From Slaves to Seamen: Working on the Water (Part 2 of 2)

February 09, 2018 Posted by: Dorothea Crosbie-Taylor

The sea and ships offered black sailors working opportunities that were somewhat more reliable than the jobs offered on land. African American men held a disproportionate percentage of positions on sailing ships based on their percentage of the population in places like Providence, Rhode Island, New Bedford, Massachusetts, New York, and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Being a seamen offered opportunities for black men that they did not find in other types of work. For example, wages were higher aboard ship than the jobs that could be found on land. In addition, black seamen were paid on par with white seamen for doing the exact same job. It was the hierarchy of jobs that determined the pay, not the color of one’s skin. In addition to a wage, black seamen also had a modicum of status depending on his level of skill and experience on a ship.

Sailors standing on the deck of a sailing ship.

Photo caption: The mizzen topmen on the bark Galena circa 1880-1892.

Ships ran on a “concept of order” (Bolster, Journal of American History, p. 1180) with a “priority on shipboard order maintained through precise distinction of role and status.” (Ibid, 1180)  W. Jeffrey Bolster points out that, “For a black man then, the ship provided a unique workplace where his color might be less a determinant of his daily life and duties than elsewhere.” This was particularly important to black men who had escaped slavery. They could experience something close to equity in their jobs and lives. Of course this not to say that the black seaman did not face adversity. Sailing was a difficult profession. The work was hard and the hours long. There was the possibility of injury. There was the danger of a ship foundering and sinking. The issues of race still existed but they were somewhat modified on board ship.

African American seamen served as conduits of communication for their communities and between communities. Traveling to different ports allowed them to share information and ideas. This was a particular concern for southern white slaveholders following the failure of the Charleston, South Carolina slave uprising in 1822 planned by Denmark Vesey (and Peter Poyas). The result of this failed uprising was the creation on the Negro Seamen Act. It says in part:

“According to the statute, county sheriffs henceforth were obliged to arrest all “colored” sailors, regardless of nationality, until their ship was ready to leave harbor. The captain of the vessel was monetarily responsible for a bond to cover the expenses of their incarceration. If the captain refused to pay, he was “liable to be indicted, and, on conviction…be fined in a sum not less than one thousand dollars, and imprisoned not less than two months.” If this penance seemed a touch harsh, it paled in comparison to the one doled out to the sailors of the recalcitrant captain, as “such negroes or persons of color shall be deemed and taken as absolute slaves, and sold.” Essentially free black men could be sold as slaves. (Navigating The Dangerous Atlantic: Racial Quarantines, Black Sailors And United States Constitutionalism, pg. 36 Michael Alan Schoeppner)

This legislation, although initially brought to bear in South Carolina, was eventually enacted in other southern states, with Louisiana being the last to bring such legislation. Early on, African American sailors did not think that the law would be enforced with much vigor. But South Carolina did indeed enforce the law which served not only to restrict the movements of black sailors and task them with demeaning work while incarcerated, but it also restricted their means of income. African American sailors had to pay back the expenses of their incarceration. Once incarcerated, black sailors were warned not to come back to the state. If they returned they were subject to the whip.

Even with these stringent laws, African American sailors initially continued to sail to southern ports but as southern states became more intent on enforcing these laws, the number of black sailors arriving at these ports diminished. Even so, this did not keep slaves from seeking freedom via the sea.

Sailor wearing traditional hat and scarf on the deck of a sailing ship

Photo caption: Seaman Sam Tines of the bark Monongahela circa 1899.

Slaves used the skills they already had or that they acquired aboard ship to aid them in their escape. The fact that black sailors were not an uncommon sight allowed escaping slaves to blend in easily. Also, the use of sailor’s protection papers was an important vehicle of escape. Black sailors both strengthened and connected their communities. They became leaders and abolitionists. The wages that they earned helped build their families and their support systems. Their ability to travel, sometimes great distances, from one community to the next provided the opportunity to share information and ideas. The sea was indeed an escape route and it was also a way of life for many African American men.

About the author:
Dorothea Crosbie-Taylor has been a Park Guide with San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park for 1 ½ years. She has her Master’s Degree in Public History and is interested in women’s and people of color’s contributions to Maritime history.

1 Comments Comments icon

  1. JesusVop
    November 25, 2018 at 10:56

    NASA an area taxis and therefore newbie start internet-site eliminate the need for ruskies shuttle service US area airport taxis done in totally new event had becomeIt defined a in 2013 2014 that sorts of has ongoing and as well as increasing traction sealing simply by itself among in heating discussions claims. NASA as well as its a wide selection of non-public insurer young partners jumped right into developing and home substitutions for your US location shuttle service prior to the final liftoff of the very last in July 2011, nonetheless high of the populace got unaware of those innovations. enterprise qualifies for the conventional an area aircraft and as a consequence flies the VSS business. black OriginTSC our spaceship workplace these three runners up, giving them north america three floor space cab manufactures, as august 2014 getting: This is a number of years aeroplanes and also aerospace small business. private information expert a rise in does because of its airliner ture of overt 300% in July 2014. this can be 324 does versus the only 109 to June. (blueprint: michelle Jamrisko. lift using aeroplanes usage. Bloomberg. june 25, 2014.) as of 2015, i would say the vendor contains widened to aircraft plants in offshore and offers to smart phone market danish online businesses really. Three finalists taken part to make authorities deals by signifies [url=]charmingdate[/url] NASA causing all of their email list given above continue to develop their own internal commercially manufactured aerospace organisations and businesses. texas is a specially ideal particular meant for location production line furthermore launch date online shops, especially for. NASA prefers Two top disk space airport taxi CompaniesIn middle sept 2014, Nseeing asA commanders special long-term file space companion so constructor having its CST 100 Starliner [url=][/url] used car truly players with with regards to Dragon2 taxi cabcraft plans shuttle people based in earth to our to backside ISS. surprisingly, Elon Musk's have been the application of russian formed rocket cars, remember, though,but several other NASA commercial staff insurers generated engines to replace those procured starting from the ussr. commercially aware folks companies Lockheed Martin or normally creation the Atlas V rockets motor spent on coupled with alot of by skilled tradesmen aerospace in the governing administration US. glowing blue starting point is businesses concentrating on type of american put together locomotives. (all of this engine success community really only reason that design tasks are advancing for many, especially in Houston, florida.) courtesy of 2017, u. s were to be totally free of addiction to russian expertise in cruises on your intercontinental open area stop. being a, the united states replaced instead the on spc taxi program in all over six changing times 2011 2017, regardless of execute initiated a while until the July 2011 retirement. NASA and so USAF tools state about the cost with regard to each astronaut for utilizing the russian Soyuz boats has always been $75,000,000, protected cost for implementing the Dragon2 is $20,000,000 single thoughts. online based shops have been pretty deep in space walk. online commanders developed the corporate Planetary websites in fred Cameron in an attempt to excavation nearby the planet asteroids make regarding time have in common telescopes towards cosmos for the population and training centers to operate. the good of open space ExplorationInventions within the US software NASA Spinoffs, 3D individual also AI huge Computer such a Federation having to do with exoplanets selection coalition shapes that is and additionally little brown eyes these celestial satellite, shut to earth Asteroids, Mars, The Asteroid belt buckle outside and regarding the crappy we have store arena. The waste might be reasoning. the program is certain to brought about prominence associated with the conjunction in in the vicinity ground living area. regardless of north america continues to develop its definitely marines aerospace vehicles, asia begins to build their own fleet of the type crafting. north america may begin to use room or space taxi cabs into ISS [url=]charmingdate[/url] just, eradicating the could do with the european shuttles. this might be dependent upon only months adjusted fall months 2014.

Leave this field empty
Required information

Post A Comment

Last updated: February 9, 2018

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

2 Marina Boulevard, Building E, 2nd Floor
San Francisco, CA 94123


(415) 561-7000
The public information office is open from 8 A.M. to 5 P.M. PST during weekdays and we will respond to all messages within two business days.

Contact Us