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The Mast-Head: A Scholarship and Slavery

Wed, 04/27/2022 - 18:13

It was likely that the East Hampton Town Trustees would eventually have had to take on the question of a scholarship named for William J. Rysam, who was both an enslaver of other human beings and had been a slave ship captain before moving to New York around the time of the American Revolution.

Rysam arrived for good in Sag Harbor in 1778. Whether he brought enslaved people with him in addition to his daughters or purchased their lives and labor after he became established there remains to be learned. From various documents, it is clear that he held Tom, Jack, Dick, Peter, and an enslaved woman whose name I have not found in bondage. In his will Rysam left the town trustees $500 to pay for the education of the poor.

His story begins in Wales, where he was born in 1737. By the 1770s, he was a ship’s captain living in Virginia and in 1772 was recorded as departing Barbados with a human cargo of 28 people. The ship arrived in Norfolk, Va., some time later with 27 survivors. He fled Norfolk after the British burned the city in 1775, passing through Brooklyn, before arriving in Sag Harbor already a wealthy man, his money derived, to some uncertain measure now, from slavery.

Here, he built a house, a salt works, a ropewalk, and a massive sailing vessel of more than 200 tons burden, which he named the Merchant, and became even wealthier. In those times, in the absence of banks, loans were most often made among individuals, and at the time of his death, many of East Hampton and Sag Harbor’s prominent white citizens owed his estate debt, records show. Two of his grandsons, to whom he left money as well, later started what would become one of Sag Harbor’s leading whaling companies, Mulford and Sleight.

It may be difficult to precisely put a dollar amount on what portion of Rysam’s wealth was derived from slavery; however, it is clear that it played a key part in his rise to prominence. There is a Rysam Street in Sag Harbor and a historic marker lauding his accomplishments on Bay Street, but no mention of the enslaved people whose labor and whose trade helped make him and others here rich.

I learned all this last year while doing research into slavery’s importance in the North and told the Trustee Clerk Frances Bock about it. I did not say that the scholarship’s name had to be changed, but that it was clear to me that the trustees needed to talk about it. I am glad they did and that they are open to the question, however they decide to go in the end.

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