Antoine DeSant

Original content by: Dayne Rugh

zoomable artifact image here

About This Artifact

Born in 1815 in the Cape Verde Islands, Antoine DeSant represents a portrait of an accomplished man who defied social and cultural obstructions that affected most other men of color like him.  We’ve been able to trace much of DeSant’s history thanks, to information found in recorded ship logs and crew registers of specific vessels.  Throughout his life, DeSant participated in a number of sailing voyages including whaling and commercial shipping expeditions.  Being of Cape Verdean descent, these opportunities were more readily available to individuals such as DeSant due to the fact that many whaleships would make stops in these island chains not just to resupply, but to also enlist additional crew.  Historically, many natives of the Cape Verde Islands and Azores were highly skilled in working and navigating the sea. This gave them an opportunity to find a new living for themselves when the ships arrived and it also provided an important human resource for whaling captains.

Making his way to New London, CT sometime around 1830, DeSant was among those who took advantage of the opportunities whale ships provided for island natives.  We have evidence that he was on four whaling voyages as a crew member aboard the whaleship Tuscarora (listed on the roster as Antonio De Santo) and altogether was likely involved in nearly a dozen whaling voyages, perhaps more.  DeSant’s professional experience grew further and he eventually became an officer aboard the shipping vessel Portland in 1850, making a six-month journey from Boston to San Francisco.  After spending a majority of his life as a sailor and seafarer, DeSant made his way back to New London when in 1860, he established his own business as a grocer and barber.  After marrying and having six children, he became a naturalized US citizen in 1872 and became the owner of at least two properties in New London which still stand to this day in the downtown waterfront district.

DeSant remained in New London until his death in 1886 at the age of 71, yet the story does not end there.  In 1992, the narrative of Antoine DeSant was revitalized with the help of his great-granddaughter Anna Bush.  At Mystic Seaport, Ms. Bush was interviewed about her family history.  She also donated photographs of Antoine DeSant (the featured photograph for this article), and two of his children, John  and Julia (Ms. Bush’s grandmother).  Ms. Bush also donated a logbook that she revealed to have been penned by DeSant himself while an officer aboard the vessel Portland.  To have an actual manuscript kept by DeSant is quite significant and a unique achievement for a man such as himself when vast numbers of sailors and seafarers regardless of color could not even read and write at all! The images and documented history of DeSant and his descendants is crucial in interpreting the role of blacks and other non-whites in the broader context of maritime history. DeSant’s case is a special one due to the fact that documenting the history of men like him can be virtually impossible due to information being lost or never existing in the first place.  

Questions for Further Thought

  1. Other than the lure of adventure, why do you think men like Antoine DeSant would leave their homeland, families, or former lives behind and enlist on whaling ships?
  2. Do Antoine DeSant's successes in seafaring and business in New London offer any perspectives on how social and cultural values were changing in America?
  3. Can you trace your family lineage as far back as the 1800s or earlier?