Author: W. Jeffrey. Bolster
Title: Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (2009)
I read this book with my co-workers to see if we can better reflect the experience of Black sailors in the archival records of ships and merchant mariners. It’s a broad overview of Black sailors in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It traces the sailing traditions of Black Americans to their African roots. In some cases, enslaved Black men served as sailors and ship’s pilots at the behest of their enslavers. Free Black men found a greater level of freedom and equality in the maritime trades than in other areas of work available to them, although the practices of ship discipline were contradictorily some of the most restrictive to liberty. A great percentage of New England and New York Black men found work in the maritime trades in the 1800s although at the cost of separation of families and loss of community leadership.
There are numerous fascinating stories in this book about people I’d like to learn more about. These include Richard “King Dick Crafus who lead the Black US Navy sailors held prisoner at Dartmoor during and after the War of 1812, and who remained a revered member of Boston’s Black community decades later. Robert Smalls was a pilot who escaped from slavery in Charleston during the Civil War and turned a gunboat over to the Union Navy. David Walker distributed the abolitionist tract “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World” while working at a second-hand clothing shop near the wharves of Boston. Honestly, these stories should be made into movies.
“Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness, and wealth denied to most slaves.” – p. 36