Black sailors in dark times

Black Jacks
November 28, 1997

Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), the African who lived in England and whose autobiography became a major abolitionist text in the 1790s, spent much of his adult working life at sea. Indeed the first six major black autobiographies were by men who had all served at sea. Black faces can be seen scattered throughout illustrations of late 18th-century Atlantic life. In the recent search for the fuller story of the black Atlantic, historians have followed Africans from Africa, through the settled Americas and back to Europe. But the process which kept that system in place - which shipped African labour into the Americas and which profited and pleasured Europe with the returning produce - was manned by substantial numbers of black sailors in the years before the American civil war.

As trade expanded, as shipping increased, as major ports emerged across the Americas, black sailors became a feature of the Atlantic economy. Slave sailors even worked on slave ships. In time, certain shipboard jobs tended to fall to the Africans and African Americans, especially in catering. Africans had been on board European ships from the earliest days of exploration and conquest in the Americas. They brought to the Atlantic system muscle power and the sailing skills and knowledge of coastal and riverine Africa.

As the Atlantic trades expanded, so too did black communities in all the major Atlantic ports. Dockside gatherings of Africans and their local-born descendants became a feature of urban life wherever ships docked from the Atlantic shipping routes.

Until abolition in 1807, the Atlantic trade was dominated by slavery. Given its ubiquity and the millions involved, it was inevitable that black slavery would seep from the plantations into other walks of life, with all the consequent legal and social frictions. Was slavery legal in England? Was maritime slavery different from land-based slavery? What social and legal rights did free black sailors have as they travelled to and between the various slave colonies?

It was through the people who form the core of this imaginative and well-crafted book by Jeffrey Bolster that we see the critical networks of the Atlantic emerging, though the focus is North American. News, gossip, greetings and friendship moved between the slave coasts of Africa, the enslaved (and free black) communities of the Americas and the metropolitan heartlands of North America and Europe. Black sailors in the era of slavery had "fellow countrymen" wherever their vessels docked. And at home in London, the major north American ports or across the West Indies they shaped communities which were typical seafarers' communities but were also distinctively black. Bolster also provides very useful statistical tables about black sailors in the various North American ports.

But the ready access of blacks to a maritime career - though it rarely yielded more than a basic living - changed quite abruptly with the American civil war. The emergence of a new form of racism, the exclusion of blacks from key areas of the economy and the emergence of Jim Crow conventions meant that blacks were effectively squeezed out of maritime jobs. Bolster's concern is primarily with the years of sail, but his book leaves the reader wanting to know more about the second half of the 19th century.

Himself a master mariner, Bolster presents us with an area of the African diaspora which has been overlooked even by scholars of African American history. His book is important at a number of levels. It is a most original piece of work, based on careful scholarship, yet it also tells a cracking yarn. The subject may seem, at first glance, marginal. In fact it is central, not least because all Africans who survived into the Americas had themselves endured a major maritime experience. We now know, thanks to Bolster, the degree to which maritime experiences formed a continuing theme in African American life from first conquest until the mid-19th century.

James Walvin is professor of medieval history, University of York.

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

Author - W. Jeffrey Bolster
ISBN - 0 674 07624 9
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £17.95
Pages - 310

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