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.
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.)
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.
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
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