Guest Blog:Black Mariners in the Atlantic World PT. 2

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.

Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre. Lithograph by J. H. Bufford, 1856.

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.

Fair Winds!
Craig Marin, PhD
Assistant Professor of Maritime Studies

Blog appears with permission of Hudson River Maritime Museum

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