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.

At sunset on October 4th, four small boats travel up the river from the historic Providence harbor on the edge of the Atlantic. Tens of thousands of people are gathered at WaterFire but many may not know the full history of the water by which they stand.

This is 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 is 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 will join 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 will walk 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 will be lit, the infamous triangle trade will be demarcated, chains will be burned and broken, and our entire community will gather together to remember, honor, watch, listen and feel.

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

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

To be involved or to join our mailing list, contact us.

Please comment below with any thoughts or reflections about this event and the issues it raises.

Timeline of events

If you wish to discuss any of the issues raised in this event, please come to our table in Memorial Park at any point in the evening.

ACT ONE: A Thousand Ships, A Thousand Libations
6:30pm WaterPlace Basin
Join us and pour one of 1,000 water bottles into the river as a libation ritual, in the lights of the burning braziers. Each bottle represents a slaveship voyage that left from this state.

ACT TWO: Remembrance and witness
7pm Leaving from next to Waterplace restaurant, WaterPlace Basin
A torchlit procession will travel to significant downtown sites and bear witness to this city's relationship with the slave trade and its connected industries. Follow the torches after the libation and join the procession.

ACT THREE: Reflection and Celebration
8pm Triangle of trees, Memorial Park
A triangle of trees is surrounded by chains, representing the “triangle trade” that existed between Rhode Island, the coast of Africa and the plantations in the Caribbean. Come to watch and participate in the burning of the chains, and place one of a thousand luminaria inside the triangle, in memory of the victims of the trade.

8:30pm World War I Monument, Memorial Park
Learn about Rhode Island’s complex involvement with the institution of slavery, as actors bring to life voices from our state’s past.

The event is dedicated to the memory of Professor Rhett S Jones.

Epilogue: Symposium
12 - 3pm October 5th, John Nicholas Brown Center, 357 Benefit Street
The John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage at Brown University will host a symposium that examines public engagement with Rhode Island's involvement with the institution of slavery, and interrogates the challenges involved in presenting these issues through civic ritual and public art.