Maritime History & Black Mariners: Upcoming Events

This year, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, three maritime events are occurring that spotlight for the public the role of Black mariners: the America’s Cup, Merseyside Maritime Museum’s “Black Salt” exhibit, and Liverpool Centre for Port and Maritime History’s (“CMJH”) “Race & the Sea” conference.

As I write this blog, Team NZ and Team Oracle, in multi-million dollar high-tech ships, are competing for the America’s Cup. The races are taking place in waters off Bermuda. The home to the Newport Bermuda Race since 1906, Bermuda has a well-earned reputation as a sailing haven, which the America’s Cup has only reinforced. Many viewers of Cup races are unaware of the critical role Black Bermudian mariners have played in both the island’s and the Atlantic’s history. Unfortunately, the Cup organizers have not taken the opportunity to highlight this history. However, as Michael Jarvis has so aptly demonstrated in In the All of All Trade, during the Age of Sail Bermuda’s economy was largely maritime based.  Black seamen, such as Nat, a seaman on Captain Samuel Spofferth’s sloop Popple, Tom, Dick and Brown, sailors on the Bermudian sloop Revenge, and Pompey the cook on the Bermudian privateer Lovely Betsy, often comprised one-half or more of Bermuda’s ship crews.  These men’s sweat and expertise enabled this small island to profitably sustain itself without the benefit of large-scale sugar plantations that characterized other British Caribbean colonies.


In contrast to the America’s Cup overlooking of Black mariners, the Merseyside Maritime “Black Salt” exhibit will demonstrate that Black seamen were central toGreat Britain’s maritime successes. The exhibit, which opens on September 29th, is based upon Ray Costello’s book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships. It will offer individual stories, vivid images and maritime material culture to set out the story of Black British seamen over the past five hundred years. The first major museum exhibit on British Black maritime life, the exhibit will comprise of chronologically focused rooms. That focused on the eighteenth century will feature data and materials from my Black Maritime Database, a dataset on over 27,000 Black mariners and maritime fugitives.


The Ship and crew of Moel Eilian, c. 1889. Merseyside Maritime Museum.  Maritime Archives and Library, reference DX/1328

Two weeks prior to the opening of “Black Salt”, on September 15th CMJH will be holding a conference on “Race and the Sea” at Liverpool John Moores University. Panels will include: “Africans at Sea,” ”The Middle East, East Asia and the Sea,” “Race and the Sea in the 19th and 20th centuries,” and “Race & the Sea Today.” Scholars from the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, the United States, Italy and the United Arab Emirates will explore the relationship between the race and the ocean. Although the conference is intended to connect to “Black Salt,” its scope will be wider than British maritime history, encompassing Chinese cosairs, non-European sailors’ material culture and German medieval maritime history.

As Philip Morgan has noted, in the past decade there has been a “maritime turn” in historical scholarship. Historians such as Ray Costello (British Isles) and Jeff Bolster (United States) have demonstrated both the significance of the sea itself and the critical role that Black seamen often played. Although the organizers of the America’s Cup may have missed an opportunity to link the excitement of their races with Bermuda’s extensive Black maritime history, this autumn Britain’s public will be privileged to experience a major exhibit on British Black mariners and an academic conference on the topic. Black mariners may finally be having their due.


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