. The problem is that this rollicking tale is anything but impartial. And it leaves a few things out.

The empty black box serves as a good metaphor for the state of our region’s maritime archive, especially when it comes to our dealings with Africa and the West Indies over the centuries.

In searching outside the box and between the lines of Cobb’s boastful autobiography, I discovered that the merchant trader had made at least two voyages to Africa about which he had preferred not to reminisce in writing. After piecing together the story behind the second of these transatlantic ventures, it immediately became clear why this prominent citizen remembered on his headstone as an “upright man” hadn’t wanted to pass it down to posterity.

Less obvious was why the numerous reports issued when his 1819 return to Boston caused a major scandal and a catastrophic public health crisis had failed to catch the attention of either community researchers or academic historians for the past 200 years. Accused by an outraged population of both illicit slave trading and having caused the worst yellow fever epidemic the city had seen in decades, Cobb—the superspreader of his day—quietly slipped back to his seaside property in Brewster, where he waited for the whole ordeal to blow over. Astoundingly, it did.

The whitewashing of Elijah Cobb exemplifies a problem endemic to New England. As a people, we are profoundly alienated from our history. Just a few years ago, the notion that my hometown’s most celebrated sea captain or any mariner from the Northeast could have played even a minor part in the slave trade had never crossed my mind. After all, these are not the stories we have chosen to tell about our intrepid Yankee mariners. Since then, I have learned that 1,740 documented transatlantic slaving voyages were made on vessels constructed and registered in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut or having departed from their seaports.[4]

But this figure only represents the tip of the iceberg. What scholars in this emerging field will tell you is that they are just beginning to grasp the extent of what we don’t know about New England’s complicity in global slavery. After spending centuries willfully blind to a reality often hiding in plain sight, we are collectively starting to ask why this history isn’t common knowledge and how its suppression has impacted us all.

If history has taught us anything, it is that the practice of researching and recording history should not be entrusted to a handful of historians.

The colonists who invaded New England in the early 17th century were the first to initiate slaving voyages from the continent and their descendants were the last to pursue this heinous traffic. Though we prefer to commemorate less inglorious distinctions, it is critical that we reinsert into our region’s narrative the centrality of slavery in fueling its economic ascent. It was just 18 years after the Mayflower dropped anchor off of Provincetown that members of the Massachusetts Bay colony loaded the Salem-based ship Desire with Native people they had taken as captives during the Pequot war and traded them in Bermuda for “some cotton and tobacco, and negroes…”

And so it went for the next 225 years, as mariners from these parts continued to force human beings onto floating prisons and ship them from one foreign port to another, or from the upper American South to the lower, in the most horrendous of conditions. But because this traffic largely took place elsewhere—that is, out of sight and out of mind—New Englanders could maintain an attitude of respectable distance and plausible deniability.[5]

If culture, in the words of Seth Godin, can be summarized as “people like us do things like this,” then New England’s culture has been fundamentally shaped by our communities’ deep and longstanding investment in the dehumanizing systems that robbed millions of Africans and their descendants of life and liberty. It is also reflective of our protracted collective disavowal of this fact—a fact that would be glaringly obvious if we weren’t so determined to not see it.

I can’t help but wonder where we would be today if the tall ships that carried these men along with their commodities and captives around the Atlantic world had been equipped with black boxes like the ones installed on aircraft since the 60s.

Had a faithful record of our region’s dealings with Africa and the West Indies been preserved over the centuries rather than obscured, would we not be better equipped to understand the source of the societal turbulence we’re experiencing today?

Though our technology has certainly advanced in the last couple hundred years—from tall ships to aircraft, from document chests to flight recorders—we are still experiencing the same system malfunctions caused by systemic racism. Today there is no denying that this fundamental design flaw is threatening to cause our ship of state to descend into a freefall.

Atlantic Black Box invites communities throughout New England to collaborate in building a better, more reliable black box. Through place-based education programs, digital humanities projects, and dynamic events, we are looking to make the latest scholarship about Northern complicity accessible to the general public. But while specialists help to guide our efforts, we believe the public also has a critical role to play in uncovering all that still remains opaque about these places we call home. After all, if history has taught us anything, it is that the practice of researching and recording history should not be entrusted to a handful of historians.

In the interest of producing an evidence-based and inclusive regional narrative, we are collaborating with local archives and enlisting the help of citizen historians in a grassroots effort to investigate what happened here through the lens of racial history. Equally central to our mission is the centering of stories from New England’s historical Black and Indigenous communities, which have so often been relegated to the margins of the official narrative, when not entirely redacted.

What we don’t know does, in fact, hurt us; it’s just that it hurts some of us more than others. In 2021, White ignorance continues to literally kill Black, Indigenous, and other people of color, just as it has done for centuries. It is imperative that we shift our priorities from maintaining the façades of our fine sea captains’ homes and fetishizing the antiques they contain to addressing the rot eating away at their foundation.

[1] Henry Crocker Kittredge. Shipmasters of Cape Cod. (Houghton Mifflin, 1935), 72.

[2] Stephen Chambers, No God but Gain: The Untold Story of Cuban Slavery, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Making of the United States (Verso, 2015), 13.

[3] Isaiah Green, Collector of Customs in District VII (comprising all of Barnstable County) from 1814 to 1819, wrote on May 5, 1814 to then Secretary of the Treasury George W. Campbell to complain that his predecessor, William Otis, refused to surrender “the marine bonds and papers belonging to this office, such as the abstracts of Registers, Enrolments and Licenses issued and surrendered, Tonnage, and marine hospital books, etc.” In his introduction to the truncated Alphabetical List of Ship Registers, District of Barnstable, Massachusetts, J. W. McElroy, Deputy Archivist for New England at the National Archives Project, wrote, “Whether at this date, the Barnstable records had already been lost in the same fire that destroyed those of Edgartown or whether ex-Collector Otis had done away with them to prevent the material from falling into his successor’s hands, cannot be determined.” National Archives Project. (1938). Alphabetical list of ship registers, district of Barnstable, Massachusetts, 1814-1913: Compiled from original documents stored in the New Bedford Customs house. Boston, Mass.: [s.n.].

[4] Voyages Database. 2020. Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. (accessed October 3, 2020).

[5] To the common objection that people of the day saw nothing wrong with such a practice, let me underscore two points: 1) antislavery sentiment was being forcefully voiced as early as 1700 in Massachusetts and, 2) Northerners continued to trade in slaves well after the practice was banned (1808) and made punishable by death (1820).

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