February 26, 2017
Position: 18˚ 47’ N x 68˚ 05’ W
Sailing through the Mona Passage between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic
As I write this guest blog entry for the Hudson River Maritime Museum, I am tucked away in the aft cabin of the SSV Corwith Cramer, a 134-foot brigantine, nearing the end of a transit from Portsmouth, Dominica, to Samaná, in the Dominican Republic. This is the second leg of our six-week journey that started in St. Croix, USVI, and will end in Key West after additional stops in Jamaica and Cuba. For this SEA Semester program, Colonization to Conservation in the Caribbean, I have the pleasure of working with a group of student crew members and professional ship’s staff conducting oceanographic research and island cultural and environmental exploration. My role involves continuing instruction in Atlantic History, Maritime History and Culture and Maritime Environmental History with my faculty colleagues, the Captain, Chris Nolan, and Chief Scientist. Dr. Jeff Schell. The program, operated by the Sea Education Association (www.sea.edu), began back in Woods Hole over seven weeks ago, and the exploration will continue until we are alongside at our destination in Florida.
Returning to my talk and this blog, let me begin by saying just how honored I felt to be invited to speak at the Museum and then briefly write for this blog on the subject of black mariners in Early America for Black History Month. The fact that my talk also fell on the birthday of activist Rosa Parks made the day all that much more meaningful to me. The topic of free and enslaved maritime workers in Early America and the Atlantic World is one that I have continuously worked on from the early days of my doctoral work and now as part of what I teach in SEA Semester programs. In teaching this subject, I find it effective to begin with an outlining of the changing nature of the historiography of the slave trade, slavery in the Americas and the African American experience up to the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
To begin, I use an image of the diagram of the slave ship Brooks (often spelled: Brookes) to start a discussion of both the slave trade and they ways in which people from various parts of Africa enter into the story. Most students are now familiar with the abolitionist image, and many can tell me that the diagram that those working to end the slave trade created is of an actual ship that did make slave trading voyages. Fewer students, however, are aware that the 450-person capacity that is indicated in the diagram is after England began regulating the slave trade. After then sharing with students that we have records indicating that the ship carried more than 600 enslaved people on board on more than one trip, I discuss how much of the historical work done in decades past on the slave trade, and indeed of the plantation system itself, treated these enslaved people as mere passive recipients of historical actions rather than active creators of historical events. Recent work on the slave trade has uncovered plenty of evidence of active participation of the enslaved in this chapter of history, much of it in the realm of resistance and uprisings. Still, there is a tendency to gloss over the actions of those forced to toil for others in the surveys that cover the system of slavery in a broader context of national or regional history.
I feel that it is very important to let students know that much of this glossing over, or what I would call an ignoring of agency, in the literature is a result of misconceptions about the nature of the work that enslaved people did in the Americas. In my classes, I display some generic work or occupation images for students to first identify and then decide whether or not the activity could have been done by slaves. Classic images of gang labor in fields are juxtaposed to what are thought of as more skilled occupations that ranged from printing to tailoring, carpentry to blacksmithing, and from shipbuilding to deep-sea sailing. While some of the occupations outside of field work fit into students’ perceptions of common work for enslaved people (I have usually referenced enslaved maritime workers at some point prior to this exercise, so that one is no surprise to them), many are surprised that all of the examples I give can be connected to common instances of unfree workers doing that work. The truth is, enslaved people were put to work in almost any setting where any kind of labor was needed. In fact, masters often relied on previously developed and demonstrated skill or knowledge among those they purchased for forced labor. It is important to note that the system of slavery was equally brutal and terroristic for such non-plantation workers. Still, pointing out that labor in the fields, while also requiring skill, was not the only work that enslaved people did helps to break down some erroneous preconceptions about the forced labor system and it opens up the possibility for a deeper discussion of enslaved maritime workers.
Drawing upon my own dissertation research that focused on river boatmen and other enslaved maritime workers in South Carolina, I also point out to my students that close supervision of such skilled men in their work was often sacrificed to maximize the efficiency of the transport of cash crops. Thus, slave boatmen in the Carolina Lowcountry often worked in all black crews with no supervision as they traveled, on locally constructed boats called pettiaugers, from plantation to port and back again delivering rice and indigo or carrying provisions. Again, the desire to move goods and people as efficiently as possible in South Carolina, and in the Atlantic World more broadly, meant that any desire or efforts to completely isolate enslaved people to their plantations or other areas of work were undermined by this need for constant movement—a need that brought people and news in and out these environments on a regular basis. This has pretty broad implications for the enslaved, and one of these was the fact that the process of dehumanization of slaves that was at the heart of the plantation complex was countered to some degree by the ability of enslaved people to create and keep open avenues of communication. These avenues or outlets kept mobile maritime workers and plantation workers alike aware of what was happening in the regions around them and connected to family or surrogates for family, thereby maintaining useful knowledge and relationships that helped to maintain a sense of self that was not determined by the slave regime.
After this introduction to enslaved maritime workers and some of the ramifications of the existence of such a group on a somewhat localized level, I typically turn to some examples of maritime workers, enslaved and free, to begin working out larger implications. As I did in my talk, I like to give examples of maritime workers who appear in “runaway slave advertisements” that appeared throughout the Colonial and Antebellum periods in North America. For instance, this is an advertisement from a newspaper published in Charleston:
...Ran away last night... A negro man named Tom, born in the Havanna, speaks Spanish and French, a very likely fellow, and somewhat used to the house carpenter’s trade... Peter, a short well set fellow... Pompey, a middle sized [fellow]... [h]e can write and read, and talk good English, [a] wench named Arabella, is very likely, short and slim... and [h]er child [who] answers to the name of Castila... As there is a small schooner or fishing boat missing this day, it’s suspected they may have [gone] off in her; and as some other Negroes are missing, among whom is a French or Spanish fellow, a fisherman, it is strongly suspected that they are gone to the Southward on their way to the Havanna. Any person or persons apprehending and securing said Negroes so that the subscriber may have them again, shall receive One Hundred Pounds currency reward, besides all reasonable charges. (South-Carolina Gazette, June 27, 1768.)
This is one of many advertisements that highlighted either the use of a boat in running away, or an experienced maritime worker/sailor as the runaway, or, as seen here, in some cases both. While this example has local implications, it also indicates that enslaved maritime workers and other skilled slaves moved throughout the Atlantic and shared their knowledge and expertise with one another in actions of resistance to the system of slavery.
One particularly famous example of such an enslaved maritime worker was Olaudah Equiano. As a slave sailor working out of Montserrat in the Caribbean (an island we sailed by just two days ago), Equiano was able to move throughout the Atlantic World as a “hired out” slave. What this meant was that he and those in a similar situation were sent out to work, sometimes in ways specified by a master but also arranged by the enslaved themselves, for wages, but the hired out slave was to return the bulk of those wages to his or her master. What it meant for Equiano in particular was the chance to earn his freedom, as his master had agreed to allow him to do so after he earned a particular sum. With his hard-earned freedom, this experienced mariner and highly literate man (he had learned to read from another sailor) set out to convince the public in England, through a published account of his life, that the slave trade and slavery should be ended.
When I teach about Equiano, I tend to emphasize the moments in the account of his life where he relates instances where, as the only enslaved sailor on board, the crew treated him as a peer with no concern about his legal position as a slave or prejudices regarding his African heritage. Even the captains he worked for, with some exceptions, assessed he was treated the same way any other sailor would have been. Those familiar with conditions on board eighteenth century merchant vessels might say that this was not “good” treatment, as seamen in this era were treated rather poorly, but for Equiano and others in his situation, it was a significant improvement. After explaining the circumstances of Equiano’s work life, I usually stop to explain to my students that it was common enough to have enslaved sailors on board, and even to work with enslaved pilots (the people responsible for taking command of vessels entering or clearing out from ports) that most sailors in the 1700s would not have found it at all out of the ordinary, so his experiences with equal treatment on board ships was not an exception.
Respect for black sailors was also apparent on shore, and this was apparent in the celebration of Crispus Attucks as a participant and martyr in the Boston Massacre. Attucks was a free black dockworker and sailor in Boston, and as such, his actions cast a light on the maritime nature of this pivotal Revolutionary event. While Paul Revere’s depiction of the event features harmless looking, middling to well- to- do Boston residents being attacked, the reality was that dockworkers and apprentices, aggressively confronted the soldiers in an expression of anger and frustration over the fact that the off duty British soldiers were taking work away from them. Indeed, in most contemporary accounts of the event, Attucks was acknowledged as the leader of this group and, at the time, he was celebrated for his bravery and honored in death after taking the first bullet fired by the British soldiers.
In nearby Dartmouth, Massachusetts, Paul Cuffee, the son of a free black man and Native American woman, worked his way from a sailor on whale ships to captain, merchant and owner of several trading vessels. His economic and social prowess was evident in his receiving an audience with President James Madison in a successful attempt to receive an exemption from the embargo then in effect regarding the importation of British goods. Cuffee’s and Equiano’s interests in terms of their activism overlapped in that they were both involved in efforts to create a community for free black people wishing to leave the Americas or Great Britain and start anew in Sierra Leone. On a personal note, I was pleased to discover when I moved to Providence, Rhode Island, that Paul Cuffee’s legacy is still being celebrated through a charter school that bears his name with a mission that highlights his accomplishments.
Finally, in my talk I highlighted the actions of David Walker. This free black man, born in the South and well traveled, eventually settled in Boston where he opened a used clothing store. Spurred on by the atrocities he had witnessed in and around the plantation system, Walker became a forceful advocate for the abolition of slavery and published a pamphlet in 1829 calling for an end to enslavement by any means possible, including armed insurrection. Taking full advantage of regular contact with his sailor clientele, he managed to gain their assistance in smuggling his pamphlet, “Walker’s Appeal,” into the Plantation South: he sewed copies into the coats of sailors. Walker was successful enough in the distribution of his pamphlet that Southern leaders offered a $3,000.00 reward for his head or $10,000.00 for anyone who could bring Walker to the South. Walker died in his home not too long after the second issue of his appeal was published, and although the timing is suspicious, evidence suggests that, like his daughter a short time before, he succumbed to tuberculosis.
In my talk, I provided these four profiles, from the Caribbean up to the Northeast United States, to highlight some significant and celebrated activist figures in the Afro Caribbean and African American maritime communities. They are examples of people working in a very public way to advocate for the end of slavery, but also for general democratic principles, and in the Early Republic period, for equal rights for free people of African descent. Less public but equally important were those runaway slaves, the men and women who thwarted attempts to extract all of their energy and labor value for the profit of the colonial and Antebellum slaveholders, who maintained connections to each other and to the broader Atlantic World in ways that resisted efforts to strip them of their dignity and humanity. Much of this resistance was accomplished with the aid of mobile maritime laborers who kept people and ideas circulating and contributed to a broader, long-term effort to resist the tyranny of the plantation complex and the cold economic calculus that it fostered.
When I teach students about the African American Civil Rights movement, a topic that comes up in standard United States history textbooks as a phenomenon starting in the 1950s and running through the 1970s, I work to correct the notion that concern and activism over rights was a twentieth century phenomenon. Using examples such as those I have provided here, I talk about the civil rights movement that began from the moment enslaved people were forced across the Atlantic and into the plantation complex and continues to today. This is not to downplay the powerful actions of activists from Thurgood Marshall, attacking segregation in the courts, to bold figures like Rosa Parks, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, encouraging the mass action and civil disobedience to Stokely Carmichael and others who pushed forward with the Black Power initiatives. On the contrary, the economic success of black mariners, a success that extended well beyond the limited examples I have provided here, were instrumental in creating a foundation for secure black communities, first in the Northeast, but eventually throughout the urban United States, that provided the solid support system for the activists of the mid-twentieth century. A black middle class was an essential element for that period of activism, and black mariners from the Colonial Era through the Early Republic set the stage for that social and economic development. In this way, they were responsible for shaping freedom then and now.
These are some of the themes I emphasize in my classes, even for programs like the one I am teaching now. Connections between the United States and the Caribbean are complex but strong, and a comparative approach helps students contextualize everything from economic relations to the cultural mixing that comes from long-standing patterns of mobility throughout the Atlantic. I am looking forward to exploring more of this with my students in our upcoming port stops.
Again, it was a great honor to be able to share my work and teaching approaches with the friends of the Hudson River Maritime Museum. Thanks to Lana Chassman for reaching out to me for the opportunity to speak, to Carla Lesh for inviting me to write this blog, to the rest of the staff of the Museum and to those who came out to hear my talk.
Craig Marin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Maritime Studies
Sea Education Association
Select Bibliography/Suggested Readings
Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press of Harvard, 1998.
Berlin, Ira, and Philip Morgan, editors. The Slaves’ Economy: Independent Production by Slaves in the Americas. Portland: Frank Cass, 1991.
Bolster, Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Buchanan, Thomas. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004.
Cecelski, David. Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in North Carolina. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Egerton, Douglas R. Gabriels’ Rebellion: The Virginia Slave Conspiracies of 1800 and 1802. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993 .
Farr, James Barker. Black Odyssey: The Seafaring Traditions of Afro-Americans. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.
Franklin, John Hope, and Loren Schweninger. Runaway Slave: Rebels on the Plantation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Frey, Sylvia. Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Hall, N. A. T. “Maritime Maroons: ‘Grand Marronage’ from the Danish West Indies.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 42, No. 4, Oct., 1985, 476-498.
Horton, James Oliver, and Lois E. Horton. In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest Among Northern Free Blacks, 1700-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.
Knight, Franklin W. and Peggy Liss, Editors. Atlantic Port Cities: Economy, Culture and Society in the Atlantic World, 1650-1850. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1991.
Landers, Jane. Black Society in Spanish Florida. University of Illinois Press, 1999.
Lemisch, Jesse. “Jack Tar in the Streets.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 25, No.3, July 1968, 371-407.
Linebaugh, Peter, and Marcus Rediker. The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. Boston: Beacon Press, 2000.
Nash, Gary. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. New York: Viking Press, 2005.
Putney, Martha S. Black Sailors: Afro-American Merchant Seamen and Whalemen Prior to the Civil War. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.
Pybus, Cassandra. Epic Journeys of Freedom: Runaway Slaves of the American Revolution and their Global Quest for Liberty. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006.
Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the American Revolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1961.
Rediker, Marcus. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates, and the Anglo-American Maritime World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking Penguin, 2007.
Scott, Julius. “The Common Wind: Currents of Afro-American Communication in the Era of the Haitian Revolution.” PhD Dissertation, Duke University, 1986.
Young, Alfred. The American Revolution : Explorations in the History of American Radicalism. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976.
This blog is written by:
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.