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Black Jacks: African American Mariners in Early America

By Cliff Odle

From the earliest days of the colonies, people of African decent answered the call of the sea. By the 1830’s, over 20% of the sailors who claimed the coastal cities of America as their homeport were of African decent. These "black jacks" provided many invaluable services that were vital to the development of the country.

In 1763 England controlled most of North America after the French and Indian war. After the war, activity in harbor cities like Boston and New York grew, as did the need for sailors and dockworkers. Maritime work in these cities provided many opportunities for blacks both slave and free. During the Revolutionary War 10 percent of the nations slaves worked the docks and ships of the country. By the 1830’s 20 percent of all maritime workers in the country were of African decent.

The average black mariner was either in his late twenties or early thirties. Most of these men were slaves hired out by their masters. When work on the plantations and farms became scarce, slave owners often hired out their slaves to make extra money. Most black mariners were family men as opposed to their white counterparts. Seafaring was extremely dangerous work, but it was often the only type of work free blacks were allowed to pursue. Money earned from such treacherous work could pay for their own freedom or the freedom for their loved ones.

Whether a person was white or black, life on a ship was hard for a new recruit. They had to respond to orders barked at them in a language that resembled English, but filled with unfamiliar words. Within days a green sailor had to know the difference between a baggywrinkle and a boot top, or between a chock and a chine. The basic hierarchy of most ships was: able seamen, ordinary seamen and boy. The sea was one of the few places that a 40-year-old man, white or black, could be called boy without offence.

The dangers that a sailor faced were numerous. They dealt with everything from pirates and privateers to shipwrecks and sharks. The weather was both friend and enemy. There was also ship borne diseases like scurvy to worry about. Impressments or sanctioned kidnappings were another danger they faced. One of the triggers of the War of 1812 was the impressment of four sailors from the Chesapeake by the HMS Leopold. Two of the four sailors were black. Imprisonment was a routine punishment for black sailors who arrived in southern ports. Southern slave owners feared that the independence of the black sailors could infect their slaves with the desire to run away. Whenever a black sailor landed in cities like Newport, Virginia or New Orleans, they knew that most of their time onshore would most likely be spent behind bars. Life was especially precarious for the families of the black sailors. Wives of these men had to supplement their meager incomes by taking in washing or cleaning houses. The death of a sailor could mean destruction of his family. Two years after Money Vose was lost at sea in 1813, his widow lost another son to the sea, their youngest child became a ward of the state and still another drifted into prostitution.

Most black sailors did not dare to aspire to become captains, but the few who did were very bold men indeed. Captain Paul Cuffe was one those men. He was born free in 1759 in Cuttyhunk Island, Massachusetts. At 16 he got his first job on a whaling ship. By 24, he became part owner and captain of his own ship. In 1780 he and his brother refused to pay taxes on their property because they did not have the right to vote. The very thing the patriots of the country were fighting for. Although they lost their case, they paved the way for all free men to have the right to vote by 1783. Cuffe's reputation even earned him a meeting with the president of the United States, James Madison, when US naval forces seized his ship during the War of 1812. He convinced Madison to have his shipped released.

Another influential black mariner was James Forten of Philadelphia. He served on the privateer Royal Louis when it was captured by the HMS Amphyon. He was twelve years old. Forten's future was to become a slave, but a chance game of marbles with the captain's son changed his fate. The captain's son took a liking to Forten and asked his father to spare him. Forten was offered a home in England. He turned down the offer stating, "I am a prisoner for the liberties of my country. I will never, never prove a traitor to her interests." He spent the remainder of the war in a British prison cell. After the war, He invented a device to make the handling of sails easier. Later, he started his own sail making company and became the richest African American of his time. Crispus Attucks can also claim this legacy of "black leaders forged by the sea." He was an escaped slave who found work aboard various ships. His work as well as his size and stature garnered him enough respect that several white sailors were willing to follow him as he attacked a line of armed British redcoats with only a stick.

There were many other black sailors who made their mark on the high seas. However, by the early twentieth century their number trickled down to a few. Powerful dock unions combined with the Jim Crow laws worked to exclude blacks from the docks and other maritime work. Soon the work of the "black jacks" faded in the collective memory. Thanks to historical documents and paintings from that time, their stories are preserved. Hopefully, in time, the black jacks will once again claim their seafaring legacy.

Sources and Further Reading:
Kaplan, Sidney and Kaplan, Emma N., The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1989

Bolster, W. Jefferey, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1997

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