Hargrave Column: A tale of slavery and spirits on Shelter Island

In the late 1800s, this stone was erected to memorialize "the colored people of the Manor from 1651." A service this month may have been the first public ceremony at the burying ground. (Sylvester Manor courtesy photo)

In the late 1800s, this stone was erected to memorialize “the colored people of the Manor from 1651.” A service this month may have been the first public ceremony at the burying ground. (Sylvester Manor courtesy photo)

This week I had planned to write about Long Island Winterfest’s series of wine and music events, which have now been extended through March 23. But you can go to the Winterfest website yourself, at www.liwinterfest.com, and choose the concerts to chase away the winter doldrums.

I’d rather tell you about “The Manor: Three Centuries at a Slave Plantation on Long Island,” a mind-blowing biography of Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor that highlights our region’s far earlier dependence on alcohol in various forms. Author Mac Griswold takes us on a voyage of discovery in such a riveting way that it will leave you stuck at home in that armchair until you have read all 319 pages of the narrative — and the 90 pages of footnotes, too. Only then will you leave home for Winterfest. 

Ms. Griswold didn’t set out to upend anyone’s view of the bucolic Sylvester estate that originally comprised all of Shelter Island, now whittled down to a 24-acre nonprofit educational farm and manor. At first, she only wanted a closer look at some remarkably large European boxwoods she’d seen while rowing in the creek next to the manor. A landscape historian, she speculated that, judging by their size, they might have been planted here in the 17th century. But when she visited Andrew and Alice Fiske, Sylvester’s direct descendants and current owners of the manor, to learn more about these shrubs, Andrew Fiske’s casual gesture pointing out the “slave staircase” to the manor’s attic set her mind and heart churning. Was slavery such an ordinary thing here?

Intrigued by its past, lured by its trove of original documents (moldering in the house under a dripping pipe), compelled to literally dig around the property to uncover more of its story, Ms. Griswold has studied this place and its inhabitants, bound and free, since 1997.

She relates how, in 1651, Nathaniel Sylvester, a Dutch trader (with English heritage and an English wife), bought Shelter Island for 1,600 pounds of sugar, grown on his family plantations in Barbados. All New England’s economy was driven by a “triangle trade” of Barbados sugar made in Newport into rum and traded in Africa for slaves, who were transported to work in Barbados and beyond. The Sylvesters settled on Shelter Island with their own 24 African slaves. Their “plantation” provisioned their own and others’ ships for international commerce.

In uncovering the details of the Sylvesters’ daily lives, Ms. Griswold takes us on an intimate investigation as compelling as a mystery novel. With a team of archeologists, she uncovers broken pottery, buttons and shards, coaxing from them the “silent” and “invisible” history of the slaves. Traveling to Ghana to see the headquarters of the Dutch slave trade, she is shocked to find the same yellow bricks as those uncovered at the Manor.

I am enthralled by her upending of common assumptions about the early history of this region. She questions everything, reading between the lines of inventories, wills and letters. Nathaniel Sylvester and his family and heirs become as human as our own friends and neighbors. We see their bravery, foibles, loyalties and passions. With subtlety and insight, Ms. Griswold shows how they compartmentalized their religion and business to justify behavior subsequent generations have condemned.

If you, like I, think of these early settlers as taciturn, teetotaling Puritans, you may be surprised to learn how important alcoholic beverages were to them. Fragments of jugs from the Rhine evidence the Sylvesters’ appreciation for German wine; a 1644 inventory of a Sylvester ship shows it traded wines from the Azores and spirits for tobacco in the Chesapeake. In 1672, Nathaniel Sylvester paid the Indians who worked for him in hard cider and rum, then “complained that they were violent and drunken people.”

Rum was cheap and regulated. In his account of 1746, we find Nathaniel Sylvester’s grandson Brinley’s calculations (as the king’s Port Collector for Southampton) on the duties (import taxes) owed by Captain Hubbard on 400 gallons of rum (£3:06s:8p) and also the duty on “one Negro, (£4).” The average price of a slave at this time was £35.

If you think rumrunning was common only during Prohibition, look at Brinley’s 1739 account for the Bridgehampton seizure of over 300 gallons of illegally imported rum and over 4,000 gallons of contraband molasses. Suffolk County court condemned and sold it at auction for £129s:18:8¼p.

A few years later, when Sylvester’s son-in-law Thomas Dering’s slave Cato was caught drinking in the wine cellar, another slave, Comus, defended Cato by arguing that since Dering owned both the wine and the slave, Dering hadn’t lost anything.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.