op-ed: black sailors were essential to the development of the early u.s.

August 6, 2015
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As in Africa, the development of the U.S. as a world power has been largely accomplished by the use of rivers and seas for commerce. Today 95% of America’s foreign trade flows through our port systems. Nearly every black family in America has some family member who has worked or traveled by sea. I remember the tale of my great-uncle Nick’s sea chest. He was a merchant seaman in the 1940s and left his chest at the family home. My dad, a curious 11-year-old, opened his chest and found his first pack of cigarettes. It is important to recognize the contributions of black sailors in the history and development of the U.S.

By Nick Douglas, AFROPUNK Contributor


Civil War Sailor


Sea and river ports like Boston, New York, Baltimore, Charleston, and New Orleans were essential to the development of commerce in the U.S. They were home to large, skilled African-American populations that repaired, outfitted and manned vessels, and African-American dockworkers that unloaded and loaded cargo.

Black sailors brought their knowledge, traditions and expertise to the New World with the first explorers and conquistadores. An African, Pedro Niño, piloted Columbus’ ship the Santa Maria in 1492.  

African sailors had been exploring the African coast by water for millennia before the 1st whites began to explore the continent in earnest in the early 1400s..

Frederick Douglass as a black sailor


Early Egyptians were famous for their elaborate barges which transported people, goods and services along the Nile. Cleopatra was known to spend fortunes on the barges she used to demonstrate her power while she sailed the Nile inspecting her empire. Her vessels and fleets carried her across the Mediterranean to Rome before the birth of Christ.  

Africa’s rivers and coastline were essential to the development of the complicated and advanced economies and societies that developed there. In the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries white slave traders exploited the knowledge and navigation skills of Africans along ancient trade routes like the Gambia River to access population centers in Central Africa for capture and sale into slavery in the Americas.


Marcus Garvey


African sailors adapted their skills to navigate the many rivers in the U.S. and showed their expertise landing vessels on the coast of the Americas. African-American boatmen and sailors were known and trusted for their seamanship and boating expertise from the times of earliest white settlements in the U.S.

By the late 1700s/early 1800s 20% of all U.S. sailors were Africans or African-Americans. Many of the sailors were slaves loaned out to ships by their masters. Often slaves negotiated with their masters to ship out during winter months.

Some black sailors were free men like Paul Cuffe, who captained and owned several vessels in the late 1700s. James Forten made a fortune making sails in the early 1800s. Denmark Vesey was a sailor for many years before he started a successful carpentry business; in 1822 he was hung for allegedly conspiring to incite a slave uprising in Charleston, South Carolina. In the 1820s and 1830s my ancestor Joseph Decoudreau served as a mechanic on ships that traveled the trade route between the Caribbean, Mexico and New Orleans.


Matthew Henson 


Other black sailors were escaped slaves who sought refuge from slavery by going to sea. By the 1830s the sight of black sailors was common in most American seaports. Frederick Douglass was a slave and a skilled caulker in a Baltimore shipyard in the 1830s. He escaped to freedom using a black “Sailor’s Protection Papers” stating he was a free black sailor and disguising himself in the dress of a sailor to board a train to Philadelphia.

More than a few enslaved sailors used ports in Haiti to jump ship to freedom after Haitian independence in 1804. Haitian authorities were more than happy to grant free status to slaves that requested help. After getting papers in Haiti that showed them to be free they simply boarded another ship bound for their home port.

Black sailors have been part of every major U.S. military conflict, beginning with the Revolutionary War. An estimated 10,000 black sailors fought for the British, who not only impressed (enlisted by force) black sailors but promised freedom to black sailors who served against the Americans.


Cvil War Sailor


Ships provided black sailors numerous opportunities that they were not able to take advantage of on land. Because of sailing’s rigid hierarchy at sea, black sailors enjoyed the status of their rank on board ship. This meant that black ship pilots, captains and mates could command white sailors of lower ranks. They enjoyed the same pay as whites for their rank and could negotiate their pay before signing on vessels. This gave black sailors a rare opportunity to assert their individual rights in a way they were not allowed to on land.

Black sailors became citizens of the world and important people in their communities and the communities they visited. They became an important (and sometimes the singular) communication source between black communities. Many black sailors were multi-lingual and interacted with societies throughout the Americas, Europe and Africa.

Black sailors from the Northeast ports of Rhode Island and Boston provided verbal descriptions of what was happening in the North to isolated Southern black communities. Northern Black sailors carried news that was suppressed via newspapers, magazines and books that were prohibited in the South. David Walker sewed his powerful anti-slavery pamphlet the Appeal into seamen’s coats in his hometown of Boston. Northern black and white sailors distributed the Appeal in port cities like Charleston and New Orleans in the South..


Black sailors were such effective communicators of anti-slavery news and resistance that Southern slave owners often feared them more than free people of color. This was especially true after the revolution started in Haiti. In 1822 South Carolina passed the “Negro Seaman Act” which allowed sheriffs to arrest black sailors for the duration of their ship’s stay in port. In 1830 North Carolina also passed a law that prohibited any interaction between sailors and residents while the sailors were in port. In 1834 New Orleans passed a similar law.

Black sailors helped their home communities and families by carrying on entrepreneurial trade in the ports and cities they visited. They used money that they earned, along with the goods that they carried and were able to buy and sell, to support their families, help form black benevolent societies, and help their communities and churches.  

While black sailors enjoyed many benefits which other black people on land did not, the life of a black sailor was exceptionally hard. Difficult working conditions, the inherent dangers of the sea, long absences from home and racial prejudice were still part of their day-to-day existence.   



After Reconstruction, whites tried to re-create a near slave society by tying black people back to the land. The number of black sailors dropped, due in part to increased competition with white sailors, and stricter racial policies for hiring sailors. The ingenuity and tenacity of some black sailors circumvented these policies. Two well-known examples are African-American sailor Matthew Henson who accompanied Commodore Perry to the North Pole, and Marcus Garvey who founded the Black Star Steamship Line.  

In no place was the history of the black sailor more important and so little known than in U.S. literature. The first six autobiographies by African-Americans published in the U.S. were written by black sailors. Yet little of this unique literature is shared or taught in American schools.



We can honor all black sailors’ contributions to the American experience by searching out their accounts and reading and sharing them.  Below is a small list of books by or about black sailors.

The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavuas Vassa, The African written by Himself . This story documents his life from being taken from Africa as a young boy and enslaved as a sailor, to his freedom in the U.K. This moving first-hand account of his life at sea and on land, connect life in African, the Middle Passage, and life in the U.K. in a completely unique way, showing the rich character of black people on both continents.

The Life, History, and Unparalleled Sufferings of John Jea, the African Preacher. The story of John Jea stolen from Africa as a child and sold to a Dutch couple in New York. He earns his freedom and visits South America, England and Amsterdam as a free sailor and a preacher. His autobiography includes poetry which makes him one of the first African-American poets ever published.  

Narrative of the Uncommon Suffering and Surprise Deliverance of Briton Hammon, A Negro.  A narrative of Briton Hammon’s capture by Indians, imprisonment in Cuba, and eventual return to New England after  13 years of sailing adventures and misadventures.

Black Jacks: African-American Sailors in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster, One of the most complete histories of African-American sailors during the early development of the U.S.


Nick Douglas is the author of Finding Octave: The Untold Story of Two Creole Families and Slavery in Louisiana. He has a blog www.findingoctave.com/contact.html for readers who may want to contact him.