Tag Archives: Royal Navy

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.

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,”  http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/127866.html

  •  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.