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A Thousand Ships

A ritual of remembrance at WaterFire marking the bicentennial of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. An installation by The Museum on Site and Barnaby Evans.

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, The Providence Black Repertory Company and Rhode Island Black Storytellers.

Click play to see photos and hear The Museum On Site directors discuss the event
Slideshow by Gordon Stillman

At sunset on October 4th, four small boats traveled up the river from the historic Providence harbor on the edge of the Atlantic. Tens of thousands of people were gathered at the local event known as WaterFire, but many may not have known the full history of the water by which they stood.

This was 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 was 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 joined 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 walked 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 were lit, the infamous triangle trade was demarcated, chains were burned and broken. A community gathered to remember, honor, watch, listen and feel.

The following day, a symposium was held at Brown University to examine public engagement with Rhode Island's involvement with the institution of slavery, and interrogate the challenges involved in presenting these issues through civic ritual and public art.

This opening event at WaterFire was dedicated to the memory and work of the late Rhett S Jones and began the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities' Freedom Festival, a month-long exploration of African-American heritage in Rhode Island.

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

Read about the event in the Boston Globe.