Thursday, July 7, 2016

Pyrates in the Bay of Maryland: Race and Resistance in the Chesapeake

This post is a continuation of the "Race, Revolt, and Piracy" series. You can find parts one, two, and three here.

Slavery and convict servitude at times defined sailors in the eighteenth century Chesapeake. British sailors could negotiate wages[1] and hold merchant officers accountable if they stepped out of line.[2] While convict servants possessed some rights, enslaved sailors held virtually none. Both groups were subject to the whims of ship owners and sea captains.

Detail from "The Jovial Crew," Thomas Rowlandson,
1786, Royal Collection Trust.

Convict servants at least had a light at the end of the tunnel. Most were sentenced to seven years of servitude, after which they would be free. This guarantee of freedom also served as a bargaining chip to encourage proper behavior and deference from servants to masters. Some of these convicts went on to relative prominence. By way of example, William Logan was convicted of stealing muskets and rum from the ship Ruby in London and selling them in 1756. After his seven years of labor were up, he came to possess a barber shop, wharf, warehouse, and tavern on City Dock in Annapolis, the very same city the Hopewell cast off from.

An advertisement placed in the August 22, 1765 edition
of the Maryland Gazette, page 3.

Despite the opportunities, many convict servants were nonetheless bound to service and subject to the people who held them, and a good number were certainly physically and mentally abused. Logan himself ran away from his new master, peruke maker Andrew Buchanan, within a year of arriving in Maryland.[3]

Enslaved people suffered the same abuses convict servants endured, along with the added mental toll of perpetual, generational enslavement for them and their families. London Town, the seaport that George Cook hailed from, was home to 961 known enslaved people between its founding and 1788. Of these, only nine are known to have gone free.[4] Free communities in the eighteenth century Chesapeake were remarkably rare, and for some communities were unheard of.

How then did unfree mariners cope with their situation?

The convict servant John Wright and enslaved sailor Anthony Lewis responded with the full rejection of their status through violence. Their murder of Captain Curtis was a desperate bid at freedom, and perhaps even one they knew almost certainly could not succeed. Killing Curtis, kidnapping fellow sailors, and driving hard for the south was the most extreme version of resistance, one that held only two possible outcomes: death or freedom.

Subverting the system was another form of resistance. Lewis claiming himself to be a Portuguese man among white convict servants would have placed him in their class. Though convict servitude was not to be envied by many, the promise of eventual freedom and some basic protections under the law as a white man were very inviting to an enslaved man.

Resistance was a constant in North America and perhaps everywhere slavery was present, but not all forms of resistance were welcomed by the enslaved themselves. The enslaved mariner George Cook was forced by the runaways to travel south, and it is easy for us to imagine ourselves inviting such an abduction. The chance to escape to freedom not as a fugitive but as a blameless victim, removing the threat of punishment in the event of recapture, is appealing. This interpretation is, sadly, divorced from the context of the eighteenth century. In contrast to Lewis, who could pass as a white man, Cook is always described as a "Negro." With darker skin, there was no way for him to blend in with South Carolina's free society, much less the Caribbean. Chesapeake slaves were familiar with the particularly deadly conditions of West Indies plantations, and the frightening efficiency with which Carolinian slave holders put down rebellions and revolts. Lewis was trying to move up the social ladder, but Cook was being dragged down it.

Above all of these considerations loomed the very real threat of brutal punishment. In eighteenth century Maryland, people of color were far more likely to be sentenced to death than any other class. Once sentenced to death, convict servants were less likely to receive a pardon or reprieve than anyone else, including enslaved people.[5] The outlook for unfree people was very grim when brought to court.

Detail from "A Pirate hanged at Execution Dock," Robert Dodd,
late 18th century, National Maritime Museum.
Walking the line between inviting brutal and fatal punishment and resisting the oppressive order was a difficult task. The anger and frustration of unfree mariners sometimes boiled over into violence. By contrast, the violence consistently perpetrated against unfree people was relentless, and when they struck back the legal system was swift in reinforcing social and racial hierarchy.

The Hopewell Mutiny is just one case of maritime violence in the eighteenth century, but it provides us with an intersection of several degrees of slavery and convict servitude.

[1] See N.A.M. Rodger's The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy, W.W. Norton & Co., 1996. 
[2] See my post on Captain James Lowry.
[3] Maryland Gazette, September 22, 1757, page 3.
[4] Ryan Cox, "The African-American Experience," lecture, Maryland State Archives at Historic London Town and Gardens.
[5] "Percent Hanged, Pardoned, and Reprieved: Classes Compared, 1726-1775," appendixed to Seven Hangmen of Colonial Maryland, C. Ashley Ellefson, via Maryland State Archives.

No comments:

Post a Comment