Recalling early days when blacks went to sea History: J. Jeffrey Bolster spent 10 years combing shipping records, crew documents and other archives from Providence to Baltimore to New Orleans to put together his account of black mariners.

September 18, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

To escape bondage in Baltimore, the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass borrowed seaman's papers, decked himself out in a red shirt, tarpaulin hat and black cravat tied sailor fashion and hopped a train heading north from the President Street Station.

In his sailor guise, he didn't draw a second look and made it to Philadelphia and freedom.

"When Frederick Douglass walked the streets of Fells Point, no one was surprised that black men worked on ships," says W. Jeffrey Bolster, the author of "Black Jacks," a new history of African-American seamen in the Age of Sail. His account of Douglass' escape from enslavement opens his book.

But over the past several years, Bolster says, "whether I talked to historians or schoolkids, everybody was kind of surprised that black men worked on ships. A common cultural knowledge had been lost: the black maritime past."

Indeed, the idea that black men were sailors was lost or suppressed, Bolster says. The powerful image of the slave ships of the Middle Passage precluded any other association of African-Americans with the sea.

"We've been conditioned to assume 'black seamen' is an oxymoron," he says. "What my book does, I think, is to take something that was assumed to be common knowledge -- that only white guys worked on ships -- and stands it on its head. Good history works well when it takes people by the lapels and shakes them up."

Jeff Bolster, 43, walked the streets of Fells Point and sailed the waters of Baltimore harbor and Chesapeake Bay in the early 1990s. He was working on his doctorate at the Johns Hopkins University. "Black Jacks" grew out of his thesis.

He'll be back Saturday afternoon when he'll talk about black sailors at the weekend history conference of the Fells Point Creative Alliance. The conference begins at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Living Classrooms Maritime Institute at Lancaster and Caroline streets.

Bolster is a master mariner who, while here, skippered the skipjack Minnie V, the buy-boat Half Shell and sometimes the pungey schooner Lady Maryland. He teaches history now at the University of New Hampshire.

His brother, Peter, sailed with the Pride of Baltimore II to Eastern Europe; his wife, Molly, helped build it. His bonds to Baltimore are strong.

"The bulk of the research for this book took place while I lived in Baltimore," he says.

"Black Jacks" traces African-American employment as seamen, from the enslaved sailors of the colonial era, to the beginnings of freedom after the Revolution, to the boom of Black Jacks as free wage earners during the War of 1812, to repression and imprisonment and sometimes re-enslavement just before the Civil War, to a postwar decline in the face of wider job opportunities for blacks, competition from white immigrants and severe racial restrictions in unions and the U.S. Navy.

Africans mustered with with explorers Columbus, Balboa and Cortez. Black seaman sailed with the pirates Blackbeard and Captain Kidd. The enslaved William Lawrence skippered the schooner Harriot along the Chesapeake's Tobacco Coast for the colonial tycoon Robert Carter. Nantucket whalers relied on black and Indian labor. Crispus Attucks, the protest leader killed by the British in the Boston Massacre on the eve of the Revolutionary War, was a sailor. A black seaman named Jack Jones sailed with Capt.John Paul Jones aboard the privateer Providence.

As American shipping expanded to employ more than 100,000 seamen a year in the early 19th century, Bolster found, one-fifth of the berths were filled by the African-American sailors known as Black Jacks.

"Until the Civil War," Bolster writes, "black sailors were central to African Americans' collective sense of self, economic survival and freedom struggle -- indeed central to the very creation of black America."

"The maritime sector became one of the first labor forces in slave society to make the transition from enslaved to nominally wage labor," he says. In 1740 almost all black deep sea mariners were enslaved. By 1803 most seamen were free.

"For about 18,000 [African-Americans]," Bolster says, "sea service during the War of 1812 defined what it meant to be free and black, to be armed with and working alongside white sailors, but to remain separate from them because of cultural differences and disparities in social power."

Nearly 1,000 became prisoners of war at the British Admiralty's Dartmoor Prison, segregated in their own barracks from 5,000 white POWs, and ruled by "King Dick," Richard Crafus, a "stout black" privateer, 6 feet, 3 inches tall, with "a frame well-proportioned" and "strength far greater than both height and proportions together."

Bolster's book abounds with such men. Capt. Moses Grandy, the enslaved master of a coasting schooner freighting lumber in North Carolina in the 1830s, was a model of rectitude, who "had never lost a single thing of the property entrusted to me.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.