The African American Maritime Experience

by Dr. Jeffery Bolster

About This Lecture

Dr. Jeff Bolster's lecture "The African American Maritime Experience" was recorded in July of 2012 at the Frank C. Munson Institute of American Maritime Studies at Mystic Seaport.  The recording and web presentation of the lecture were made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

1. Introduction

I am as interested really in the production of history or the production of texts as I am in any given subject. I flit like a lightening bug from one subject to another. I've written on African Americans in the maritime world, I've written on the business of shipping, I've written about the local estuary where I live and I have a book coming out soon on marine environmental history. So I keep changing topics. They all connect to the ocean in some way; I'm really interested in the ocean and the intersection of the human experience and the ocean in time. I'm a maritime historian who writes on different things. 

But I'm really interested in how we do what we do. I'm interested in thinking about how to produce texts; whether they're journal articles or books, whether they're more pitched at a public audience or the guild, and also how we give talks. In other words; how we disseminate what we know. So before I begin talking about the Black Jacks book a little bit, I would just say a few things. Number one- I set out intentionally to try to write a book that would be acceptable to the guild but could also be sold at Barnes and Noble. So I imagined from the get go against my advisers at Brown and Hopkins to try to do that. And I felt until it succeeded that I was probably going to do neither one.  Number two- As I was thinking about black guys on boats in the age of sail I was thinking that often poets and novelists do it better than we mere academics. So I said, “What do they do?” They think metaphorically, they think in terms of image, they try to develop character, and they don't necessarily argue a thesis. So I thought, if we're going to try and reconstruct these guys on their own terms how might we do it? I thought, “I certainly don't want to fall into a trap of pure racial antagonism.” There's plenty of racial antagonism to go around; but if that's the argument you miss a lot. I certainly didn't want to fall into a trap of liberal progress because it's really easy to say “Nope, there was slavery and then things got better,” so we have this Whiggish history. That sort of rides roughshod over the the road that wasn't always getting better. I certainly didn't want to fall into a model of pure class antagonism, class consciousness. So I was trying to reconstruct the lives of black men at sea which was the age of sail without trying to fall into some of those models around which some books orbit. The final piece of this little prologue is that the book is very much a product of  the culture and community orthodoxy of the late twentieth century, how do you write black history. The book is a product of its time and I see it as very centered in that vision of culture and community. African American people in the age of slavery had a culture which deserves to be reconstructed on its own terms; that they had a community that was supported at times. If you take those to extremes you end up with these Teflon coated slaves and that doesn't really work for me.

Now, this book's had a long strange career. The book is fifteen years old now, it continues to sell and people are still talking about it. Just five weeks ago there was a big feature article in the Washington Post about this book.

So I told you a little bit about as I was thinking about framing the book. As it began to be turned from a dissertation into a book, I was thinking that it was about race, limited opportunities, but it was also really about creative survival. It was about how black people in the age of slavery were making themselves out of the circumstances in which they found themselves. How black people were contributing to not just the American maritime industries of course, but to the formation of black America. I saw this as a story about empowerment.

As Eric mentioned when I was young I went to sea for about ten years, often in big sailing ships, frequently in the Caribbean. I was sailing as mate and master on these ships and schooners. Often in the Caribbean I was seeing these owner operated freight boats, sloops and schooners sailing out of St. Thomas and different places. When I first showed up there in 1977 there were still a number of these boats. Quite a few had engines as well as sails but some of them were still pure sailing boats. They just appealed to me; they appealed to the romantic in me. I wanted to go to sea under sail; I was intrigued by what these guys were doing. I talked to some of these guys. So I'm listening to some of these old black men who are telling stories about their youth and talking about moving cattle around the Caribbean and sailing from island to island back in the day. I was just entranced with what they were telling me.  I had no idea that I was going to write some book about black sailors, I was just out of college sailing on boats. One trip on the Harvey Gammage we were sailing into Cape Haitian, Haiti, probably around 1978 and Daryl Ford was teaching Caribbean history at that time had a copy of the Old Whaling Narrative which in those days was only in a hard bound, two volume edition. So I'm reading that book and I'm thinking about Equiano. I'd never heard of him before but here's this guy who was sailing in the 1770s in that place, and yet I was there in the 1970s  and I'm hearing stories from men like this. Where were the connections? That's the little nugget that lodged in the back of my brain long before I had any idea that I was going to write this book.  Images endure, and it seems to me the image that has endured to identify or define the relationship between historic black people and historic sailing ships is this image of the slave ship. And it's powerful, it’s true, it's no doubt etched into our memories, but it obfuscates, or hides as much  as it reveals because the image of course speaks tp black people being enacted on instead of enacting, being transported across oceans as sort of commodities. It's an image in which back people are passive, in which they are being acted on by forces larger than them. Important, true, not true, forgotten, but it also hides a fair amount.

The Amistad stories sort of contribute to this identification of historic black people with historic slave ships. Many here know the story. But the Amistad story in a nutshell, 1839: 53 Mandai slaves, recently imported captives are being transported along the northern coast of Cuba, they rise up on the schooner, strike a blow for their liberty, kill some of the Cuban sailors, keep a few of them alive, and try to get the schooner, they think, back to Africa by pointing it east. They get into the gulf stream and are pointing east and they get sucked up to the East Coast of the United States, and ultimately come ashore at Long Island and are captured, taken to jail in New Haven. They spoke Mandai; no one around here spoke Mandai. The abolitionist lawyers thought they they had a very good case on their hands here and they want to make something of this, but they've got to talk to these guys. So they got a professor of language from Yale to go to the jail in which these guys were sitting. He got them to teach him how to count from one to ten in Mandai and then he took the train to New York and he walked up and down the piers on the Hudson River shouting at the top of his voice from one to ten in Mandai. After a while this African sailor came out of fo’c’sle or something and said “what's happening?” He said “I  need you,” so that's how they got a translator. What the professor knew of course is that there were African guys on ships and that he was likely, if he went to New York and counted from one to ten in Mandai to find someone who could communicate with these guys. My point is that even with the Amistad story where these guys struck a blow for their freedom the linkage between historic black people and the historic sailing ship is still through the lens of the slave ship. So my book tried to do something different.  I'd say we can do something different, maybe something better, to reveal another story equally powerful and equally true but that had been hidden for a very long time.

This is a story of African American seamen in the Age of Sail and part of the way that I entered into the project was asking that fundamental question of social historians: How do we link people's experience with the meanings that they subscribe to? So the biggest thing for me as I was doing research was how can I link experience and meaning? I know most of the data that I'm going to find is going to be behavioral evidence, the evidence of people doing things. I'm not going to get lots and lots of evidence that's interior. It turned out actually that I found a fair number of diaries and logs and letters and stuff, many of which were written by black men. There was more interior reference than I had initially imagined. What can we extrapolate and what can we say within the bounds of the profession given the rules of evidence with which we work about what it meant to those guys. I can demonstrate to you that lots of black guys worked on ships, and what I wanted to do was to try to get beyond that and to ask questions about everything from family to martial arts styles and hairstyles, political consciousness and vectors in the Underground Railroad. So it's questions about experience and meaning. How do we do it?

This is a crew list. The American government, bless its soul, since 1793 has required all American ships leaving an American port to file a crew list in the customs house indicating who is on board the vessel. We were still doing this when I was sailing school ships in the 1970s and 80s. I had this fantasy that in the future some social historian of the late twentieth century is going to write a book about hidden school ships and they're going to find all the crew lists that I filled out and they're going to do something with them. . In the meantime, I'm a master's student now at Brown University, I'm working with Gordon Wood, I've just gotten off of boats. In seven or eight years I was going to end up going back to it for a while more. Wood tells us all to write a paper, so I go to the archive in Rhode Island and I actually have a very different idea than black guys on boats, I'm actually going to do a social and occupational mobility study to try to referee the dispute between Samuel Elliot Morrison and Jesse Lemish, which had sort of come into the historical literature or course and wrote the maritime history of Massachusetts in the late '20s.  Then in 1968 Jesse Lemish wrote this to the barricade kind of article, and they had a very different vision of what it meant to be a seaman in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century. So I thought, I'll just solve this dispute. I'll just go into the archives at the Rhode Island Historical Society and straighten these guys out. What I found were all these crew lists, and as I'm looking through the crew lists, I found all these black guys. I found like thirty percent of the guys on sailing ships out of Providence, Rhode Island in the last decade of the nineteenth century were African American men. Suddenly I thought, I've read all of the literature on seafaring labor, I have not seen much on black labor and ships. Then I remembered back in the day in the West Indies when I was talking to these old brothers who were telling me about their experiences in their own lifetime and then I read these old documents, so I thought that maybe there was something here.

Ultimately, I analyze some data from ten different seaports on the East Coast and the Gulf Coast, categorized about fifty thousand guys and figured out that about eighteen percent of the mariners in the American merchant fleet from the beginning of the nineteenth century until the Civil War were men of color. The crew lists were a wonderful repository of all sorts of information. Upshot is that I felt that I could demonstrate very conclusively that seafaring had been really important in the development of black America and that African American labor had been extraordinarily important in the evolution of American maritime industries back when shipping was a leading sector of the economy. That was a premise of the book.

But it really illuminates this little triptych here. The little emblem suggests productive relations in the eighteenth century Atlantic world. You have the enslaved producer in the middle; could have been male or female, producing tobacco, sugar, rice any one of a number of tropical commodities. The enterprise was being organized by the merchant planter on the left, and then on the right we have Jolly Jack Tar who is indispensable to the venture because unless you can actually transport these commodities some place where they're worth selling, they're not very valuable. So this is productive relations in the eighteenth century Atlantic world. My argument is that the sailor could have easily, in this image, been a black man as much as a white man. Let's shift here, it's Havana Harbor, famous painting, some of you have probably seen it at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The guy in the water is Watson. Many years later he commissioned this painting by John Singleton Copley of the day that changed his life. Watson is a merchant sailor on a British ship, they show up in Havana Harbor, Cuba and he decides to go for a swim, and by the time his ship mates got to him in the boat and pulled him out of the water that shark had taken off one of his legs. Ultimately he became an amputee; a surgeon sawed of the remnant of the leg and he was a tough bastard and he lived.

Many years later, he's gone ashore and he has a head for figures and has made a fair amount of money now as a merchant and he commissions Copley, one of the great painters of the age, to paint the day that changed his life. When he got the sketches for the image, all of the guys in the boat were white. Watson said “No, no, no. One of my shipmates was a black guy. Put him in the picture.” Copley ended up re-framing the picture and putting the black man at the center. Clearly the black man is very central in the rendering of this image. I use this painting as a way to get us to think about race aboard ship. By no means do I make the argument that these ships were colorblind, that would be naïve. By no means do I make the argument that black men did not shoulder a lot of burdens because of their race. They did. But I do argue, and I hope effectively, that these ships, because of custom, because of admiralty law, because of the hierarchical nature of the ship, provided more maneuvering room, some more leeway to men of color than many, many occupations ashore. Ultimately the ship became a place where black men in the age of slavery could assert themselves more, have a little bit more wiggle room than many other places ashore.

2. Maritime Slavery

It turns out that maritime slavery was crucial to the integrity of this eighteenth century economy. There's a spice sail boat from Barbados, this image is from Mystic Seaport actually. If any of you have ever looked at a bottle of Mount Gay Rum which has that nice little map of Barbados on the label, there up in the Northwest corner, this is the kind of lighter, small craft that was used to ferry cargoes between the beach and the ships. This is an age in which there are not a lot of sophisticated wharf facilities; you can't get a deep draft ship right into the beach, so most things are taken off in flats or lighters or barges of different sorts. This a boat full of enslaved people in Barbados who have a lot of hogsheads here or sugar or rum or something like that. But maritime slavery is much more important than just in the Caribbean. If you read Gary Nash's book about Philadelphia, about fourteen percent of the enslaved men in Philadelphia in the eighteenth century were mariners. If you look at Gerald Mullins' work on runaways in the Chesapeake Bay, fully twenty-five percent of male runaways in that whole Chesapeake, Maryland, Virginia system were mariners. They were fishermen, pilots, deep sea mariners, coastal sailors, whatever. If you look at Phil Morgan's work on South Carolina boat work and seafaring is the third most important occupation for black men in that slave system. I went into the Suffolk County (that's Boston) archives, and went through a bunch of probate records and found that about a quarter of the black men in Boston (all slaves), in the decades before the Revolution, were mariners.  I go to the Massachusetts State Archives and what I really want to do is go through the probate records for about twenty years of all the deceased to find out who died owning male slaves and which of those male slaves had some experience on boats or ships. I go to the archives and talk to an archivist and they say “well, which probate record do you want to see?” and I said “No, I don't want to see one specifically, I want to see a bunch of different ones.”  “No, we have to bring them out individually, so you have to tell us the name of someone who died and we'll look it up in the system here and get the number, and then we'll get that one.” I said “No, you don't really understand.” “Well sir, we have our policies.” “Can I talk to your supervisor?” and it took me about a day of back and forth before I could get trays of probate records and I could do what I wanted to do.  

Here we have a shipping scene from Antigua. These are very well dressed slaves, mind you, but they posed for the painter I guess. But the real point is, if you dispense with the finery, the scene is accurate. These boats are called Moses boats, they have a V shape. Midship there's a hogshead and they're being rowed up forward from the beach to the sloop or schooner up by the headland there. This is an entire slave operation; the slave producers on shore, of course the slave sailors are rowing the Moses boats, and slave skippers and slave crew on the schooner that will sail around to St. John's harbor in Antigua where they transship to deep sea ships going to Boston, London, or wherever. So what we have here is a situation in which white sailors from any metropolis showing up in any Caribbean port are shoulder to shoulder with black boatmen and sailors. Thus of course some black boatmen or sailors who are trying to get off the island or escape can perhaps try to get a job aboard ship. There's this constant juxtaposition between white and black mariners.

Think for a minute about the conditions of life for this cabin boy, the black kid up in the top of the frame there. This is aboard a British Navy ship in the 1780s. We have the hooker, we have the mastiff dog, the bowl of punch going around, but this kid, the circumstances of his life are really different than those of a fourteen or fifteen year old kid on a tobacco plantation in Virginia, or a rice plantation in South Carolina. This kid is out seeing the world and associating with other people, and that became a trope really at the heart of this Black Jacks book, which is the notion of black men in motion at a time when black people were assumed to be as Frederick Douglass said “fast in their chains, fixed in one place, unable to move without a free paper or a pass.”  The book that I wrote I had this vision that it would be about black people in motion.

It turns out that a number of black men initially got on board ships as status symbols. Certainly military captains, naval officers, privateers, some merchant captains on bigger merchant ships definitely felt that they were honored; their status was increased, if they had a man of color to wait on them. So here we have the aft cabin of a British Admiral's warship and you see the black man beating on the drum, and we often find the black man blows a French horn, or plays the trumpet or beats the drum. This is again a good party. They've got this bowl of punch there on the deck and the dog is wearing a wig, so things have clearly gotten a little out of hand. The image really encapsulates not just the majesty of the British admiralty and officers' quarters and the rest, but Irish servant, the dog and the black man are all sort of ornaments for this naval officer. But the upshot is that men of color thus got into the navy or got onto merchant ships and often coming aboard a steward or cook or drummer or French horn player, but then could transform themselves to learn the art of the sailor.

So here is an image of a West Indian regiment, two black soldiers, but they're talking to a black sailor back there in his naval whites under the palm tree. We can view this as the process by which men like the cabin boy or men like the Spice Town boat slave we saw or the man with the drum in the aft cabin; these were avenues in the eighteenth century by which men of color got on board ship and thus remade themselves and became ultimately sometimes able-bodied seamen.

Imagine ships (these are tobacco ships from right after the American Revolution) in the Atlantic world as a refuge for slaves, on the land as a place where race was less meaningful in some way, or worked differently is perhaps a better way to say it, than in many employments on shore and also imagine ships as a series of conduits. Long before newspapers, long before vinyl albums, they were connecting the brothers and sisters of the African Diaspora. If you imagine this “Black Atlantic” as Paul Gilroy has called it, and you imagine the eleven million people brought against their will as captives from the shores of Africa to the Americas where they settle between Nova Scotia and Argentina with many of them of course in Brazil, the Caribbean, and the American South, what we have is this far flung African Diaspora in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. What we have as a means of communication are these ships with these boys and men aboard these ships. This is again where this cross-pollenization of martial art styles and hairstyles and political news and family news and rumor and scripture is moved around. So I very much saw ships as a means of unification or cross pollenization within the African Diaspora at a time when virtually all black people were illiterate.

One little story about men in motion here makes a case. You can see Bermuda. Imagine Bermuda, November of 1756. A black man named Thias, who has probably been raised in Bermuda because we later learn that he speaks English very well, so he either had been raised their or come from Africa as a young kid probably. He's sold from Bermuda to St. Eusthius, down in the Eastern Caribbean.  Apparently he doesn't like being sold because eight months later, by July of '57, he's back in Bermuda. At least that's what his owner thought. He was in a year for much of a year, again about eight months or so, then apparently the heat got to be too much and he decamped once again and was then rumored to be in Charleston, South Carolina and harbored by a wench.  The advert, I'm now reading this in the Charleston, South Carolina newspaper in November of 1758. The advert run by his owner in Bermuda, South Carolina and the eastern Caribbean, is a runaway slave advertisement, rather formulaic, there are tens of thousands of them; but this one says that “My man Thias, thirty-two years old, dark complexion, speaks English extremely well, is an excellent ship-caulker and tolerable good ship carpenter was sold to St. Eustachius, came back to Bermuda, left Bermuda, went to South Carolina, etc.” The owner had not been able to find him for two years, though he had a pretty good idea of where the guy was.  So the guy is capitalizing on his seafaring skills and being harbored by black people in these different places to move around and stay out of the clutches of his owner. He clearly had family or friends in Bermuda, so he came back to Bermuda, that was his place, but then he felt too much pressure and left to go to South Carolina. I don't ultimately know what happened to him, but that one runaway slave advertisement gives us a two year window into the life of this one guy. When you imagine the tens of thousands of these men over time, we get that sense of black men in motion.

3. Racial Stereotyping and Etiquette

Most black people in this era were of course illiterate. It turns out that the first six autobiographies written by black men in English were all written by sailors. All these guys are the first generation of black autobiographers. All those guys were mariners, and if you think about it, it makes sense. If you work on a ship, especially if you're a cabin servant, you're in the aft cabin. What's in the aft cabin? Books, maps, charts, navigational instruments. The aft cabin is a hub of literacy. Where do ships go? They go from seaport to seaport. Big seaports like London and Boston have publishing firms. For a person of color to write a life story, and all of these were indictments of slavery and the slave trade as well as life stories, that person needed to A. be literate and B. to have some kind of patron, they needed sponsorship. They needed to get published. So it turned out not to be so surprising then that men in this most cosmopolitan of trades would be the ones who would initially speak for the race. Here's the title page of Equiano's and John G.

We think this is an image of Equiano. Most of you have probably read Equiano's narrative, although I won't tell you much about him except that the students in my freshmen class at UNH said “Well he couldn't have been a slave!” “Why not?” “Well he writes too well!” “He couldn't have been a slave!” “Why not?” “Well he was too well-traveled.” “Well it doesn't really work like that.” They can't get their heads around the fact that slavery happened to people that were very talented and articulate.

John G. is a very interesting guy. He's born at an old slave port in Beafra. In the 1770s he's shipped to New York State as a slave at two or three years old with his parents, an intact family. He's raised to young manhood in New York State as a slave on the eve of the American Revolution, and then he takes off. In the disturbance of the Revolution he lights out and ultimately goes to sea. He hated seafaring but he spent years on ships in part because he was an evangelist, and he was an evangelist of Methodism but also an evangelist of Black Nationalism. He went from place to place, and I suspect that he was the kind of man that just filled up a room, but he went from place to place on ships because ships provided him three hots and a cot, he got meal, room and board. It was one of the few jobs of that paid wages but it allowed him to travel to spread the messages that he cared about his Methodism, Black Nationalism, and revolutionary egalitarianism. He was quite the guy.

Paul Cuffy, many of you probably know about Paul Cuffy. He was probably the most important black man of his generation and arguably the most important black man before Frederick Douglass in the United States. This is an image from 1812 made Dr. John Cole in England. It's a silhouette of Cuffy on the brig, the traveler that he had built himself and of which he was head shipwright in Westport, MA on the Rhode Island border. The image is very cool, it's Cuffy on an Atlantic ship on a tamed Atlantic between his father's palm studded palm treed Africa, and his mother who was a Wampanoag Indian woman, his mother's rock bound American coast. Cuffy is a very interesting guy, there have been some good books about him but in the 1770s Cuffy had written in his day book “My nature is musty.” In other words “I'm half black, half Indian.” Musty is one of the twenty-seven or twenty-eight colors of complexion I found in these crew lists. By 1809, he's writing “I am of the African race.” Cuffy's genotype had not changed, but his political consciousness had. He went from imagining himself as the son of an Ashanti father and a Wampanoag Indian mother to a representative of the African Diaspora. He imagines himself later in life as an African. Ultimately as some of you know Cuffy lent some of his money and his ship on behalf of the American Colonization Society to send free blacks to Africa.  I try not to use to the term “back to Africa” because many of them were American born. But he is an old man by now, probably the wealthiest black man in the United States. He had given up on the prospects for black people in America. Before the war of 1812, he decides that black people are going to get screwed, so if he can lend his stature and money and ships to begin this process of repatriation or “back to Africa,” to send black Americans, those who want to go, to Africa, it will be better for them, this was part of the movement that went to Liberia and Sierra Leone, Cuffy was connected with Sierra Leone, but he died shortly thereafter.

The point is, a man of his generation, James Fortin, they knew each other, they corresponded, had served in the American Revolution as a privateer, he was a very well-to-do sail maker in Philadelphia. Fortin had a very different vision than Cuffy. They were both about the same age, both quite well-to-do and for black men they were astronomically well-to-do. They were both mariners, had both been to sea as young men; Cuffy stays in the merchant sailing business, Fortin stays in the sail making business but they negotiated their entire lives with men in their families and their employees who were mariners. Fortin was the American integrationist. Fortin was the kind of guy who would have said: Our blood, our sweat, and our tears have made this place and we are not leaving; we have as much right to be here as anybody else. I'm not an African, I'm an American.”

There's a correspondence between Cuffy and Fortin about this colonization thing and Fortin has a very different vision. The point I make in the book is that the cosmopolitanism of seafaring, the fact that these men were engaged all around the Atlantic world, that they read the shipping news of the day, they were up on business currents, they were literate, they were politically informed; nevertheless these two well-to-do and successful black mariners of the same generation had very different visions about the future of black people in the United States.

So I'm working on this book, and I'm trying to illustrate the book and I hear that there's a doctor in Rhode Island, Dr. McBurney, who has a painting of a black privateers man from the American Revolution. So I contact Dr. McBurney, he's very generous, he loans me a very nice color image of it which we reproduce in the book, and this is one of the images in the book. McBurney had bought the painting in the '70s for about thirteen hundred bucks and then it hung in his house and he just thought it was cool. 2006, Francis Tavern in New York City is going to do an exhibition. George Washington had spent time there during the Revolution and there had been a number of sailors trooping in and out of Francis Tavern, and they want an image of a black sailor from the era of the Revolution, so they get in touch with McBurney, who’s always a generous guy and says “sure, you can use my painting.”  They decide to get the sailor spruced up a little bit for his New York City debut so they send him out to an art conservationist and the art conservator starts touching him up. Low and behold, the colored man was shoe polish. It was a painting of a white guy (it is an eighteenth century painting), but during the 1970s as racial consciousness was becoming more prominent, as we as Americans needed black heroes and multiculturalism is becoming the rage, somebody decided that this painting of an unknown white guy could really be a lot more important to the national story if he was a black guy. So they “fixed” him. McBurney had bought this painting in 1975 thinking that he had this African American artifact. When it went out to be conserved for the exhibition, it was insured for three hundred thousand dollars.  When they discovered it was a fake, the price dropped drastically.

Then there's this guy that we put on the cover of the book; an anonymous sailor from that era. I like to think of this man as poised, I like to think of him as having a sense of self, I like to think of him as being a skilled AB at a time in which men ashore for the most part could not work at skilled trades. Racial etiquette meant that if you were an enslaved male, you could be a skilled blacksmith, a skilled carpenter, or a skilled saddle maker, you could be a schooner captain in the Chesapeake Bay if you were enslaved you could do jobs with responsibility, which jobs paid your owner. If you were a free man of color you'd shine shoes, shovel snow, and chop wood. You couldn't work iron, you couldn't carpenter, and you couldn't run a schooner as a skipper. It's racial etiquette. So we had a lot of enslaved males in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century who very accomplished iron workers, carpenters, schooner skippers and the rest because they were slaves.  But as soon as those guys were free, or corollary men of their generation were free, were simply not allowed into those trades.

So this guy is working his trade as an able-bodied seaman. It was one of the few trades available to men of color of that age where they could take their God given talent and the skills and the brains in their head and the talent in their fingers and do something. They could act as salvage masters, they could send down yards, they could rig ships, they could hand reef and steer. They generally could not rise about able-bodied seaman. They could sail as boys, or ordinary, or Abs. Those were the basic ranks in the merchant service. But not as second mate or chief mate or captain. Again, racial etiquette, you could get to a certain point. It's the racial ceiling. What we have is a number of ships on which I found were the most, the oldest, the most skilled and sometimes even the best paid of the sailors besides the officers were the black men. This was especially in the early nineteenth century. 

This is an image from Mystic Seaport Collections. The Aboulla is very cool; 1806. It's done by an Italian artist named Camillieri. It's of an American ship sailing into a French port with a multiracial crew on board. We have the cook here tending the cook’s rope, which is a black man on deck of the ship. Seafaring scarred men, tramped them and cast them aside and trashed them. We have Billy Waters here, an American who fell from the yard of a ship, lost his leg to the surgeon, and became a busker on the streets of London.

Then we have this little schooner. This is the Young Brutus of Salem, MA. Captain Gardener, early nineteenth century. What you can't see from your distance is that all the guys back here on the quarter deck, their faces are little blobs of Caucasian paint and all the guys up here on the foredeck their faces are little blobs of African American paint.  It now belongs to the maritime museum in St. Michael's on the eastern shore of Maryland, but it was at a gallery in Boston some years ago, and the owner of the gallery lent me a copy of the painting and a letter asking if I could interpret it because he'd heard that I'd written this book about black guys on boats. So we had a little fun with the image.

Here's the story. The artist (1807-1810, somewhere in there) was very much aware that there were black sailors. He actually took pains to do different colors with the officers and the men on the foredeck. There are many paintings, in fact when this book came out initially the press was going to give me twenty-four images but we got up to thirty-seven or thirty-eight and when the book was published it turned out that there had been no book on early American black history that went up to the Civil War, published at that point had more illustrations than this one. When I was doing this book, I did a lot of leg work. I was in archives from South Carolina to New Hampshire; National Archives, state archives, local archives, private collections, etc. I go into these places and I say that I'm writing about African American sailors and the archivists, almost to a person, say to me “Well, I'd like to help you but that's going to be really hard.” I got this in the National Archives in Washington, I got this in the Maryland Historical Society, I got this everywhere. Old people, young people, black people, white people, males, females, all these archivists, they know their collections. Part of it is that if you imagine yachting today is the descendent of traditional commercial seafaring, you don't see a lot of black yachtsmen. But part of it is that people just have these assumptions about who does what; Racial stereotypes. The line I use with undergraduates is: “If today, any of you walked into the gym at your university or college and standing in the lobby of this building you were introduced to two young men. They're each twenty years old, they're very athletic looking, good specimens of manhood. One's a white guy and one's a black guy and you're told that one of these guys is the captain of the football team and one of these guys is the captain of the swim team. Which is which? In our society today, the white guy is the swimmer. If you have two guys who are both twenty years old and one is the captain of the football team and the other is the captain of the swim team, the black guy is the captain of the football team and the white guy is the captain of the swim team. It's stereotypical, but it’s also borne out by statistical correlations.

If in 1750 you had been standing on a beach or a pier in Virginia in Barbados and there are two good-looking athletic guys in front of you; one white and one black, and you were told that one of these guys can swim and one of them can't which one would it have been? The black guy swims like a fish in 1750; black men could wrestle sharks and alligators, dive for pearls, and salvage anchors. Black men were amazing in the water. West African guys, West Indian guys, they could swim. Some white guy from Plymouth, MA? The water's too cold! White guys couldn't swim for beans.

What we have here is a historical difference, and they're actually both correct in a generality in the eighteenth century black men swam much better than whites. Today in recreational America white kids are much more likely to be competitive swimmers than black kids.

But what happened when I went to the archives and I was trying to write this book about African American seafarers, archivists are telling me I'm going to have a hard time doing this. Well it turns out the book is based on an avalanche of evidence, but not always of the documentary evidence but it was the best illustrated book of early African American history because there are all of these pictures. The pictures are painted by artists who are distinguishing between the black guys and the white guys in the boats and the pictures are hanging in hidden places like The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the lobby of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the National Maritime Museum in London. The pictures are everywhere; they're out in plain view.  Yet the archivists are imagining through the lens of race that twists us in ways that we don't even imagine all the time, that Bolster's going to have a hard time writing a book about black seafarers because there really weren't very many.

4. The War of 1812

War of 1812 it turns out that when the Congress declared war it was because HMS Leopard shown here firing on USS Chesapeake off the Virginia capes humiliated the American Navy by forcing the Chesapeake to heave to. The Leopard, the British ship, sent a boarding party to the American ship and took off four men who they claim are deserters from the British Navy. They took those men to Halifax to sort out their fate. They determined that indeed one of them was a deserter and they hung him by the neck until he was dead in Halifax; but the other three guys were actually black guys and they were not deserters from the British Navy. They were Americans, African Americans and when Congress decided to go to war they were talking about American sailors being seized from the deck of a warship. They suspended attention to the fact that these men were African Americans.  One was actually an Indian guy, one was Daniel Martin, William Ware. The point is that the War of 1812 was started in part because of this humiliation to the navy. It's often not remembered that the men at the heart of that incident were African American mariners serving in the U.S. Navy.

This is an image from the War of 1812 up on the Great Lakes and the point that I use with this is that at this time black New Englanders were seven times more likely to go to sea than white New Englanders. Why is that? They had no other opportunities. For a free man of color in New England, shipping provided a way to have a job. Many white men in New England had family farms, family businesses, family shops; they had some way to make a living. They did not all rely on a wage work; that's much more common in our era than in their era. Men of color rarely had property. There were some exceptions, but rarely did they have property and so the men of color really did rely on waged work and the single most important venue for waged work was shipping so black men were much more likely to ship out working in merchant ships but also whaling and the navy etc

5. Freedom Stories

Freedom stories were a part of waterfront lore and freedom stories rolled off the tongues of silver lipped orators like Frederick Douglass and they also were just spun as yarns in the fo’c’sles of different ships by black men who had gone to sea. Douglass wrote in his autobiography that he grew up on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay and he looked out on that bay and said “This bay shall bear me to freedom.” He said “I see these ships going by, white-winged, loose from their moorings and free while I am fast in my chains and a slave.” He determined as a boy, he said, that the schooners and ships of the bay would carry him to freedom.  His master ultimately sent Douglass to Baltimore. Across the bay from the eastern shore in Baltimore he was sent to work as an apprentice ship-caulker. There was a ship-caulker in Massachusetts about a century later still plying the trade that Douglass plied as a young man. Ultimately, Douglass of course escaped from slavery impersonating a black sailor. He got a black man in Maryland who had one of these seamen's protection certificates to loan that certificate to Douglass. Now this was worth seven years in the Maryland Penitentiary or a three-hundred dollar fine. This was a very risky thing for a free man of color to do but this free guy loaned Frederick Douglass the certificate. This is issued by the collector of customs; it's a Federal paper, the United States of America. So Douglass takes this certificate and he dresses in sailor’s clothes and gets on a train in Baltimore headed for Philadelphia. As their going through the Mason Dixon line the conductor is coming down the aisle of the train and asking all of the black people for their free papers, their passes. Douglass writes later in his memoir, not the first edition, because someone could have gotten in trouble. This was long after the war when slavery's illegal. He writes “I reached into my deep sailor's pocket and pulled out the certificate and I said to the conductor 'I don't have a free pass but I have this certificate with the American eagle at the top. I can go anywhere in the world.'” And the guy says “Ok, go to Philadelphia.” But the point is, Douglass got out of slavery impersonating a sailor because free sailors were then so common as to cause few second looks. But the free sailor risked a great deal by giving Douglass this piece of paper.  

Freedom stories, for men like George Henry. George Henry is a representative of the paradox of what it meant to be a master and a slave. George Henry is a slave in Virginia and he's raised as a boat slave. Ultimately, he's commanding pungy schooners like this around the bay.  He sailed to Norfolk, Alexandria, Richmond, Baltimore, and Chestertown, all around the bay. Bay's two-hundred and forty miles long, it's got all these rivers going into it, it's quite an area. George Henry knows what it's like to be the master of this vessel. He's got a crew of slaves under him; three or four guys, he's going to all these places, he's in charge of freight, he's in charge of lading, he's in charge of navigating the vessel, he's in charge of keeping his guys in line. He's the master, but he's also a slave. When he goes ashore he knows what it means to be called “boy,” to be called “uncle,” to be insulted in any one of a number of ways; to be cuffed by white men.  After a while the paradox of him being a master while a slave is too much for him, he wrote. “So I ultimately went and tied up my master's vessel, (it was actually a mistress by then because the master had died,) in Baltimore (and this is the Baltimore waterfront in the 1850s) any made my way to Providence, RI.” But he said “I got to Providence and I had to come down from my high position as captain and take up my white wash brush and wheel barrow to make a living.” He said “In the North, in New England, I could sail as a common sailor or a cook; and he did make some trips as a cook,” but he said “there was no way to know that I was perfectly qualified to do so.” Again racial etiquette.                                                                       

Great book: The Life of George Henry complemented together with A Short History of Colored People in America. This guy had a big ego. He actually worked to desegregate public schools in Rhode Island after the war. He wrote this history of Colored people in America, he was a very interesting character. What's really interesting about him is that the war years are sort of a void; people are trying to figure out what George Henry was doing.  His slave years are somewhat documented in records in Virginia, his free years in Rhode Island are well-documented. No one has figured out yet what this guy was doing during the war even though there's pretty good records now on the Union Navy and Army during the war. 

Robert Smalls was the pilot in South Carolina who stole the Confederate gunboat Planter, turned it over to the Union and became a war hero. So these boys that hang out at the waterfronts hear these freedoms stories. They hear freedoms stories from grizzled veterans and young guys, guys who have made one voyage and guys who have made a lifetime of voyages.  Many of these boys think that whaling is the thing for them. It turns out that there are lots and lots of African American men, before the war and later of course, Azorean, Cape Verdean and West Indian men working in American whale ships. So I'll just buzz through some whale pictures here.          

We'll get to Captain Absalom Boss, one of the very few men of color who rose to command a whale ship before the Civil War. He was a Nantucketer and consciously set up to do this as a race enterprise by some Quaker ship owners on Nantucket. This image is in the Nantucket Historical Society. I really like this; this is late 1830s after, Absalom Boss posing for the oil painting. He's got his white shirt and tie, which is the successful New England ship master. He's got the big gold hoop earrings that no white ship master would have been caught dead with in 1837. So he's very much making a statement about his identity and who he is in this painting. He didn't have to choose to sit with the earrings or with the white shirt and tie but that's how he wanted to be remembered.

When the war came, many black men flocked to the Union Navy, worked in all sorts of different capacities including on ironclads. But after the war there was a real sea change in the fortunes of African American men and they became the last hired and the first fired. My book basically ends there because what I realized was that I was charting all these crew lists. I did the analysis up to 1877, but after the war black man's rule in the maritime industry really fell off quite dramatically and there was a subsequent book there for someone else to write. The one exception was whaling as whaling went into its own denouement or decline. Blacks, always marginal in the occupations in America found themselves more welcome in whaling, so what we have is by the turn of the century, these are the Robert Cushman Murray photographs from 1906, we have this New Bedford whaling vessel “The Daisy” and we have all these images of men of color whaling in Antarctica right at the end of the age of whaling under sail. They're very cool images of different parts of the whaling process. This is, again, after the period I cover in the book, but this is one of the occupations in which men of color were still working very robustly in the early seafaring trades, late nineteenth, early twentieth century.

So guys like this, who was on the whale ship “Sunbeam” and was photographed in St. Helena, he's got a West Indian shark skin walking stick, it's made of the vertebrae of a shark. He's dressed obviously in a suit, good clothes. A little talisman for his mother or his girlfriend when he got home, of the days when he was young and at sea and loose in the world. So next time you see a picture of a slave ship, or the Amistad, or you see a picture of Equiano or some of those early authors, you might think about how race worked aboard ship. You've got to imagine that there are different ways to create those linkages between historic black people and historic sailing ships and I like to think about men at the masthead, men at the oars, and men at the wheel steering to a different horizon and making themselves and black America out of the circumstance in which they found themselves.