The Secret History of Brewster, MA.

I was perusing Peggy Jablonski’s book, Cape Cod Camino Way (June, 2021), that mentioned the Cobb House Museum in Brewster, MA. and the life and times of Captain Elijah Cobb (July 4, 1768 – November 21, 1848), who built the house in 1799. We decided to visit the Cobb House Museum. Here is a video tour of the house describing many interesting facts about the architecture and life in Brewster at the time, including rare picture of Helen Keller and Ann Sullivan, who stayed in Brewster several summers.

There is more to the story that is not mentioned in the video or in the displays. While there is no smoking gun, circumstantial evidence points to the likelihood that Captain Elijah Cobb and the many sea captains residing in Brewster were involved in the slave trade. While very lucrative, even at the time the practice was shameful and then illegal in Massachusetts after 1783. What evidence is there of a Cape Cod slave trade?

Meadow Dibble Hilley, a native of Brewster and founder of the the Atlantic Black Box Project (a grassroots organization researching and reckoning with the New England slave trade) dug into this question. She wondered why the symbolic gravestones of several Brewster sea captains said they died on the west coast of Africa, Havana, Port au Prince and other ports in the Carribean. What were they doing there? And many of the sea captains were building large houses in Brewster that now serve as inns and taverns. Where did all that wealth come from? She noticed in Captain Elijah Cobb’s memoir that he omitted mention of the last twelve years of voyages, a crucial time in the slave trade.

There is some hard evidence. 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. The ship sailed out of Boston (as most Cape Cod ships generally did) and spent the fall of 1818 in the Gulf of Guinea off the west coast of Africa. Many of the crew contracted yellow fever and died, including Captain Joseph Mayo. Elijah Cobb, being a senior member of the crew, sailed the ship back to Boston by way of Martinique , in the Caribbean, to unload an “unspecified cargo”. Here is a quote from a Thoughtco article describing how the Triangle Trade system worked:

“New Englanders traded extensively, exporting many commodities such as fish, whale oil, furs, and rum and followed the following pattern that occurred as follows:

  • New Englanders manufactured and shipped rum to the west coast of Africa in exchange for enslaved people.
  • The captives were taken on the Middle Passage to the West Indies where they were sold for molasses and money.
  • The molasses would be sent to New England to make rum and start the entire system of trade all over again.

In the colonial era, the various colonies played different roles in what was produced and used for trade purposes in this triangular trade. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were known to produce the highest quality rum from the molasses and sugars that had been imported from the West Indies. The distilleries from these two colonies would prove to be vital to the continued triangular trade of enslaved people that was extremely profitable. Virginia’s tobacco and hemp production also played a major role as well as cotton from the southern colonies.”

When the Ten Brothers finally docked back in Boston, it carried more than molasses and sugar; it carried deadly mosquitoes that spread yellow fever through Boston. The Board of Health questioned Cobb about both the yellow fever and slavery, but cleared him of all suspicion in the end. Hilley, however, does not clear Cobb.

I bring this all up, not to sully the reputation of Brewster, but to finally get to the truth and acknowledge our whole history. Only when we tell the whole story and learn from the past will we be able to make amends and heal as a country.

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