Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers

Black Hands, White Sails: The Story of African-American Whalers

by Patricia C. McKissack, Fredrick McKissack
Despite the dangers and challenges of whaling, many African-Americans took on the job between 1730 and 1880. A rare look at an important slice of American history describes their contributions to the whaling industry and their role in the abolitionist movement.


Despite the dangers and challenges of whaling, many African-Americans took on the job between 1730 and 1880. A rare look at an important slice of American history describes their contributions to the whaling industry and their role in the abolitionist movement.

Editorial Reviews

Horn Book Magazine
Incisive accounts are given o significant African American in this industry...and life aboard a whaling ship is thoroughly documented.
ALAN Review
The McKissacks have done an excellent job in researching a chapter of African-American history that is seldom explored by history texts--the whaling industry and black slavery. Between 1800-1860, the United States whaling industry reached its "golden age." Both black seamen, who were free and liberated, and runaway slaves, were thrown together on whaling vessels. There, runaway slaves could make good on their escapes from the hands of oppression while black whaleman could rise to the level of sea captains or even, owners of whaling ships. This was an unusual and precedent-setting time in American history. Patricia and Frederick McKissack underline, in a well-written narrative, the ties of the industry to the abolitionist movement, including a discussion of the work of renowned African-American leader, Frederick Douglass. As history notes, Douglass was a caulker on a whaling ship prior to his involvement in the abolitionist movement. This wonderful text explores the lives of individual African-Americans who were active in whaling--detailing their accomplishments and impact on the industry. This book would be fine addition to any classroom where teachers yearn to teach new perspectives on American history. Genre: African-American History. 1999, Scholastic Press, Ages 9 to 12, $15.95. Reviewer: June Harris
Quakers who settled Nantucket Island were against slavery, employing free blacks as well as fugitive slaves as they established the lucrative whaling industry. This title shows how Quakers shared their knowledge about whaling, giving their black employees responsible jobs and helping them to organize their own whaling fleets. Eventually all Nantucket African Americans were free, forming communities that included Caribbean, West African, and Indian peoples. As they prospered, these groups built their own schools, churches, and homes. Many African American, as well as white, whaling captains and their crews protected fugitive slaves who escaped to the North via the Underground Railroad. As the whaling industry flourished during the nineteenth century, many African Americans achieved stature as sea captains, boat builders, blacksmiths, and grocers. The book also contains journals of crew members describing whaling expeditions. Documentation from various museums includes crew lists, whaling vessels, photos of sea captains, and a handbill announcing a lecture by the famous abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. The appendix includes a graphic illustration of whale shapes and sizes and a listing of each type of whale. An added fillip is a time line from 1441 to 1917 that highlights important dates about whaling and the abolition of slavery. This excellent book offers students a unique perspective on how New England whaling history is entwined with the abolition of slavery, as well as the whaling industry's impact on the nineteenthcentury American economy. Photos. Biblio. Appendix. VOYA CODES: 4Q 4P M J (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses; BroadgeneralYA appeal; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9). 1999, Scholastic, Ages 12 to 15, 160p, $15.95. Reviewer: Sarah K. Herz
Children's Literature - Bruce Adelson
Anyone who has read Moby Dick, or seen any movies, television shows, or documentaries about whaling may assume that the men and women who manned America's whaling ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were all white. Not so, as this fascinating book reveals. Runaway slaves and freed blacks flocked to Massachusetts whaling towns in those times to try their hands in a new and increasingly lucrative trade. The award-winning authors of several books about African-American history have written another important work, filled with first person accounts and crisp narratives, describing the lives of black whalers whose contribution to our nation's past is largely unknown to the general public There is much here to enjoy. This title includes many poignant stories--how the residents of one Massachusetts town saved runaway slaves from southern bounty hunters; the 1841 speech in Nantucket which launched the abolitionist career of the great Frederick Douglass; and whalers' contributions to the Union cause during the Civil War. Indeed, the authors tell of Robert Smalls, a slave and ship pilot, who captured a Confederate ship, sailed it out of a hostile Charleston, South Carolina and presented his prize to the Union navy in 1862. This title is another tour de force for the McKissacks, and will significantly contribute to readers having a fuller appreciation of American history. A must-buy for schools and libraries, teachers should also take note of this book for their multi-cultural curriculums and school research projects.
Library Journal - Library Journal
Gr 6-9-A well-researched and detailed book chronicling the contributions of African Americans to the whaling industry. Many were drawn to jobs on whaling ships throughout the 1600-1800s, for while conditions were difficult, they were preferable to slavery. The authors go to great lengths to draw out the roles of African Americans, and while many of these connections are eye-opening, they are sometimes tenuous. The first half of the book, an introduction to the whales and the business surrounding their hunting, features significant men such as Prince Boston and Paul Cuffe, but also some who were less directly involved. Frederick Douglass did briefly work as a ship's caulker but many pages are devoted to describing aspects of his life that are irrelevant to whaling. Midway, the emphasis shifts to interesting aspects of life aboard ship, explaining phrases we use today that derive from whalers, superstitions of the seas, sailing songs and shanties, the story of the famous Essex, and the role of whalers in the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. While the story becomes much more engaging at this point, the role of African Americans seems to have diminished importance as race is only occasionally mentioned. Overall, though, as an important and under-explored aspect of both African-American and nautical history, this book merits a place on the shelves in larger libraries and in African-American collections. However, for a more fascinating look at whaling, and one that integrates the African-American story along with the many other participants, look to Jim Murphy's Gone A-Whaling (Clarion, 1998).-Andrew Medlar, Chicago Public Library, IL Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
From the McKissacks (Young, Black, and Determined, 1998, etc.), a well-written, historical account of African-Americans who sailed on whaling ships off the East Coast between 1730 and 1880. The whaling industry provided great opportunities for free black seaman (and runaway slaves), many of whom could not find jobs elsewhere. The McKissacks note that during the "golden age" of whaling in the early 19th century, African-Americans comprised one-quarter of the crews; after the Civil War, their ranks swelled to half of all whalers. Not only does this book describe the whaling industry, it provides original maritime documents and historical black-and-white photographs from the Mystic Seaport Museum and the Kendall, New Bedford, Nantucket, and Martha's Vineyard whaling museums. Another thread of this fascinating history is the story of the abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad for the Nantucket and New Bedford whalers. Beyond an overview, readers also meet some individuals, such as Lewis Temple, who developed the "toggle" harpoon design with barbs that stuck into the whale's body and wouldn't pull out easily, and John Mashow, who designed whale ships, including the Nimrod. The McKissacks describe an exciting period of maritime history, and celebrate an industry that chose workers on the basis of their skills, and not their skin. (index, not seen, b&w photos, appendix, chronology, bibliography). (Nonfiction. 8-13)

Product Details

Scholastic, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.81(w) x 8.59(h) x 0.89(d)
1130L (what's this?)
Age Range:
9 - 12 Years

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