Monthly Archives: July 2014

‘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.