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
Blog appears with permission of Hudson River Maritime Museum