From Slaves to Seamen: Seeking Freedom (Part 1 of 2)

February 07, 2018 Posted by: By: Dorothea Crosbie-Taylor, Park Guide

As we all know, slavery was prominent in the United States beginning as early as 1619 and continued until 1863 when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed ending slavery in the confederate states. During the fight for freedom, many slaves leveraged the Underground Railroad to escape the South. But did you know there was another way that slaves made their way to freedom? They escaped slavery via sea.

While freedom seeking slaves traversed the Underground Railroad to escape the South, there was another route for male slaves and that was aboard ships. Free African American sailors from the North were part of crews that sailed down the Atlantic coast and to other countries. Putting into southern ports to load cotton, tobacco, rice and other cargo put these sailors in contact with slaves. These Northern black sailors were living, breathing examples of what southern slaves yearned for: freedom.

Most people probably think that slaves only worked in fields but Southern slaves worked more than just on plantations and in the fields. They also worked on ships as caulkers, cooks, stewards and crew. In addition, they worked on the docks loading and unloading cargo. Southern slave owners also put slaves to work as crew aboard ships. This provided many opportunities for slaves and free black men to mingle and talk about life in the North and the ways of a ship.

While some slaves may have taken it upon themselves to hide away on ships, it wasn’t uncommon for free black, and some white, sailors to help slaves stow away on ships sailing away from the South. Once aboard, slaves used skills that they either already had from previous work on ships or that they learned while aboard to become part of the ship’s crew on sailing ships.

The crew of the steamship Miami circa 1862-1865

Photo caption: The crew of the steamship Miami circa 1862-1865.

For some slaves, going north wasn’t safe enough. Some went with deep water vessels, on ships that sailed to other countries, to avoid being captured. Others even jumped ship in these countries to remain free as there were a number of countries that abolished slavery before the United States.

Another method of escape was with the Sailor’s Protection Papers. These were documents that sailors carried that indicated that the bearer was an American citizen and in African Americans cases, that they were free. The purpose of the Sailor’s Protection Papers was to keep American Sailors from being impressed into the British Navy which happened around the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.

As you can imagine, these Sailor’s Protection Papers were invaluable to escaping slaves. In some instances they were forged but it was not unusual for free African American sailors to loan their papers to someone in need. A perfect example of this is Frederick Douglass and his friend Benny. Originally born as slave in Maryland, Douglass had his mind set on reaching freedom. While a slave, his owner hired him out as a caulker on the docks. Caulkers sealed the gaps in ship boards to make them water tight. From his work as a caulker, he became familiar with sailors and with their way of speaking and dressing -he even made friends. One of those sailors was named, Benny.


Douglass borrowed Benny’s protection papers and dressed in sailor fashion and made his way north to freedom in 1838. Black sailors were very prevalent in the North and this helped Frederick Douglass as he escaped. To his benefit, the documentation was a only written description of the holder of the protection papers. Unlike today where pictures are a part of everything that we do with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, during Frederick Douglass’ time they weren’t as prevalent. The fact that sailors protection papers did not have pictures of the holders was a big help to Frederick Douglass considering that Benny and Douglass did not look much alike. Also due to the presence of many black sailors in the North, Frederick Douglass wasn’t scrutinized too closely. Frederick Douglass made it all the way to New York. He became a great orator and abolitionist, and when he wasn’t at meetings and engagements speaking out against slavery, he continued to work on ships as a caulker.


All sailors took a chance when they went to sea but black sailors were subject to additional concerns. While ships offered the possibility freedom there was still the danger of unscrupulous captains who sometimes sold black sailors into slavery. Even this possibility did not deter escaping slaves from using ships as vehicles to freedom.


NPS, San Francisco Maritime NHP, Black Maritime History, American Black Heritage, Black History Month, Black Sailors

Last updated: February 7, 2018

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