1800_nautical_hist.gif (16996 bytes)


Black Jacks

By Dr. W. Jeffrey Bolster
Reprinted with permission of the publishers from BLACK JACKS by Jeffrey Bolster, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright 1997 by The President and Fellows of Harvard College.

 As American shipping expanded during the early nineteenth century, employing more than 100,000 men per year, black men . . . filled about one-fifth of sailors' berths. Black jacks had long been prominent on quays around the Atlantic. Eighteenth-century black leaders frequently rolled out of the forecastle, a worldly origin eclipsed by the subsequent dominance of the pulpit as the wellspring of black organization. Yet no meaningful African American maritime history has linked prominent mariners like Captain Paul Cuffe, the driving force behind the first black-led back-to-Africa movement, and Denmark Vesey, the mastermind of the largest slave conspiracy in South Carolina's history. More anonymous black sailors have simply sunk from sight, like the slave aboard the Virginian sloop Jean in 1779, ritually scarified with "Guinea marks on each of his temples"-- reminders of having come of age in Africa -- and the free man who told a slave in Savannah during the 1830s "that his home was in New York; that he had a wife and several children there, but that he followed the sea for a livelihood and knew no other mode of life."

In lieu of these politically astute and worldly black sailors, an image of manacled ancestors crammed together aboard slave ships has triumphed as the association of African Americans with the sea. It reinforces whites' belief that blacks were acted on, rather than acting; that blacks aboard ship sailed as commodities rather than seamen. Yet until the Civil War black sailors were central to African Americans' collective sense of self, economic survival, and freedom struggle-indeed central to the very creation of black America.

In 1850 the black abolitionist William Wells Brown grasped the ambiguities of ships within the collective African American imagination, painting several into his Original Panoramic Views of the Scenes in the Life of an American Slave. The fifth of his twenty-four-scene traveling canvas depicted the brig Creole and the schooners Pearl and Franklin-slave ships aboard which triumphant slaves mutinied successfully for freedom, or on which other slaves repeated the shackled passage of their ancestors as they were shipped to markets in the expanding cotton kingdom. If vessels have long represented the union of opposites to all human beings-slavery and freedom, exploitation and exhilaration, separation and reunion-these antipodes have been amplified notoriously for black Americans. Brown honored that. But he neglected black sailors.

Relatively fortunate for black men of the time, seamen of African descent nevertheless navigated a tortuous channel through the North Atlantic. Beset by the deeply felt oppression of race and slavery, by commercial capitalists sustained exploitation of maritime workers, and by the dangers of the deep during an era of frail wooden ships and uncertain navigational reckoning, black seamen struggled valiantly to free themselves and the race. A black veteran sea-cook remembered facing "the most dreadful whirlwinds and hurricanes," enduring forty-two thirsty days adrift on an unnavigable hulk, and suffering "ill treatment" at the hands of white seamen. "They used to flog, beat, and kick me about the same as if I had been a dog; ... and sometimes they would call me a Jonah." Yet he persisted for years at seafaring, one of the few occupations open to a free man of color in 1806, because it allowed him to spread the "Methodist evangelicalism, revolutionary egalitarianism, and ... nascent black nationalism" through which he defined himself and the black diaspora.

Individual slaves routinely drew on maritime work to take charge of their lives and to communicate with distant blacks. Born on Maryland's eastern shore and "well known there and in Baltimore," Samuel Johnson matured in the heady days of the American Revolution, when Virginia's royal governor, Lord Dunmore, extended the promise of freedom to slaves who deserted to the British. Johnson capitalized on wartime turmoil, making several voyages to the West Indies as a free sailor before his re-enslavement in Philadelphia. The wily Johnson ran away again in 1785. The last his master knew, the strolling sailor was telling some people "that he is free, and others that he has a master in Baltimore, and is going home to inform him of his being wrecked down the bay, carrying him a parcel of goods." Undoubtedly, the freedom-loving Johnson talked with blacks in Virginia, Philadelphia, and the West Indies about more weighty matters during that revolutionary age ablaze with "liberty."

Whether looking for a ship in Philadelphia, loading hogsheads of sugar into moses boats on Jamaica's north coast, sheeting home the mainsail aboard a rice-laden pettiauger on the Waccamaw River, or stewing salt beef in the smoky caboose of a London-bound tobacco ship, free and enslaved black sailors established a visible presence in every North Atlantic seaport and plantation roadstead between 1740 and 1865. As winds and currents kept the ocean itself from stasis, so seafaring men of color stirred black society and shaped Atlantic maritime culture.

Black seafaring thus had social and psychological ramifications far beyond the workplace. In the universe of southern and Caribbean plantation slaves, ships and boats were a pipeline to freedom and a refuge for slaves on the lam. Worldly and often multilingual slave sailors regularly subverted plantation discipline. Among northern free blacks, struggling during the critical first two generations after the American Revolution to create a footprint for freedom, seafaring became one of the most common male occupations. Maritime slaves bought before the Revolution to enhance captains' status and reduce their payrolls had established that precedent, as had those slaves who negotiated with masters the right to hire themselves for voyages. A postwar shipping boom that stretched into the early nineteenth century had created the jobs free blacks so desperately needed. Maritime wages provided crucial support for black families and underwrote organizations such as churches and benevolent societies through which black America established an institutional presence and a voice. Rakes and renegades certainly roamed the waterfront, but many sailors of African descent were prominent figures in free black communities then angling for respectability. The keeper of a boardinghouse for black sailors referred to "one of the Sons of Neptune" as "every inch a man."'

If seafaring in the age of sail remained a contemptible occupation for white men, characterized by a lack of personal independence and reliance on paltry wages, it became an occupation of opportunity for slaves and recent freedmen. Seamen wrote the first six autobiographies of blacks published in English before 1800. Finding their voices in the swirling currents of international maritime labor, seafaring men fired the opening salvo of the black abolitionist attack and fostered creation of a corporate black identity. Blacks joined white seamen in a common effort to balk the captains and merchants who abused them-although black sailors knew full well that race rarely disappeared, even among shipmates. Actively contributing to the Atlantic maritime culture shared by all seamen, African Americans were at times outsiders within it. That culture created an ambiguous world in which black men simultaneously could assert themselves within their occupation and find with white sailors common ground transcending race, while also being subject to vicious racist acts.

Opportunities or not, shipping-out posed unavoidable problems for men of color. In 1780 seven African Americans from Bristol County, Massachusetts, petitioned the revolutionary legislature of that state, claiming that "we have not an equal chance with white people neither by Sea nor Land." Eight years later another group of Massachusetts blacks protested the dangers free black men faced of being kidnapped into slavery from shipboard jobs: "Hence it is that maney of us who are good seamen are oblidge to stay at home thru fear." Yet discrimination and kidnapping, as blacks painfully knew, were also hazards of shore life. Neither social threats like these nor the violence of the ocean itself kept African American men from following the sea until well into the nineteenth century.

Maritime work not only provided wages and allowed widely dispersed black people a means of communication, but also affected the process through which free people of color shaped their identities. Seafaring addressed squarely the duality of being black and American. Beginning in 1796, the federal government issued Seamen's Protection Certificates to merchant mariners, defining them as "citizens" of the United States, a nicety to which African American leaders pointedly referred during debates on blacks' citizenship status. Black sailors interacted regularly with customs collectors at home and consuls abroad on the basis of their citizenship, and carried papers in their deep sailors' pockets incontrovertibly demonstrating it to wives, sweethearts, and friends. Many expressed a radical African American patriotism, demanding black inclusion (not assimilation) in the United States. Seafaring left other marks. Characterized by long male absences and female-headed households, maritime rhythms became inextricably entwined in the family life, community structure, and sense of self of northern blacks in the early republic.

In 1740, when this tale begins, deep-sea maritime labor in the Anglo-American world was largely white, and virtually all seafaring blacks were slaves. By 1803 black men (mostly free) filled about 18 percent of American seamen's jobs. The tide then turned at mid-century. With American Emancipation, when this tale ends, a new and distinct constellation of forces relegated maritime work to a bit part in black life. Freedmen in 1865 could not turn to an expanding maritime industry with a history of color toleration, as had northern black males following the Revolution, because the American merchant marine was in decline. White Southerners, moreover, were determined to keep blacks on the land to make a crop. And mid-century changes in waterfront hiring practices already had begun to squeeze African Americans out of the maritime labor force.

Racist exclusion did not keep all blacks from the sea after Reconstruction. There were explorers like Matthew Henson, who shipped out during the 1880s and sought the North Pole with Commodore Robert Peary in 1909; visionaries like Marcus Garvey, who founded the Black Star Steamship Line in 1919; and writers like Langston Hughes, who voyaged to Africa in 1923 and called his autobiography The Big Sea. But shipboard work became less significant to black America as a whole after Emancipation. Before 1865 seafaring had been crucial to blacks' economic survival, liberation strategies, and collective identity-formation. Sailors linked far-flung black communities and united plantations with urban centers. Although black sailors' tale has never been told, the rise and fall of African American seafaring in the age of sail was central to the creation of black America.

Email Dr. Bolster
Buy the book:  Harvard Press - Borders - Barnes & Noble - Amazon

Return to table of contents