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Black Mariners


Crewman at the helm of the schooner Herbert L. Rawding.
Crewman at the helm of the schooner Herbert L. Rawding. (Credit: Courtesy of Mystic Seaport)
In the late 1700s, black men from Africa sailed America’s waterways and worked on the sea, pursuing the hope of freedom and respect. These black mariners were called “black jacks” and they quietly contributed to the creation of the nation’s maritime industry and the development of the United States.

“Black Jacks” were hard-working African men in their 20s and early 30s who took to the rugged life of seafaring to make a living aboard ships that sailed the Chesapeake Bay region and Atlantic coast. Despite tough working conditions and vicious racism, they worked as captains, pilots, stewards, cabin boys, cooks, drummers, and translators on steamers, whalers, merchant ships and other vessels. The money they earned could pay for their own freedom or freedom for their loved ones.


The crew of the Rathdown in 1892 near San Francisco. The two men in aprons are the cook and the steward, but the other African Americans are all black mariners.
The crew of the Rathdown in 1892 near San Francisco. The two men in aprons are the cook and the steward, but the other African Americans are all black mariners. (Credit: National Park Service)
In 1763, England controlled most of North America after the French and Indian war. After the war, the maritime industry began to expand in port cities like New York and Boston and the demand for sailors and dockworkers increased. During the Revolutionary War, 10 percent of the nation’s slaves worked the country’s docks and ships. By the 1830's, 20 percent of all maritime workers in the country were of African descent.


Captain Robert Smalls, pilot of the Confederate Army armed transport ship, the Planter.
Captain Robert Smalls, pilot of the Confederate Army armed transport ship, the Planter. (Credit: NH 58870, U.S. Naval Historical Center)
Among the black men who worked the docks was Frederick Douglass, a former slave and leading abolitionist who worked as a ship caulker in Baltimore. Paul Cuffe began his career as a seaman on whaling and fishing boats before becoming a wealthy sea captain and ship owner. He later became involved in efforts to settle African-Americans in Sierra Leone. Robert Smalls was a slave during and after the Civil War, and became a ship's pilot, sea captain, and politician. He freed himself and his family from slavery on May 13, 1862, by commandeering a Confederate transport ship to freedom in Charleston harbor.

W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of “Black Jacks: African American Seaman in the Age of Sail,” said before emancipation, maritime work was crucial to blacks’ economic survival, liberation strategies and collective identity formation.

“Sailors linked far-flung black communities and united plantations with urban centers,” Bolster writes. “Although black sailors’ tales has never been told, the rise and fall of African-American seafaring in the age of sail was central to the creation of black America.”


 

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
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