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Black Jacks : African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

af W. Jeffrey Bolster

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1572177,045 (3.69)1
Aiming to reveal the role sailors played in helping forge new identities for black people in America and how they actively contributed to the Atlantic maritime culture, this book traces the history of black seamen to the end of the American Civil War.
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I read this book with my co-workers to see if we can better reflect the experience of Black sailors in the archival records of ships and merchant mariners. It's a broad overview of Black sailors in America in the 18th and 19th centuries. It traces the sailing traditions of Black Americans to their African roots. In some cases, enslaved Black men served as sailors and ship's pilots at the behest of their enslavers. Free Black men found a greater level of freedom and equality in the maritime trades than in other areas of work available to them, although the practices of ship discipline were contradictorily some of the most restrictive to liberty. A great percentage of New England and New York Black men found work in the maritime trades in the 1800s although at the cost of separation of families and loss of community leadership.

There are numerous fascinating stories in this book about people I'd like to learn more about. These include Richard "King Dick Crafus who lead the Black US Navy sailors held prisoner at Dartmoor during and after the War of 1812, and who remained a revered member of Boston's Black community decades later. Robert Smalls was a pilot who escaped from slavery in Charleston during the Civil War and turned a gunboat over to the Union Navy. David Walker distributed the abolitionist tract "Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World" while working at a second-hand clothing shop near the wharves of Boston. Honestly, these stories should be made into movies.


Favorite Passages:
“Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness, and wealth denied to most slaves.” - p. 36
( )
  Othemts | May 8, 2022 |
Fascinating book: though necessarily a little short on quantitative conclusions, it introduces thoroughly the issues faced by free and enslaved African Americans after the American Revolution up to the Civil War and after who went to sea to find a greater measure of freedom, opportunity, and security. /i/Black Jacks/-i/ referred to and quoted a range of original sources (such as /i/The Life of John Thompson/-i/, published 1856, by a slave who escaped and went to sea on a whaling ship. Bolster is careful to express positives and negatives of a life at sea for black men in America, which changed from period to period, region to region. Black men, both free and slaves, made up a significant portion of American crews —and other nations' as well, after the Revolutionary War, and especially by about 1810. War made jobs for all sailors less available. After the war, as time went on, Southern anxiety about anti-slavery activism grew and paranoia about free black sailors mingling with slaves resulted in laws in Southern states that required black sailors to be incarcerated in jails when ashore, while this of course did not apply to white sailors. Though the latter may have been looked down upon as crude, they weren't seen as a danger to the structure of Southern life. Bolster indicates that African American seamen made a big impression, nonetheless, on the seafaring culture of America, just as the experience of success and freedom at sea made a difference to African American culture then and thereafter. ( )
  NatalieSW | Sep 23, 2015 |
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Aiming to reveal the role sailors played in helping forge new identities for black people in America and how they actively contributed to the Atlantic maritime culture, this book traces the history of black seamen to the end of the American Civil War.

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