Monday, March 26, 2018

Sailors and the Enslaved: An Odd Bond

This post is the latest in my occasional series Race, Revolt, and Piracy, examining racial violence at sea.
Detail form The Jovial Crew, Thomas Rowlandson, 1786, Royal Collection Trust.
In the nineteenth century writers often compared working as a sailor to slavery. It is easy, on the surface, to see why this comparison was made. As Paul Gilje wrote in Liberty on the Waterfront, 'Life at sea was a study in contrasts-offering both unfettered liberty and a peculiar form of bondage...the almighty power of the quarterdeck was tested by many means of resistance and assertion of independence exerted from the forecastle.'[1] These comparisons were made less often in the eighteenth century, but were still present. Mariners were forbidden to control their own movement and beaten if they stepped out of line. Sailors employed some of the same means of resistance as the enslaved: running away, feigning sickness, and sometimes physical violence. Members of the reading public who were unfamiliar with chattel slavery might be forgiven if they thought these two conditions bore more than a passing similarity.

While slavery and employment as a sailor are clearly different from each other, sailors and enslaved people both occupied the lower strata of society. Through this, they shared an odd, often contradictory, and ill-defined bond.

Sailors often wrote of their disgust toward slavery. Timothy Boardman recorded the reflections of his shipmate (an unnamed gunner) when their New England vessel touched in Charleston, South Carolina and exposed the crew to chattel slavery:
I Cannot Behold such a Number of My fellow being (altho Differing in Complexion) Dragged from the Place of their Nativity, brought into a Country not to be taught the Principles of Religion & the Rights of Freeman, but to be Slaves to Masters, who having Nothing but Interest in View without ever Weting their own Shoes, Drive these fellows to the Most Severe Services, I say I cannot behold these things without Pain.[2]

John Nicol related two cases in which sailors were so moved by their exposure to slavery as to inflict violence on the oppressors of the enslaved:
One cruel rascal was flogging one on our deck, who was not very well in her health. He had struck her once as if she had been a post. The poor creature gave a shriek. Some of our men, I knew not which-there were a good many near him-knocked him overboard. He sunk like a stone. The men gave a hurra! one of the female slaves leaped from the boat alongside into the water and saved the tyrant, who, I have no doubt, often enough beat her cruelly.[3]
In the anecdote above, Nicol's shipmates did not all directly intervene on behalf of the enslaved woman, but when one of them did, none stepped up to save the drowning overseer. A bolder move was made by his mate George in the Caribbean:
A black driver was flogging a woman big with child. Her cries rent the air, the other slaves declaring by their looks that sympathy they dared not utter. George ran to him and gave him a good beating, and swore he would double the gift if he laid another lash upon her. He had not dared when we returned.[4]
In comparing these two incidents, a negotiation of race is evident. The overseer in the first of Nicol's anecdotes was most probably white. Only one sailor, acting within the safe anonymity of the crowd, threw the 'cruel rascal' overboard. In the second, Nicol states that the abuse is being given by 'a black driver.' As a white man, George intervening on the behalf of an enslaved black woman, could be confident in his racial status protecting him from recrimination.

Enslaved people of the West Indies appear to have returned this strange affection. A shared desire for freedom (though to very different degrees) moved enslaved people to assist runaway sailors. Ebenezer Fox wrote:
I had become acquainted with several negroes in Kingston, and always found them kind and willing to give any information that was in their power to furnish. They appeared to feel a sort of sympathy for the soldiers and sailors; seeing some resemblance between their own degraded condition and that of the miserable military and naval slaves of British despotism. Whatever might be the cause, I always found the negroes in and about Kingston ready to give every facility to a soldier or sailor who wished to desert.[5]
Fox's account should always be taken with a grain of salt and he speaks only in generalities, but appears to be relating a genuine truth. Jacob Nagle gave a concrete example of this phenomenon from his voyages:
The capt was standing on the beach with his caine in his hand, Jack was in the bow of the boat, and leaped on the gangboard, and from thence on shore, and snatched the cain out of the capt hand and nocked him down and then took to his heels and run for it, and the whole barges crew after him, crying out, "Stop him," runing through the market place, but the blacks nowing they wanted to press him, cried out, "Run Massa, run Massa, no ketche, no have," and Jack got into a kain patch where they could not find him. So the capt went on board with a broken head and lost his man into the bargain.[6]
Another reason for enslaved people and sailors to construct a bond was that they were so often one and the same. Olaudah Equiano is the only enslaved sailor to leave a detailed memoir from this period, and it is very telling. He joined in strong friendships with white sailors, who in turn encouraged his struggle for freedom:
He used to say, that he and I never should part; and that when our ship was paid off, as I was as free as himself or any other man on board, he would instruct me in his business, by which I might gain a good livelihood.[7]
Perhaps catching wind of this attitude among the lower decks, Equiano's enslaver Royal Navy Lieutenant Michael Pascal decided to sell him without warning. Equiano's shipmates took it hard:
The boat's crew, who pulled against their will, became quite faint at different times, and would have gone ashore; but he would not let them. Some of them strove then to cheer me, and told me he could not sell me, and that they would stand by me, which revived me a little, and encouraged my hopes.[8]
Even when Equiano was finally sold, 'some of my old shipmates told me not to despair, for they would get me back again; and that, as soon as they could get their pay, they would immediately come to Portsmouth to me, where this ship was going.'[9]

We must be careful not to put too much stock into this bond. It was, as I said above, ill-defined. When Boardman's shipmate decried how the enslaved were 'Dragged from the Place of their Nativity,' he failed to mention that it was sailors who were doing the dragging. Equiano himself worked on a number of slave ships ferrying the enslaved from the Caribbean to North America.

An example of the fragilitiy of this bond is seen in the popular culture of the eighteenth century with the popular tale of Yarico. Though the story has many permutations, it generally revolves around an enslaved woman of African or West Indian descent in a mutually loving relationship with a British sailor, who then betrays her by selling her to a slaver.
Detail from Man sells a slave woman to another, Guillaume-Thomas-Fran├žois Raynal,
1775, John Carter Brown Library Archive of Early American Images.
It was aboard slave ships that the bond between common sailors and the enslaved was least likely to manifest. Marcus Rediker in The Slave Ship: A Human History wrote of the change that happened among a slaver's crew when they began to take aboard captive Africans:
A new social cement called fear bonded the entire crew, from captain to cabin boy, whose lives now depended on their unity of vigilance and action, their cooperation against a more numerous and potentially powerful group of captives in their midst. As the sailor and the captain moved closer together, the corporate community grew stronger and the class community weakened, although it did not disappear. Now a deeper antagonism ruled the ship, and with it came a new discipline. It would be called "race."[10]
Cooperation between sailors and enslaved people on slavers was still possible. As I theorized in my series Revolt of the Marlborough, the slaver's cook may have been of African descent, and negotiated the violence to enable the revolt and spare his own life.

Broadly speaking, sailors and the enslaved did share a bond. This bond had its limits, was never codified, and was often contradictory, but it did exist and is worthy of deeper study.
---
[1] Gilje, Paul A., Liberty on the Waterfront: American Maritime Culture in the Age of Revolution, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2008, page 69.
[2] Boardman, Timothy, Log-Book of Timothy Boardman, edited by Rev. Samuel W. Boardman, Albany, New York; Joel Munsell's Sons, 1885, page 72.
[3] Nicol, John, The Life and Adventures of John Nicol, Mariner, edited by Tim Flannery, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997, page 37.
[4] Nicol, Life and Adventures, 70.
[5] Fox, Ebenezer, The Adventures of Ebenezer Fox in the Revolutionary War, Boston: Charles Fox, 1847, page 171.
[6] Nagle, Jacob, The Nagle Journal: A Diary of the Life of Jacob Nagle, Sailor, from the Year 1775 to 1841, edited by John C. Dann, New York: Weidenfield & Nicolson, 1988, pages 49-50.
[7] Equiano, Olaudah, The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, edited by Vincent Carretta, New York: Penguin, 2003, page 92.
[8] Equiano, Narrative, 93.
[9] Equiano, Narrative., 94
[10] Rediker, Marcus, The Slave Ship: A Human History, Viking, 2007, page 260.

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