A Man And His Manor


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

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, non-profit 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, Ms. Griswold speculated that they might have been planted here in the 17th century, judging by their size. But when she visited then-owners of the manor, Andrew and Alice Fiske, to learn more about these shrubs, she came away with an unexpected realization after Mr. Fiske casually pointed out the “slave staircase” leading to the manor’s attic.

It set Ms. Griswold’s mind and heart churning. Was slavery such an ordinary thing here?

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

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

In uncovering the details of the Sylvester family’s daily lives, Ms. Griswold takes us on an intimate investigation as compelling as a mystery novel. With a team of archaeologists, she uncovers broken pottery, buttons and shards, coaxing from them the “silent,” “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 Sylvester Manor.

I am enthralled by Ms. Griswold’s 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, 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 Sylvester family’s 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 Native Americans 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, Nathaniel Sylvester’s grandson, Brinley—as the King’s Port Collector for Southampton—calculates on the duties, or import taxes, owed by Captain Hubbard on 400 gallons of rum (about £3) and the duty on “one Negro” (about £4). The average price at this time of a slave was 35 pounds.

If you think rum-running was common only during Prohibition, look at Brinley’s 1739 account for the Bridgehampton seizure of more than 300 gallons of illegally imported rum, and more than 4,000 gallons of contraband molasses. Suffolk County Court condemned it and sold it at auction for about £129.

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 him by arguing that since Mr. Dering owned both the wine and Cato, he hadn’t lost anything.

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