Sailors on the winds of change: Book finds black seamen helped carry the cargo of freedom

May 10, 2012

This story was first published in The Washington Post’s Style section on July 24, 1997.

BOOTHBAY, MAINE — When the tall ships became the stars of America’s Bicentennial, every city on the East Coast wanted them to visit. Every city, that is, except the nation’s capital -- the one place all the ships wanted to go.

Like most blacks in the country, officials of the D.C. government “hear sailing ships’ and think slave ships’ and Middle Passage,’ “ said a frustrated official of Operation Sail after the rebuff in Washington. “They have no concept of any black maritime tradition outside of that. And who could convince them?”

Twenty-one years later, the man who can is tacking his wooden yawl Magic across the mouth of Smuggler’s Cove on the coast of Maine. For the past 10 years, W. Jeffrey Bolster -- a blue-eyed, red-bearded college professor and former schooner captain -- has labored obsessively to unearth the rich and long-forgotten history of America’s black mariners.

His newly published book, “Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail” (Harvard University Press), may prove the most instructive historical offering of the year. It reminds Americans that black seamen, like black cowboys, labored long and to great effect at one of the cultural linchpins of American history.

“The way he pulls together sources and slave narratives and uses them opens up and revised our entire notion of the black community before the Civil War,” says James Horton, Benjamin Banneker professor of American civilization and history at George Washington University and director of the African American Communities Project at the Smithsonian.

The great numbers of black mariners during the age of sail were not only central to American history, Bolster says, they were even more influential in the historical and cultural formation of black America. Like the Pullman porters of later generations, black sailors, both slaves and freemen, carried news and tales of a wider world and its possibilities to communities of blacks isolated by time and circumstance. They provided examples of black manhood and independence so subversive to the premises of slavery that they were eventually banned from Southern ports on the eve of the Civil War.

What particularly excites Horton about Bolster’s book are “the numbers. . . . Free black communities, in particular, were nowhere near as isolated as we’ve always thought. And black sailors were the reason.” Horton, whose own study of pre-Civil War blacks, “In Hope of Liberty,” has just been published, saw Bolster’s “important and exciting” research several years ago and recommended his book for publication.

“I think this is a book about accomplishment and possibility,” says Bolster, 43, winching in the jib as his vessel rounds a lobster pot on the sun-dappled water. “There’s a widely believed myth about blacks being fearful of ships and the water. I would hope some black kid learning this story would realize he can do anything -- because that’s what his ancestors had to do and did.”

While individual black mariners surface occasionally in the best-known literature of the sea -- Joseph Conrad’s novel “The Nigger of the Narcissus” is one example -- what’s remarkable about Bolster’s book is both the numbers of black sailors he found in the past and the extraordinary wealth of evidence documenting their lives.

Fully one out of every five American seamen in the early 19th century was black, Bolster discovered -- and this at a time when seafaring was the nation’s most common male occupation after farming. Who remembers that Crispus Attucks, the first man killed at the Boston Massacre -- a key triggering incident in the American Revolution -- was a black seaman? That Frederick Douglass escaped slavery by disguising himself as a sailor? That other blacks who followed the sea include writers Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley? The first six autobiographies written by blacks in the English language were written by seamen.

Why is all this so little known?

“Well obviously racism is part of it,” Bolster says, “. . . but there is also this conviction among both whites and blacks that it just couldn’t be true. . . . Librarians and archivists were a tremendous help to me on this project, but most of them were convinced I was on a wild goose chase. I would tell them I was working on a book about black sailors and they would say, Well, it’s gonna be a short book.’ “

In fact his 310-page, heavily illustrated and footnoted volume is a boiled-down version of a 700-page doctoral thesis that itself emerged from 7,500 note cards documenting everything from black New England whalers and black pirates (Captain Kidd’s quartermaster was black) to black river pilots and African interpreters aboard slave ships.

“There was no single mother lode of information,” Bolster says. “But the more I found the more I discovered there was to find.” He might still be turning up things had he not surrendered to “my wife’s conviction that graduate school should not be a lifetime occupation.” Ten years on one book, he decided, was time enough. The Nautical Detective

Bolster, who now directs the graduate history department at the University of New Hampshire, concedes he may have been uniquely qualified to write “Black Jacks,” since it required not only a nose for historical detective work but a familiarity with sailing ships and the sea. Growing up in Norwalk, Conn., as the son of a New York advertising man and his state-senator wife, he was “equally obsessed” by books and boats, and worked his first high school jobs in the boatyards of Long Island Sound.

After Trinity College in Hartford and a year hitchhiking around Europe, he peddled his sailing skills into a deckhand’s berth aboard a “rusty, woebegone charter schooner” in the Caribbean, then jumped to the schooner Harvey Gamage, whose semester-at-sea school program was operated by the University of Southampton.

On the Gamage he sailed as mate, but “with the arrogance of 24 years” decided that he could do a far better job than the designated history teacher (”a nice guy but a terrible teacher”) and wrote the university saying as much. The result was an appointment to augment his ship-handling duties by teaching navigation, history and literature. For the next four years he sailed and taught spring and fall aboard the Gamage and summer and winter aboard the schooner Westward, another school ship operated by the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass. He eventually captained both ships.

After more than a few hints from his employers, Bolster says, he decided he should beef up his teaching credentials, and entered Brown University for an accelerated one-year program leading to a master’s degree in history.

He “absolutely hated” Brown, but in the process of researching a paper there he encountered the seeds of what would become “Black Jacks.”

“I was really looking for something else,” he says. “I had the rather vague idea of examining the Horatio Alger legend surrounding American seamen in the age of sail. Historians like Samuel Eliot Morrison had suggested they went to sea when they were young, had adventures and made enough money to retire ashore and farm or set up businesses and live happily ever after. And in 1968 there was a highly influential revisionist view published called Jack Tar in the Streets,’ painting seamen as disenfranchised and alienated and the the real seedbed of the American Revolution. I thought both those views a bit simplistic and decided there might be more to the story. And so I went down to the Rhode Island Historical Society, where they have a good collection of customhouse papers.”

As a seaman himself, Bolster knew that captains of ships departing the country were required to leave with the customhouse in their port of embarkation a list of all crewmen aboard. “I used to fantasize about some future historian using my own crew lists to discover something extraordinary,” he says. He started looking through crew lists from ships that departed from Providence in the early 1800s, “and right away I started finding all these black guys.”

While sailors were not identified by race, each was listed by name, place of birth, residence, age, height, hair type and complexion. Sailors whose complexion was described as “black,” “African,” “mulatto” or “yellow” were almost always described as having “woolly” hair, which Bolster learned turned out to be the most reliable indicator of race. Much more problematic was a complexion described as “brown” or “dark,” since deeply suntanned white sailors were also so described. In the absence of other corroborating evidence, he counted these men as white.

“Now, I love maritime museums, and I had visited every one from Salem to Newport News, and I had never seen anything about black sailors. So on the one hand I have all this evidence of black sailors, on the other hand there’s nothing about them in the museums. That was sort of when the light bulb went on.”

He worked that fact into his paper and later gave a talk on Rhode Island’s black sailors. Then he went back to sea for a couple of more years. But the idea stayed with him.

In fact, he says, he couldn’t escape it. In the Caribbean, “where the attitude of blacks toward the sea is sharply different than it is here,” he talked with old black fishermen and sailors and heard tales from them about their seagoing forebears.

“One night,” he writes in the preface to “Black Jacks,” “. . . as we were rolling before the northeasterly trades on a passage to Cape Haitian, a shipmate aboard the schooner Harvey Gamage lent me the remarkable eighteenth-century autobiography of an accomplished slave sailor named Olaudah Equiano, who himself had once sailed that route. Where, I asked, was the bridge between historic slave sailors and the old black schoonermen I knew? How could one understand early black America without recognizing that plantations were connected to a larger world of black people as well as to world markets, by black seamen?”

In search of those answers, Bolster moved ashore, entered the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins University, and plunged deep into the search for black seamen. He combed every crew list he could find of ships departing from Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah and New Orleans between 1803 and 1866 -- an eventual total of 50,245 names. He searched census records and city directories, probate records and local histories, state and federal archives, emerging with “a fairly sophisticated demographic profile of a major 19th-century work force.” But that was just the beginning.

He found a dozen 18th-century letters of protest from black American sailors impressed against their will by the British. “Everybody assumes that any black sailors there might have been at that time would be unlettered and ignorant. These letters are anything but. And uncovering even one letter by an American black during the 1700s is a big deal. Here we have 12.”

He found an entire society of black sailors held as prisoners of war in London during the War of 1812. And he found black salvage masters, pilots, mates and even the occasional sea captain occupying posts of responsibility, even over whites -- almost unheard of elsewhere in the society of the time.

Most of the seamen were free blacks, but an arresting aspect of his story is how many remained technically slaves, even when voyaging to distant continents, sometimes for years at a time. “By 1783,” he writes, “56 percent of the sea captains in Annapolis owned slaves and eight of nine slave-owning captains (including those with the most slaves) owned no land. Apparently they employed slaves aboard ship.” Many other slaves navigated a kind of twilight zone, sailing on distant missions for their white masters but otherwise free in all but name. And many held to a sense of honor, even within a system they despised. One seaman named George Henry wrote that on the eve of his flight to Northern freedom, he “knew that the vessel and cargo was entrusted into my hands” and realized he could easily sell it and steal the proceeds to support himself up North. “But I was too much of a man,” he wrote. In the end, he stole only himself.

“What you have to remember,” Bolster says, “is that the existence of the common white seaman aboard ship and the life of a plantation slave in many cases were not that far apart. The work was brutal and unending, and there was little chance of escape. There were floggings and other punishments, inadequate food and a good chance of getting killed. Seamen referred to themselves often as virtual slaves and were socially marginalized by white society, much as blacks were.

“But what was a marginal existence to a white man was in many ways a step up for a slave on a plantation. Because voyages meant a chance to see new places and learn new things and always offered at least the promise, if not the possibility, of eventual freedom.” And the collective hardships of shipboard life, he says, tended to reduce if not erase barriers of race. While many black seamen were tormented by white sailors, far more appear to have won at least tacit acceptance in an environment in which men were judged primarily by their mastery of nautical skills.

“I think what I admire most about these men is that they were survivors . . . often wily . . . freemen of color navigating a hemispheric system of slavery. Some were clearly great characters. Most were just average guys trying to make a living. But to blacks confined on plantations, these men offered a different concept of black manhood. They traveled. They saw other lands. They appeared independent and they brought news of places where blacks were free. It’s no wonder that the closer we get to the Civil War, the numbers of black seamen declined. They were agents of revolution. And many people didn’t like that.” Sea Changes

Bolster’s book ends when slavery does. After emancipation, blacks shipped out almost exclusively as cooks, Bolster says, in part because of the “wickedly racist” seamen’s unions that gradually took over the maritime trades. But in late 19th-century America there were suddenly far more alternatives ashore as well: The black sailor became the black homesteader, the black railroad worker, the black miner and the black cowboy. The great maritime age of America -- and Afro-America -- was over.

Back aboard the yawl Magic off Smuggler’s Cove, Bolster says he hopes young blacks today understand how scary it was for their ancestors, even those in slavery, to embrace the unknown hazards of shipboard life and make their way to sea. The seaman’s path to personal accomplishment and spiritual liberation was “as intimidating or more intimidating than any challenge young people face today. I’d like to think they’d take pride in that and embrace their own new horizons with perhaps a new sense of hope and possibility.”

The sea remains a proven route to maturity for everybody, black or white, Bolster says. “But we all have our own oceans to cross, even if we never leave home.”

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