Were Cape Sea Captains Involved In The Slave Trade? Harwich Talk Explores Controversial Topic

By: Debra Lawless

Topics: Local History

What if some of our local sea captains were actually running slave ships in the triangle trade?

Meadow Dibble Hilley of Brewster has uncovered an intriguing story that she believes points to a Brewster sea captain dealing in slaves. In a May 19 talk in Harwich called “The Diseased Ship, the Sea Serpent and the Destroying Angel: Cape Cod Sea Captains and the Slave Trade” she will explore this tale.

A few years ago, Hilley returned to her hometown of Brewster after living in Senegal for a few years, completing a Ph.D. at Brown University and teaching for three years at her undergraduate college, Colby. Until the 1980s Hilley’s grandparents, Robert and Faith Dibble, owned the Brewster General Store and her father, Tim Dibble, ran it. Hilley now lives near her childhood home with her husband and two daughters.

One day Hilley paid to take a sea captain’s tour of Brewster. On the bus the docent debunked what Hilley had always understood—that the town’s sea captains were whalers and fishermen. Instead, she learned they were merchants trading in cloth, rum, tobacco, opium and slaves. Slaves?

“That was really mind-blowing to me,” Hilley says. She began asking local historians about the slave trade. No one knew seemed to know much for sure about the involvement of Brewster’s captains. Some denied the town’s captains had a part in it.

“There are no smoking guns just lying around that indicate Cape Codders were involved in the slave trade,” she says. “It was always a dirty business—those engaged were not declaring their involvement.”

Eventually she was directed to read the memoir of Elijah Cobb, 1768-1848. (Cobb’s house at 739 Lower Rd., Brewster, has been the home of the Brewster Historical Society since Aug. 2016.) Yet Cobb omitted all mention of the final 12 years of his career, and it is during this crucial period that an event occurred that Hilley honed in on. Hilley found an 1819 board of health report in the New England Journal of Medicine that described an investigation into the September 1818 to July 1819 voyage of the ship the Ten Brothers. Cobb captained the ship after Capt. Joseph Mayo Jr. died on the west coast of Africa. The voyage was a triangular one—leaving Boston, the ship sailed to West Africa and then to the West Indies. When it docked in Boston it carried ballast only as well as a deadly mosquito that spread yellow fever through Boston. Hundreds died.

The board of health questioned Cobb. “Did Elijah Cobb knowingly bring yellow fever to Boston and was this a slaving voyage?” was the question the board poked at in a subtle manner. Ultimately the board cleared Cobb of all suspicion. Hilley, though, does not clear Cobb. And she says that while it may be impossible to say for certain that he carried slaves on board the ship, she believes it is important to acknowledge that he was accused of doing so and also brought yellow fever to Boston.

In her research she has traveled to Cuba and to North Carolina and spent time in archives. “I’m on a mission,” she says. “I feel it’s extremely important we know our history, that we not content ourselves with the legends of the brave Yankee men who made it with their ingenuity. Where did all this wealth and privilege come from?”

As well as lecturing locally on “The Diseased Ship,” Hilley plans to launch a 12-episode podcast about the story this July.

“I use the metaphor of the diseased ship to get at underlying issues that are making our society ill right now and have been,” she says.

And beyond that, she wants to “crowdsource” history by bringing in many people who would like to join her in researching the truth. “Let’s not wait for historians to come along,” she says. “It’s been over 200 years.

“There are so many threads that need to be pulled,” she adds. “We have serious work to do to uncover history knowingly concealed.”

Hilley has created the group Cape Cod Black Box project to ask the questions: “What happened here? And why aren’t we talking about it?” She hopes to tell the story of the Cape Cod slave trade to evoke empathy. The issues of race, privilege, xenophobia and bigotry all relate to current national conversations.

“We need to wake up to the fact that we need to know our history because it is still affecting us,” she says. “This is what we’re living with.”

Hilley will speak on Saturday, May 19 at 1 p.m. at the Harwich Cultural Center on Sisson Road. The talk is sponsored by the Brooks Free Library and the Harwich Historical Society. Hilley will also present the talk on Wednesday, June 27 at the Snow Public Library in Orleans. That talk is sponsored by the library and the Orleans Historical Society. The events are free and open to the public. For more information on the podcast, visit www.patreon.com/diseasedship.