A ritual of remembrance at WaterFire marking the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade

An art installation by Barnaby Evans and The Museum on Site
Saturday, October 4th, 2008

In collaboration with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, Brown University’s Rites and Reason Theatre, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society, the Rhode Island Historical Society, Rhode Island for Community and Justice, and The Providence Black Repertory Company

Sponsored by Brown University’s Commission to Commemorate the History of Slavery in Rhode Island, WaterFire Providence and the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities

A Thousand Ships

At sunset this evening, four small boats travel up the river from the historic Providence harbor on the edge of the Atlantic. Tens of thousands of people are gathered at WaterFire but many may not know the full history of the water by which they stand.

This is a night of remembrance—an occasion to celebrate the bicentennial of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, but also a night to acknowledge and mark Rhode Island’s century-long involvement with this trade. Merchants from Rhode Island mounted more than a thousand slaveship voyages on these waters, carrying over 100,000 Africans into New World slavery. One of these ships was called the Providence, and more slaveship voyages sailed from Rhode Island’s harbors than from any other state.

A Thousand Ships is a night for contemplation and recognition – a ritual observance acknowledging the state’s historic involvement with human bondage. A night filled with music and silence, dance and stillness, fire and water. Echoing a traditional African ritual, a thousand people will join together to offer a libation to the ancestors by pouring into the river and onto the ground a thousand vessels of water, each representing a slave voyage from Rhode Island. Actors will walk through the crowds giving voice to historic figures from Rhode Island, sharing their stories of freedom and bondage and the struggle to abolish slavery and the slave trade. Torches will be lit, the infamous triangle trade will be demarcated, chains will be burned and broken, and our entire community will gather together to remember, honor, watch, listen, and feel.

This event at WaterFire is dedicated to the memory and work of the late Professor Rhett S. Jones and begins the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities’ Freedom Festival, a month-long exploration of African-American heritage in Rhode Island. A formal West African libation ceremony in honor of the late Rhett Jones will be poured by Professor Anani Dzidzienyo of the Brown University Department of Africana Studies.

A Thousand Ships will be a time for remembering, and a night to remember. We cannot allow ourselves to forget.

A Thousand Ships Schedule:

ACT ONE: A Thousand Ships, A Thousand Libations

6:15 p.m. Waterplace Basin

A Thousand Ships; A Thousand Libations

Join us at sunset in Waterplace Basin for the lighting of WaterFire and a libation ritual marking the 1000 slave ship voyages that left RI waters by helping us pour forth 1000 tributes of water into the river. Look for the volunteers in red sashes handing out the specially marked water bottles and join us in this observance at the sound of the drums.

ACT TWO: Remembrance and Witness

7:00 – 8:00 p.m. A variety of performances and observances that underscore the history of the slave trade in Rhode Island.

A torchlit procession leaves from Waterplace Basin to the Citizens Bank Plaza off the Steeple Street Bridge and marks significant downtown sites bearing witness to their relationship with the slave trade and its associated industries.

Actors move through the crowd reciting historic texts from RI related to the slave trade.

ACT THREE: Reflection and Celebration

8:00 – 9:00 p.m. Memorial Park, A special observance takes place in Memorial Park near the WWII memorial.

A triangle of trees is chained together to invoke the triangle trade-between Africa, RI, and the Caribbean. The triangle of chain will be set alight to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. RPM Voices will sing two gospel songs. Everyone is then invited to place 1000 luminaria in the triangle to reclaim this memory.

DEDICATION: The A Thousand Ships observance is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Rhett S. Jones who was always passionate about facing and teaching the truth and was a gifted teacher of many things including the complex history of the African American experience. Rhett Jones was a man who valued the magic and power contained in ritual, art, and theatre. Many of us are deeply indebted to him for his scholarship, his leadership, his passion and his example.

SYMPOSIUM: 12:00 – 3:00 p.m. October 5th, John Nicholas Brown Center, 357 Benefit Street

The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University will host a symposium that examines public engagement with Rhode Island’s involvement with the institution of slavery, and interrogates the challenges involved in presenting these issues through civic ritual and public art.

The Unrighteous Traffick: Rhode Island’s Slave History

A Thousand Ships is part of a larger effort across the community to re-examine a troubling part Rhode Island History, we are pleased to be in partnership with the Providence Journal and link with their groundbreaking seven part series dedicated to documenting the extent of Rhode Island’s involvement with the slave trade for over 75 years. This extraordinary series, written by Paul Davis, explores an important part of our history about which many of us are unaware.

Read “The Unrighteous Traffick: Rhode Island’s Slave History.”

The Conversation Continues Online

Share your thoughts about A Thousand Ships.

Access a free copy of  The Museum Online’s book,  A Thousand Ships: A Ritual of Remembrance
Marking the Bicentennial of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. You can also purchase a paperback copy.

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