Black Mariners on Martin Luther King Day

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, many Americans will recall the words from King’s famous 1963 March on Washington: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Those words are often connected in our minds to images of water fountains with signs “White Only” or fire hoses being used against civil rights protest marchers. However, black Americans’ struggle for equality long predates the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Today is an ideal time to briefly consider the struggles of black mariners in the early days of our nation’s history who did not always find themselves judged by “the content of their character,” but rather by “the color of their skin.”


As I have described in my article “Eighteenth Century ‘Prize Negroes’: From Britain to America,” Slavery & Abolition, 31:3 (Sept. 2010): 379-393, an implicit presumption in Admiralty Court procedures employed both by Great Britain and the United States up through the American Revolution was that captured enemy black seamen were slaves and therefore prize cargo. With the burden to prove otherwise too great for the vast majority of captured black sailors who found themselves far from friends and home, hundreds of free black mariners were condemned as prize goods and sold as slaves.

During the years after the Revolution increasing numbers of blacks could be found aboard American ships. While many of these men were free blacks from northern ports, southern planters (and some northern ship owners) continued to use enslaved seamen. Despite growing abolitionism and opposition to slavery black mariners’ travels through the Atlantic continued to be shaped by racism and hostility to their presence at sea. To illustrate this lets consider two black seamen who in the 1780s and 1790s worked for the Rhode Island merchant Welcome Arnold.

In the last three decades of the 18th century Welcome Arnold became prosperous through trans-Atlantic and coastal trading as well as ownership of a Providence distillery. Active in the fight to end the slave trade, Arnold regularly employed blacks in both his maritime and land-based businesses. During this time no less than eighty blacks served on Arnold’s ships. This Providence resident may have been unusual in the number of black seamen he employed, but other 18th century Ocean State merchants, such as the Brown family and Aaron Lopez, also consistently relied upon black tars.

The blacks employed by Arnold moved about the Atlantic, sailing to Amsterdam, Baltimore, Barbados, Cadiz, Cape Verde, Charleston, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Jamaica, Philadelphia, St. Martins, St. Petersburg, Surinam, Tobago, the Turks Islands and a score of other ports. One of these men, Sweet Luther, was able in just over three years, to rise from the rank of seamen to that of a mate on one of Arnold’s whaling ships. The large numbers of black seamen on Arnold’s ships, their ability to move about the Atlantic and Luther’s quick rise to officer status would seem to indicate acceptance of black sailors by white Rhode Islanders. However, black mariners’ lives were more complicated and difficult than these facts alone would have us conclude.

Luther stands out for as the only black who served as a steersman (harpooner), boatswain, mate or captain, on any of Arnold’s ships. This was hardly unusual. In my Black Mariner Database (“BMD”), a dataset containing information on more than 26,000 18th century black seamen and maritime fugitives, there are only a handful of blacks identified as officers. For example, some historians have characterized the British Royal Navy as being free of institutional racism. Whether the Royal Navy was or was not institutionally racist, black officers were rare in its crews. Among the 1300 identified black naval seamen in the BMD there are only seven officers. Nor did the Continental Navy promote blacks not into its officer ranks. Thus, although during the 18th century berths on ships offered blacks opportunities for meaningful employment often not available on land, progress up the maritime hierarchy was frequently very limited for most black seamen in the Atlantic.

The life of William Geltes, who served on Arnold’s ship the Minerva, is more illustrative of the limitations on opportunities for black seamen in the late 18th century.

In 1796 Geltes clearly had reservations about going to sea. However, as it appears he was Welcome Arnold’s apprentice or indentured servant – Arnold paid a black employee of his for time Geltes boarded with the man – Geltes’ going to sea appears to have not been of his choosing. In December 1796 and again in February 1797 Geltes absented himself from the Minerva, for which he was docked $2.20. On February 4th, after having purchased a half-gallon of rum, perhaps to fortify his nerves during the long voyage to Charleston, St. Cadiz and St. Petersburg, Geltes fled the ship a third time. This time the Minerva’s captain was compelled to hire a “man going after him & fetching his cloathes.” Having been brought back to the ship, Geltes sailed south with it as a “raw hand” to Charleston, South Carolina. While the ship was in Charleston Geltes attempted to flee once again and found himself locked in the city’s workhouse for “correction.” In order for Geltes to be released the Minerva’s captain had to pay $37.64 in costs. Released and brought back on board Geltes “refused [his] duty.” For this Arnold docked Geltes’ wages $33.33 resulting, as in Limbo Robinson’s case, with the black sailor receiving no wages when he was discharged in Rhode Island.


Tomas Leitch, “View of Charles Town”

Geltes’ struggles were not necessarily due to his being black. Other servants and new seamen also found themselves harshly treated. But his voyage on the Minerva does serve as a vivid reminder of the difficulties many black men had in the early National era in establishing independent economic lives. In the 19th century these difficulties came to include significant legal restrictions on their movement.

In response to Gabriel Vesey’s slave rebellion in which black sailors were believed to have assisted Vesey, South Carolina enacted the first Negro Seaman’s Act in 1822. The Act provided for the confinement of black mariners in the city’s jail until such time as the seamen’s ship left the port. An estimated 10,000 black seamen were imprisoned under Negro Seamen Acts. They included a free black New York sailor named Gilbert Horton who in 1826 was seized while walking the streets of the nation’s capital and thrown in jail and advertised to be a fugitive slave. Despite protests by ship captains, foreign diplomats and federal courts the imprisonment of black mariners continued throughout the antebellum era and occurred in a number of southern ports.

But whites’ concerns regarding black mariners spreading word of racial equality pre-dated Vesey’ Rebellion. In the aftermath of the Haitian Revolution fears in Charleston that a ship from St. Domingue, the Maria, with its “free negroes and people of color” would spread ideas of racial equality among the Palmeto State’s slaves caused local officials to refuse to allow the ship to land. Whites’ fears that free black mariners could destabilize their slave societies would continue until slavery ended. The result was that until the Thirteenth Amendment black seamen’s mobility and independence was remained subject to limitations imposed by southern state governments.

Red Cap Day

Several recent articles concerning environmental damage to the oceans made me think back to last July’s voyage on the Charles W. Morgan.  Jean-Michel Cousteau, Jacques Cousteau’s son, was one of the guests traveling with us from Provincetown to Boston. NOAA and Mystic Seaport intended the voyage to be a celebration of Red Cap Day, an annual remembrance of Jacques Cousteau’s birthday (June 11th).


 Jean Michel Cousteau on deck of Morgan

Jean-Michel Cousteau on The Charles W. Morgan

To demonstrate our support of Cousteau’s efforts to protect the oceans the Voyagers donned red caps.

Red Caps on Charles W. Morgan

But what has been causing environmental damage to our oceans? There are many factors, and while I will discuss one in this blog – our food choices – there is a basic hurdle that keeps oceanic environmental issues from being foremost in Americans’ consideration of how they act. This is that with few of us spending time on the oceans and often living far from oceans, environmental problems of the seas are often hidden. As Randy Sargent, a scientist at Carnegie Mellon University has observed, “When you visualize [pollution], you can get it at the gut level,” he said. “You can see it happening.”

Today many Americans seek out locally sourced foods. This desire to reconnect with nature has resulted in an explosion of farmers markets. From large markets at Union Square in Manhattan, Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn and Civic Center in San Francisco to smaller operations such as Cortelyou Road, Brooklyn’s, these markets have educated shoppers as to how local foods are grown and can be used. (In contrast, as Cindy Lobel has shown in Urban Appetites,, in the 18th and 19th century New York City shoppers were quite willing to purchase foods from distant markets). More recently, Americans have also become aware of the impact of eating fish from far away markets. This concern about eating fish that is not locally sourced has shaped Americans’ eating habits; Chilean sea bass has given way to black cod.

Civic Center Farmers Markert

Heart of the City Farmers Market, San Francisco

In Mortal Seas ( Jeff Bolster vividly demonstrates that the depletion of Atlantic fisheries has not been a recent development or simply the product of industrial fishing. (His recent NY Times op-ed piece,”Where Have all the Cod Gone?”, concisely sets forth this argument). But while depletion of northwestern Atlantic fisheries had already occurred by the eighteenth century, during the Age of Sail there was a continuous push for ocean products from locations further and further away from North American ports. Whaling vessels like the Charles W. Morgan and the Clarabell sailed from Salem, New Bedford, Providence, Nantucket, Sag Harbor and other North American ports seeking whales in the West Indies, in waters off Brazil, near Greenland and eventually into the Pacific.

Weir Logbook, Clarabell

Weir Logbook, Clarabell, Mystic Seaport

To make sustainable choices concerning the fish we eat, where ever it might come from, information about fishing and farming methods for particular species are necessary. Fortunately, organizations such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium ( and the Environmental Defense Fund ( have created websites and apps that offer a wealth of such information. Each of these organizations have developed recommendations as to the sustainability of both wild-caught and farmed seafood. However, in applying these recommendations consumers need to ask questions of their fish sellers as to where particular fish come from. For example, tilapia that is tank-farmed in the U.S or Canada is considered a “best choice” but tilapia farmed in Chinese ponds is only rated a “Good Alternative” due to waste management and chemical use issues. Similarly, while many snapper populations are considered a “Good Alternative” red snapper from the South Atlantic is rated “Avoid” due to its having been overfished.

As someone who does not eat red meat, grew up eating fish and chips on Friday nights, clamming in Great South Bay and enjoyed an occasional perch from the Connetquot River, fish has always played a significant part of my diet. It saddens me that Atlantic Cod, a fish I love, is now largely classified as “Avoid.” Wearing a red cap can serve as a reminder not to forget our history of overfishing and instead adjust to the new realities of our oceans. Doing so seems be a small price to pay to help sustain the oceanic environment.

Turtles, Turtle Soup and Class at Sea

 Green Turtle Image

 As a young boy turtles played only a small role in my life. While weeding my mother’s garden or playing in the back yard I came across the occasional boxer turtle.  Bemused by the slow moving animals I loved watching their halting movements through the underbrush. It never occurred to me turtles could be a source of food or reinforce social status. How unaware I was! A recent review of whaling journals at the San Francisco Public Library has made clear how little I still know about the central role of turtles and turtle soup on whaling voyages in the Age of Sail. It is Americans’,  particularly whaling seamen’s, fascination with sea turtles during the Age of Sail and how turtles and turtle soup helped shape identities that I want to discuss in this post.

With the exception of New Orleans restaurants and some cruise ships, there are not many American public dining spaces that today serve turtle soup. Most contemporary Americans have never eaten turtle soup. The same could hardly be said for early settlers of the Americas or their European cousins.  Englishmen sailing to Virginia who found themselves shipwrecked on Bermuda in 1609 subsequently set out for Virginia on the Sea Venture with supplies that included green turtles. Despite early seventeenth century attempts to limit harvesting of turtles the Bermudian turtle population was quickly depleted. As a result, Europeans spread out over the western Atlantic to Florida, the Cayman Islands and elsewhere in search of turtles. Turtlers, i.e. small vessels harvesting turtles, became an important component of the Western Atlantic maritime economy. These small vessels were critical to the development of a web of commercial connections whereby turtles were captured and then shipped to North American and European consumers.

In the ensuing centuries overhunting resulted in turtle canneries, such as A. Granday’s of Key West, having to limit their production of turtle soup, and eventually lead to strict regulation of turtle harvesting. With the passage in 1971 of the Endangered Species Act, killing of sea turtles in United States waters was prohibited and Granday’s and other turtle canneries went out of business.

Granday's Turtle Soup Label

But in the 18th and 18th centuries turtles were an important food staple in the Atlantic. A market for turtles and turtle soup was well developed in England as early as 1753 when Gentleman’s Magazine contained several notices of large sea turtles being dressed in London public houses. Demand for turtles grew so significantly that ships from the West Indies constructed wooden tanks in which live turtles could be transported. And an association between turtle soup and upper class pretensions developed fairly quickly. Even before the American Revolution turtle soup was associated with fops or dandies, wearers of macaroni wigs.

The Drosy Contrast or Turtle & Bone Soup Macaronies

“The Drowsy Contrast or Turtle & Bone Soup Macaronies”

Residents of North American were not far behind their British cousins in both developing a taste for turtle soup and associating its consumption with refinement.  It appears that Charleston was the first major North American city which developed a market for the consumption of turtle soup in public dining spaces. Given the city’s proximity to West Indian and Floridian sources of sea turtles this is hardly surprising. In 1784 the Charleston Coffee Shop offered “Turtle Soup every Monday, Wednesday and Friday.” Soon competitors such as Moore’s Exchange Coffee-House and Tavern and Browne’s Eating-House placed similar notices in local papers.  By the 1790s advertisements regularly appeared in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Boston newspapers offering the public “Real Green Turtle Soup!” that was “of the best quantity,” while “gentlemen of the city” were urged to partake in dinners in which turtles would be “dressed in the finest style” before heading to the theater.

The popularity of turtle soup during the 18th century is also apparent from the1798 country dance called “Turtle Soup.”  (Those of us of a certain age might remember the Turtles last album was called “Turtle Soup.” I doubt that Flo and Eddie were inspired by the eighteenth century dance, but stranger things have happened).

In the first three decades of the nineteenth century, whether dancing to the sounds of “Turtle Soup” or not, many Americans and Europeans who were or aspired to be among the leisure classes ate turtle soup. Dining proprietors in Newburyport, Salem, Hartford, Newport, Providence, and Albany all advertised that turtle soup was on their menus and sought “gentlemen” to feast on the delicacy. Turtle soup came to be seen as a symbol of Victorian opulence, associated with lavish Lord Mayor’s and aldermen’s banquets. At most such galas, as well club dinners at hotels such as Young’s, the Parker House and the Albion Hotel, turtle soup was almost “invariably offered” as the first course of a extensive menu. Well off families were urged to have their servants pick up soup so the “families can be supplied.”  In contrast workers who crowded into noisy crowded nineteenth century sixpenny restaurants where rapid fire meals were consumed in less than thirty minutes did not expect to be served turtle soup.

The expense of turtle soup and what Miss Corson’s Practical Cookery’s calls the “inconvenience” for families in killing large turtles did not stop those of limited means from aspiring to eat turtle soup. Price may have deterred workers from purchasing turtle soup but inventive cooks soon came up with an alternative – mock turtle soup.  Mock turtle soup was popular in both England and North America and recipes for it can be found cook books of the late 18th and early nineteenth centuries. Typically , as did Mrs. Raffald’s 1807 Experienced Housekeeper recipe for “artificial” turtle soup,  calf’s head was used to provide the gelatinous texture found in traditional turtle soup. But whether the mock turtle soup utilized calf’s head or fried ham it offered workers a means to experience the pleasure and associations of turtle soup without the expense or fuss involved in killing a large turtle.

For seamen whose diets were, to be charitable, dull and unvarying, sea turtles offered both an opportunity to ‘spice up’ their diet and partake in an activity that on land was generally limited to those of greater means than the typical Jack Tar.

Baltimore Patriot, July 21, 1821 Turtle Soup Ad

Baltimore Patriot, July 1, 1821

Sailors, particularly whaling seamen, had a good deal of experience capturing and eating turtles. This resulted in mariners expressing preferences concerning the types of turtles they ate as well as how the turtles were prepared. New Bedford men often considered the green turtle “somewhat coarse food” causing them to leave the “flat-shelled fellows on the beaches behind us.” However, Massachusetts whalers did like terrapin turtles that they toasted, claiming that toasted terrapin was “sweeter than almond.” Other seaman, such as William Whitecar, expressed a preference for Madagascar terrapins. Whitcar and his mess mates found that despite some turtles having lived in the ship’s hold for a year they were “quite fat, and [provided] a delicious meal.”

When whaling crews captured large numbers of turtles ships’ cooks were said to create dinners “surpassing a civic banquet in the quality and quantity.” Given the immense size of some sea turtles, which could weight as much as two hundred pounds, the killing and cooking of these animals in the tight confines of a whaling ship was no easy feat.  Sailors appreciated the efforts of ship cooks in preparing turtle meals. The mariners described their dinners of turtle meat and/or turtle soup as “feast[s] fit for a prince.”  In describing turtle dinners on board a whaling ship the American seaman Thomas Beale remarked that “our black cook” had presented a feast that was “aldermanic.” Clearly Beale and other whalers enjoyed the fact that despite their physically demanding and often isolated lifestyle they were able to partake in eating high end food and engaging in a dining experience that on land was generally only experienced by more wealthy individuals such as aldermen. Whether the turtles they ate were green turtles from Florida, Madagascar terrapins or Pacific sea turtles, seamen’s dining on turtles constituted an inversion of usual class roles. Whaling seamen engaging in turtle fests at sea was the maritime equivalent of Election Day or Pinkster Day, where a black slave was elected Governor for a day. While neither turtle-fests at sea nor Election or Pinskter Days undid existing  class structures, they did provide the underclass – sailors and slaves  – a brief respite in which roles were reversed.

Wealth typically translates to greater health, meaning wealthier individuals who can afford better quality and diversity of food on average live longer.  It is likely that eating turtle meat and soup allowed some unknown number of whaling seamen to reap benefits of a more diverse diet typically limited to those of greater means, and perhaps live longer lives than seamen who had less diverse diets.

What might be most interesting about the class implications of turtle soup is how long it retained its character as a dish for society’s elites. When John Lusty, chairman of the English firm which imported turtles, died in 1947, his obituary noted Lusty’s turtles had “graced the table of many a prince and society hostess,” as well as three monarchs. And yet, as the below image of Worthman’s Mock Turtle Soup indicates, even today there are still some who cannot afford turtle soup who seek to enjoy the luxurious experience associated with eating the soup without paying its cost.

Worthmore Mock Turtle Soup

Could You Survive on a 18th Century Seaman’s Diet?

My wife often says people tend to either favor sweet or savory foods.  This may be true for many twenty-first century Americans. However, while today many of us are obsessed with food (is it locally grown, organic, gluten-free, vegan, etc.) sailors in the Age of Sail rarely had the opportunity to choose between eating sweet or savory foods.  More to the point, their diets rarely varied and sailors had little say regarding the food they ate.

What was an 18th seamen’s diet like? A quick look at Royal Navy (“RN”) victualling regulations provides a sense of the food sailors ate. The regulations required the following foods be served to naval crews on a weekly basis:

                Biscuit         Beer          Beef           Pork            Pease        Oatmeal   Butter        Cheese

                Pounds   Gallons       Pounds    Pounds       Pint            Pint            Ounces      Ounces

 Sun. 1 1 1 ½
 Mon. 1 1 1 2 4
 Tues. 1 1 2
 Wed. 1 1 ½ 1 2 4
 Thurs. 1 1 1 ½
 Fri. 1 1 ½ 1 2 4
 Sat. 1 1 2
 Total 7 7 4 2 2 3 6 12

Janet McDonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy (2006), 9-10

This diet remained largely unchanged until 1847 when the Navy began to utilize canning. Seamen on 18th century American whaling vessels were served a similarly unappetizing selection of food with corn and beans occasionally providing some variety to their meals.

A couple of observations about a sailor’s diet in the 18th century:

  •      Grog, rum mixed with water, was considered “sacrosant” by naval crew. Officers occasionally drank wine but it was rare that the crew did so, unless, as they sometimes did, they opened up a cask without permission.
  •      Fruit was not a regular staple for sailors. Not until 1795 did the Admiralty Board sanction the issue of lemon juice for naval crews. When crews had an opportunity to obtain fruit, they had, as the American seaman Thomas Beale observed, “good reason to be well satisfied.”
  • Vegetables were provided to seamen but in much smaller quantities than most Americans today would be used to. During the American Revolution when vegetables were no longer regularly provided Royal Navy seamen large numbers of naval crewmen became ill (of the approximately 100,000 RN seamen serving in the war 23,000 landed on the navy’s sick list).  As Gabriel Bray’s “Four Marines Eating Pease” illustrates, unlike many contemporary school children, eighteenth-century seamen did not have to be urged to “eat your peas.”  Cooks who obtained vegetables or fruits were favorably viewed as enabling crews to “live high for some time.”


Gabriel Bray, “Four Marines Eating Pease,”

  •  Fresh meat rarely was provided to the crew. To vary the steady diet of salted meats some naval vessels were issued fishing tackle. For example, in 1712 H.M. Yacht Charlotte received “trawl nett, peter net, oyster drudges, mackerrell lines and mackerrell hooks.” As the two below illustrations by Lieutenant Gabriel Bray indicate, it was not unusual for sailors and marines to use tackle to obtain fish in order to break the monotony of a salted meat diet.

Marine & Seaman Fishing off the anchor, HMS Pallas, NMM PAJ 2013

A sailor fishing off a gun. PAF2016

  • Rats, which were present in most sailing ships, although not part of any ship’s official diet, were known to make their way into many a seaman’s mess. (Anyone know of a recipe for rat that might appeal to present-day American tastes?)
  • Contrary to the impression given in Thomas McLean’s caricature of a black cook and steward, it was very unlikely for a ship’s cook to be plucking a fresh chicken. It was more likely he would be cooking salted meat.

Naval Scenes, Steward and Cook copy

However, McLean’s illustration does neatly capture the centrality of food to seamen’s shipboard lives.

So this raises the question, could you survive on the diet of an 18th century sailor?  Hint, colorful salads such as the one depicted below, which my friend Diane and I recently shared, would NOT be what 18th century ship cooks provided to crews.

Montmartre Beet Salad

After my next posting on turtles and turtle soup I’ll post  a poll regarding food choices for seamen. Spend few moments to answer it and I’ll discuss the poll results in a later blog.

Seamen “Love Their Bellies”: How Blacks Became Ship Cooks


 City Gazette and Daily Advertiser, Aug. 1, 1791

City Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Charleston), Aug. 1, 1791

During orientation at Mystic Seaport in April Voyagers were told that hot cooked meals would not be provided when we sailed on the Charles W. Morgan. Being polite well-behaved academics, artists and writers, we did not harrumph about the cold provisions we were to be provided. Why complain when we were being given an opportunity few others would ever have, to sail on America’s oldest whaling ship. This would not, however, have been the reaction of seamen in the Age of Sail to such news.

As Samuel Pepys, Secretary to the Admiralty, observed in 1677, “Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above everything else.”  The importance of food in seamen’s lives was no less important in the eighteenth century. Which raises the question, who were 18th century ship cooks?

As the above slave sale notice implies, black men such as the “Negro Fellow” being sold, worked both as sailors and cooks. Many of these men could regularly be found working as ship cooks in the Age of Sail.  But if so, which blacks became ship cooks, and why were there numerous black ship cooks, and what was the role of black cooks at sea?

To understand the place of black cooks it is important to consider who became ship cooks and why. Throughout the Anglo-American maritime world disabled and elderly men were employed as cooks. (The vessels of Scarborough, England in the mid-eighteenth century are a good example of this practice. See”Sewing a Safety Net,” A primary reason for disabled and elderly men being employed as cooks was the job being far less physically demanding than the hauling of lines and unfurling sails that most seamen did.

Men missing a limb or having impaired vision were believed capable of being cooks and frequently were so employed. Thus, in 1753 when the cook of HMS Jason deserted in Boston, the ship’s captain saw little reason not to hire as the deserter’s replacement, William Hallbrook, a seaman who had lost a leg in the naval service. Musters of naval ships throughout the Atlantic contained entries for scores of other naval seamen who having lost limbs in action were kept in service as cooks.  As one sailor so aptly observed, many seaman had a bullet “shot away one of his limbs, and so cut him out for a Sea-Cook.” While one would think having sight would be a bona fide occupational qualification as a cook, one-eyed men and even those who were blind, such as men on HMS Sovereign in 1741 and HMS Flora in 1771, were employed as cooks. The prevalence of disabled cooks is made apparent by the Navy Board’s 1746 pronouncement that there were no vacancies for cooks “because so many crippled sailors have been helped this way” and its 1776 order directing “cripples and maimed persons as are pensioners” be given preference for appointment as ship cooks.

Another group of men regularly employed as cooks were older men. In the eighteenth-century men over the age of forty generally only went to sea as non-officers if impoverished or without other opportunities. However, ‘old’ men (forty or older), frequently served as cooks on all types of ships. Most of these old cooks were not quite as elderly as Nicholas Dougherty, the eighty year old cook on HMS Eagle. But forty and fifty year old cooks were commonplace on ships in the Age of Sail. The Charles W. Morgan itself is a good example; at least two of the six cooks whose age were noted in the ship’s crew lists –John Branscombe of England and Felix Morris of Chile —  were forty years of age and older. Each of these men made multiple voyages with Branscombe serving on five consecutive year long voyages.

As my last blog post discussed, ship captains were often willing to hire runaways with or without maritime experience. Often these fugitive slaves found work on ships as cooks. For example, when the 17 year old South Carolinian waiting boy Tom fled in 1797 the young bondsman was believed to have sought a berth as he had previously “shipped himself as a Cook.” John Giff and other fugitives “offered [themselves] as Cook[s] on board some Ship” or “affect[ed] [themselves] in the capacity of a cook.”

Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), Apr. 22, 1796

Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), Apr. 22, 1796

Although not all runaways seeking freedom at sea had prior cooking experience, many did. The prevalence of enslaved cooks in British American colonies is made evident by the scores of slave sale notices such as the one below. Having spent much time cooking for white masters fugitives found that those same skills could serve as the key to finding freedom at sea.

The Royal Gazette, Feb. 6, 1779 Slave Sale Ad

The Royal Gazette (New York), Feb. 6, 1779

George Prince, Jack Rogers and scores of other blacks served as cooks on African slaving ships.  Other blacks, such as the itinerant preacher John Jea, worked as cooks on New England coasting vessels, trans-Atlantic merchant ships, Continental naval vessels, whaling ships, privateers, pirate ships, Lord Nelson’s naval ships and West Indies sloops. The narrative of the most famous 18th century black mariner, Olaudah Equiano, makes evident black cooks’ presence at sea. A quick perusal of Equiano’s Interesting Narrative ( not only offers readers a description of a black ship cook spilling hot fat, but also tells of his friend John Amis, a cook on a West Indies ship, having been kidnapped in England and forcibly re-enslaved on the island of St. Kitts.  In short, black cooks were ubiquitous in the 18th century Atlantic.

Mystic Seaport’s listing of The Charles W. Morgan‘s thirty-seven crews contains no identifiable blacks among the sixteen cooks in the ship’s crew lists serving between 1841 and 1921. However, as the Boston Globe recently reported, on the ship’s 37th voyage in 1921 the black Julian Grace served as the ship’s cook (the crew list does not indicate a cook for this voyage) Like a considerable number of other seamen on the Charles W. Morgan, Grace was from the Cape Verde Islands. Leaving Cape Verde at the age of nineteen Julian Grace settled in Massachusetts. His recipes for codfish cakes and beans with salted pork are still used by Grace family. Beans with salted pork would have been a meal Julian would have likely made for the Morgan‘s crew. But was he able to make them cachupa, the famous Cape Verde stew of slow cooked stew of corn, beans, and fish or meat ? Given that the ships of this era generally carried meat and often fished  the basic elements of the stew would have been available to Grace (see for an example of the crew fishing). Was he able to bring on board the yams and plantains traditionally included in the stew? And did the ship’s provisions include the garlic and bay leaves that gives the dish its flavor?  This is unlikely as few captains put much priority in spending monies to add variety to the crew’s meals.  But other than an entry regarding making bread on board, the ship’s journal contains no reference to the ship’s cook ( Thus what is unknown is how Julian’s, and for that matter, most Age of Sail cooks, cooking was received by his crewmates.

So eighteenth century cooks tended to be disabled, old and/or black. In short, they were often from the margins of society. It is therefore hardly surprising that in the eighteenth century black cooks often were ridiculed.  Thomas McLean’s “Naval Scenes – or sketches afloat – No. 3 Cooking” is a good example such ridicule. Unlike the typical image of a black seaman during the Age of Sail that depicted sable sailors as heroic (see, e.g., depicting a black gunner on the deck of HMS Victory at the moment of Lord Nelson’s death), McLean shows  the black cook and steward on the slaver Sandown as foolish. The cook’s low status is made clear by his being bare foot; while many plantation slaves in the Americas worked barefoot, seamen generally did not. On the other hand the steward is shown as perhaps slow or inefficient in his work, asking the  cook “Tommy am I to make the Pies” to which the cook replies, “Pies no look Al you  nasty d– Black.”

Naval Scenes, Steward and Cook copy

Naval Scenes – or sketches afloat – No. 3 Cooking,

Black cooks were also often made subjects of entertainment. For example, on a 1792 voyage to Cadiz the black cook of the brig Minerva was awoken and ordered to prepare breakfast for the crew. However, when he could not be found a half hour later it was assumed he had fallen overboard. However, two days later the cook was discovered “crawling out of a hole, he had secured to sleep in,” and “from which he was only roused by hunger.”  The crew was said to have “had a fine laugh on the occasion, and the cook was afforded them much entertainment since that time.”

Given the importance seamen placed upon food cooks were often the focus of their colleagues’ attention, for better and worse. With limited authority to alter what was generally a dull and repetitive diet (which will be the focus on my next blog), cooks stood responsible for a crucial element in crews’ lives and therefore the anger of the crew when food did not meet expectations. For example,  when a black cook dropped a plate on a slave ship the cook was flogged and had salt water and cayenne rubbed on his back. In contrast, in 1724 when the free black cook on Francis Spriggs’ pirate ship divided provisions equally, the crew responded “very merrily.” In sum, when combined with not being viewed by most sailors as skilled maritime workers, cooks occupied an ambiguous and difficult place on most 18th century ships.

So simply stated being a ship cook offered both freedom from enslavement and economic independence for many blacks, while at times the position also often served to reinforce blacks’ inferior status within the Anglo-America Atlantic.

If blacks regularly worked as ship cooks what foods did they cook? My next two posts will consider the foods typically cooked on ships and the outsized place turtles and turtle soup had in the diet of whaling seamen.

‘Walks Very Much Upright’: Black Men in Confined Maritime Spaces

Morgan Forecastle

                                                        The Charles W. Morgan forecastle On Thursday October 4, 1764 a South Carolinian slave named Saundy ran away.  His flight by itself was hardly remarkable; in the eighteenth century hundreds of enslaved individuals in British North America, the West Indies, Central and South America fled their masters. This six-foot tall African-born man walked “very upright.” Saundy was believed likely to seek a berth on a ship causing his master to place an advertisement warning ship masters not to “carry off the said fellow.” During the 18th century black men such as Saundy could be found hauling lines and at the helms of Boston coasters, New London pinnaces, New Jersey oyster boats, New York ferries, Carolinian shallops, Bermudian blue sea sloops, Jamaican droghers, as well as a variety of other vessels in the Western Atlantic. Considerable numbers of blacks, such as the Philadelphia dockyard worker depicted below, outfitted, loaded and unloaded these vessels. For example, Jingo Negro, Quam and Newport were but three of the more than 125 black men employed by a single Rhode Island merchant to prepare his ships for sea between 1760 and 1782. In sum, Saundy would not have appeared out of place when on dockside seeking a possible berth.

Arch Street ferry Philadelphia

William Russell Birch, “Arch Street Ferry, Philadelphia,” Library Company of Philadelphia

Maritime work experiences, along with the use of sailors’ clothing, often enabled runaways to convince ship masters to hire them, particularly during wars when seamen were in great demand.  As the historian Jeffrey Bolster has noted, ship captains often hired with ‘more of an eye to muscle than complexion’. But in coming aboard what type of life did Saundy and other fugitives find? This is a complicated question for in seeking freedom through maritime employment these runaways choose a regimented and highly controlled environment. In this post I’d like to address one aspect of this question: how did Saundy and other tall black men fit — physically and socially — into the tight cramped spaces of 18th century ships?

In eighteenth century Americans were considerably shorter than today’s Americans. While the average American male now stands 5′ 9 1/2″, studies have shown that the average height of 18th century native-born South Carolinian, Trinidad and British sugar islands male slaves was  5′ 6″.  Seamen were similarly shorter than today’s Americans. Among the more than nine hundred 18th century black mariners and maritime fugitives in my Black Mariner Database (BMD) for whom there is height data the average height was 5′ 5 2/3.” Given the average height of 18th century men I define eighteenth century seamen 5′ 10″ or taller as “tall”.

Why the focus on tall black men at sea?  Simply stated, they represent certain tensions in the 18th century maritime environment. On one hand tall slaves were highly valued. Slave traders often choose taller men “to increase their profits” and advertisements stressed that men to be sold were tall and strong. Ship captains also valued tall men’s strength and endurance. In 1762 Pompey, Harry, Sam and Prince each fled their New York masters. All were 6′ or taller and “used to the sea” and/or wearing sailors clothes. Each was believed likely to have been hired aboard a ship in New York harbor. Yet while they may have been highly valued Pompey and other tall men’s very size shaped their lives at sea as well as social relations on ships in distinct ways.  Not only did these men need to fit within very confined spaces, but their size and maritime skills also represented a challenge to many whites’ expectation of blacks’ place in society. And life in confined space at sea raised negative associations  for black seamen. Thus for tall blacks life on 18th century ships provided unique challenges. Lets consider the tensions that tall black seamen represent by first focusing on the confined nature of space in sailing ships. To go below deck on whaling ship The Charles W. Morgan one descends a very steep set of stairs.  Although I am 5′ 8 1/2″ I found myself ducking to avoid bumping my head. The first time I did so I thought of my 6′ 9″ colleague Newton Key. How torturous it would have been for him to descend those steps! The image of him attempting to do so provided a vivid image of how uncomfortable life below deck could be for tall men.  In the hold one needs to regularly hunch-over as beams provide less than 5′ 6″ clearance. The experience is a bit like walking through narrow passageways in caves where one has to duck down every few feet. Undoubtedly tall men on 18th century sailing ships spent a good deal of time crouched over and in some discomfort. Even the best contemporary literary and theatrical representations of life in the Age of Sail do not capture the hunched-over nature of life below deck. The recent Glyndebourne production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd emphasized the claustrophobia of sailing ships by using a three-sided curved set that hemmed in HMS Indomitable‘s crew. And yet this moving production does not completely capture the low clearance in the ship’s hold; in the opera’s powerful  scene when the seamen below deck sing to each other, not a single sailor crouches to fit under the ship’s beams.


Americans such as Abigail Adams might observe that the confined spaces of sailing ships caused “sickness and fatigue” for passengers. But for blacks the confined spaces in holds of ships had a much darker connotation. For large numbers of 18th century African-Americans their initial connection to the Atlantic was being shackled to others in the hold of slave ships, such as the Brookes depicted below. Subsequently finding themselves in bunks on a whaling ship may have provided maritime fugitives with freedom. But it also represented a existence where once these men again lived in confined quarters and in a system where their movements and actions were under strict control of white men.


“Stowage of the British Slave Ship Brookes,”

For some maritime fugitives, i.e., slaves who escaped via the sea, life on board 18th century ships would have also reminded them of  the living quarters they had fled. Slaves in North American cities often slept in attics, garrets or small spaces behind kitchens.  While not quite as small as ship bunks they also were cramped and confined places.  Thus, although work at sea may have been the means for maritime fugitives to obtain freedom, forecastles would have had associations for these men of places where they were viewed as having limited humanity and thus provided painful echoes of the men’s enslaved pasts. Once on board tall men would have found sleeping on sailing ships a challenge. Small bunks, such as those on The Charles W. Morgan, provided limited headroom. Despite not being tall I found it hard to fall asleep in the ship. In my bunk a massive ship’s knee loomed over my head creating the sensation of lying in compressed space. Only by turning on my side was I able to not feel confined and fall asleep. Men such as Sambo, Golia, Abel and Fortune, who were not only 6′ tall but were stout men with large feet, would have found getting up into such tight spaces an awkward experience. And once in the bunks sleep would not have been very comfortable. However skilled a black sailor might be race was still often the determinative factor of one’s position on a sailing ship. In the eighteenth century it was unusual for a black to be an ship’s officer, be it on a man-of-war, a merchant ship, a privateer or a fishing vessel in the Anglo-American Atlantic. Despite being valued for their strength and maritime skills all black men found movement up the maritime hierarchy difficult.  Men such as John Jenkins, a free black lieutenant commanding a Royal Navy schooner during the American Revolution, stood out as one of a handful of black sea officers. Thus, while the confined space of a ship’s hold may have caused physical discomfort for tall black seamen, racial attitudes also created a wooden ceiling in the 18th century maritime Anglo-American world that framed and limited black seamen’s opportunities. As the image below shows, blacks were far more likely to be serving officers than being officers. This is not to say that black men were socially ostracized on board ships. Black and white seamen relied upon each other while working. They hauled lines and stood watch together, they were mess mates and shared stories during meals.  But white seamen were known to have “taken a Dislike to [a black] man’s Colour.” Such racial attitudes led some whites to resist being lead by black officers and in some cases to violence against black sailors. In the western Atlantic, in which blacks could be found enslaved in most ports and free blacks had limited rights, this is hardly surprising. Racial attitudes did not magically change upon men stepping aboard a ship.  For whites who were uncomfortable with blacks working alongside a larger stronger black seamen would have been disconcerning, if not result in outright hostility towards his dark-skinned shipmate. Thus, while obtaining berths may have been how considerable numbers of maritime fugitives found freedom, the wide expanses of the Atlantic rarely resulted in absolute independence for these runaways. In considering how blacks fit within narrow confined maritime spaces my next blog will focus on the role of black cooks.

From Ozenbrig to Tarred Breeches

Tarred Breeches on Charles W. Morgan

Dana Mancinelli, Aaron Gralnik and Ryan Loftus, Deckhands on The Charles W. Morgan

In The Slave Ship Marcus Rediker demonstrates that slaving vessels were sites of transformation, where Ibos became Africans, ship captains became prison wardens and seamen became guards. These transformations were significant, both for the individuals on those ships as well as for the wider Atlantic world. But were all ships similarly places of transformation? Or was this a process unique to slave ships?

During the The Charles W. Morgan‘s recent voyage from Provincetown to Boston we sailed in fog for three hours.  During this time only the sounds of the crew hauling line, officers barking orders, the fog horn and water lapping against the ship’s hull broke the silence. We could neither see land or much else. Each Voyager on the ship became largely disconnected from their lives on land. In a sense each became “maritime” in a way we were not before we had stepped aboard the ship.  The experience made me think about the transformation 18th century runaway slaves underwent when they found berths on ships in order to flee their masters.  How easy was it for fugitives to transform themselves into seamen and by what means did they do so?

Jip in Fog, 1

The Charles Morgan sailing in fog, July 15, 2014

Five factors were crucial in runaways becoming mariners: prior maritime experience, use of boats or canoes to reach ships, change in clothing, war, and being able to convince ship captains they were capable of shipboard work.

Large numbers of fugitive slaves seeking berths, individuals I characterize as “maritime fugitives,” already had maritime experience, either refitting ships or working on a vessel.  These men’s movement onto ships while difficult — after all masters sought to recapture them and offered rewards for their return — was far easier than for those runaways lacking maritime experience.  They knew the language of a ship and easily affected the distinctive walk and talk of a Jack Tar. Thus, when Will Johnston fled Captain Lemuel Jenkins’ Providence whaling ship in 1775 his knowledge of the cooper’s trade and experience on Jenkins’ whaling ship made him a prime candidate for a berth in any of the nearby New England ports.

Unlike Will Johnston, many maritime fugitives did not live in ports. Fleeing countryside enslavement these runaways headed to waterside cities knowing ports offered them the opportunity to permanently disappear.  To avoid being stopped on roads many fugitives such as Ceaser, the subject of the below fugitive slave advertisement, used small boats and canoes to flee their master. Local rivers, streams and bays served as watery networks by which inland slaves in places such as Bucks County, Pennsylvania or Westchester County, New York reached major ports. Thus, the experience of becoming “maritime” in fact started for many runaways far from the busy docks of Philadelphia and New York.

Dec. 1, 1717 Am. Mercury

Dec. 1, 1737 American Mercury

In the 18th century, a period before widespread use of identification papers, clothing was the means by which one’s status was conveyed to others, whether through the powdered wigs of a gentleman or the tarred breeches of a blue water seaman. Upon entering a Royal Navy ship, those who lacked proper clothing were provided slop cloths and bedding to both assist them in working on board but also indicated they were one of the crew. As Gabriel Bray’s “A Sailor Brining Up his Hammock to Pallas,” so vividly details, while 18th century Royal Navy seamen may not have had a standard uniform, naval seamen clearly denoted their status through personally identified bedding (note the “CD No. 4” on the hammock), short jackets, sailor’s caps and scarves. Bray, Waterman Bringing Up His Hammock to Pallas

The clothing that maritime fugitives wore often posed a practical obstacle to their finding berths on ships. Many masters in the 18th century required their slaves to wear ozenbrig, a fabric similar in texture to burlap. Few individuals would willingly choose to wear the fabric. Those who did were easily identified as enslaved or as indentured bondsmen. For slaves seeking to flee their masters via the sea, ridding themselves of the much disliked ozenbrig clothing was the first step to transforming themselves into mariners. For example, in 1745 Mingo was said to ‘‘make for some seaport, in order to enter on board a privateer.’’ His master, as did the masters of Adam Dobbs, Joseph Anthony and hundreds of other maritime fugitives, believed the runaway would shed his ozenbrig clothes. These men were often able to do so through selling or exchanging their clothing at portside taverns. As a result slave owners frequently felt compelled to place newspaper advertisements warning ship captains “to be careful in not carrying [the slave] away.”

Having escaped their master, obtained a boat, reached a port and gotten rid of their ozenbrig clothing maritime fugitives still faced two critical hurdles: the vagrancies of maritime labor markets and the ability to convince ship captains of their capability on board.

The critical role of war as effecting American maritime markets and the opportunities for maritime fugitives cannot be understated. There was a direct correlation between the size of maritime labor markets – which boomed during the many wars of the 18th century – and the number of maritime fugitives. Likewise, during post-war recessions, the numbers of maritime fugitives plummeted.  The result was that the overwhelming majority of 18th century maritime fugitives fled during wartime.

Even after arriving dockside a fugitive seeking a berth who lacked sea experience needed to be an effective salesmen. Or as the master of Jack, a Maryland enslaved waiter who in 1784 fled seeking a berth at sea observed, fugitives needed to be “artful fellow(s)” to convince ship masters that they were capable of working aboard a ship. This meant that few runaways who did not speak English were able to obtain berths.

Maritime fugitives may be a particularly fitting topic as we only recently celebrated Solomon Northup Day. In Twelve Years a Slave when Northup was shown being enshackled on a ship about to be transported south he was bewildered and angry. Northup, like many enslaved individuals, experienced ships as the means by which they lost freedom. However, for hundreds of 18th century maritime fugitives, the white sails of ships, were not simply symbols of enslavement, but also held out the promise of more independent lives. As Philip D. Morgan has noted, blacks were not simply “objects being moved but also … subjects doing the moving.”

In future posts I will discuss the nature of black seamen’s lives in the 18th century.

Going To Sea

Standing in a room strewn with a backpack, notebook, Ipad and clothes I’m little more than a hour from driving to Provincetown to go sailing (yes, the first hint that your writer is a procrastinator). Why Provincetown and why to sail? It’s fair to say I am not, in the words of the Harvard historian Samuel Morrison, an “adventure-loving youth” seeking “an easy escape from the strict conventions and prying busybodies of New England towns.” Nor am I one of the pirates who, as Marcus Redicker so wonderfully describes, is seeking an alternative social order by going to sea. And I do not believe, as Henry Dana did, I will “cure, if possible … a weakness of the eyes” by hard work at sea. Actually, it is more likely I will get sea sick than cure any illness I have. Neither an adventurer, radical or cure-seeker am I. I am instead a quite ordinary academic, normally desk-bound and with a wife who probably has more than a few quibbles about her “old man” going to sea.

So if not for the romance, the desire or need to seek a new life or to find a cure for my physical ailments why is it that I leave the comfort of my Brooklyn home for the choppy waters of Boston Bay? In short, the opportunity of a lifetime; to sail on Mystic Seaport’s Charles W. Morgan, America’s oldest whaling ship.

The Charles W. Morgan is back at sea after a major retrofit. Sailing out into the Atlantic it has for the first time in more than seventy years unfurled its sails in open waters. As part of Mystic Seaport’s 38th Voyager Program (this is the 38th voyage of the Charles W. Morgan ) the Seaport has, with support from NEH and other funders, embarked on one of this nation’s largest public history projects; taking 79 artists, writers, historians, film makers, archeologists, literary scholars and scientists aboard the whaling ship for a series of voyages. And I am one of these fortunate few who will be sailing on the whaling ship.

Morgan at Castle Hill rock Morgan Sails

Over the coming weeks and months I will regularly post blogs regarding my time, albeit short, on the Charles W. Morgan, with the intention of connecting my experiences to those of the men I write about; 18th century black mariners. I hope to create a conversation about the central role of black mariners in America’s Age of Sail and in doing so “uncover hidden lives.” In doing so, I will focus much of my attention to the lives of individual black mariners. My posts will utilize my Black Mariner Database , a dataset of more than 25,000 18th century black mariners and maritime fugitives, to provide individual case stories to bring alive some of the issues (race at sea, opportunities for freedom, how serving on different types of ships shaped the lives of black mariners, etc.) I’ll be discussing.

I look forward to your comments.