The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolinaby David S. Cecelski
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The first major study of slavery in the maritime South, The Waterman's Song chronicles the world of slave and free black fishermen, pilots, rivermen, sailors, ferrymen, and other laborers who, from the colonial era through Reconstruction, plied the vast inland waters of North Carolina from the Outer Banks to the upper reaches of tidewater rivers. Demonstrating the vitality and significance of this local African American maritime culture, David Cecelski also reveals its connections to the Afro-Caribbean, the relatively egalitarian work culture of seafaring men who visited nearby ports, and the revolutionary political tides that coursed throughout the black Atlantic.
Black maritime laborers played an essential role in local abolitionist activity, slave insurrections, and other antislavery activism. They also boatlifted thousands of slaves to freedom during the Civil War. But most important, Cecelski says, they carried an insurgent, democratic vision born in the maritime districts of the slave South into the political maelstrom of the Civil War and Reconstruction.
Deeply respectful of historic Black watermen who, like himself, were intimately acquainted with the treacherous and enchanting North Carolina coast, David Cecelski has written the finest regional maritime history of Black Americans ever produced. (W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail)
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The Waterman's Song
In October 1830 Moses Ashley Curtis arrived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River aboard a schooner from Boston. The North Carolina coast would be the young naturalist's first landfall of his first voyage into the American South. Emptying into the Atlantic, the Cape Fear was a tumult of heavy waves, strong currents, and dangerous shoals. Passage across the inlet's bar and outer shoals was folly without a local pilot. The schooner's master raised a signal flag and beckoned toward the village of Smithville for a pilot to guide him into the river. Curtis soon spied a pilot boat under sail, breaking through the waves toward him. Approaching the schooner, the fast, elegant craft turned into the wind and drifted alongside the larger vessel. "They boarded us," Curtis wrote in his diary that day, "And what saw I? Slaves!the first I ever saw."
Guided into Smithville by the slave pilots, Curtis "found the wharf and stores crowded with blacks, noisy and careless." After a brief stay, his schooner sailed toward Wilmington, a seaport 25 miles upriver. Unbeknownst to Curtis, this leg of his voyage was like a descent through the Cape Fear past. He sailed by Sugar Loaf, the high sand dune where colonial militia led by Colonel Roger Moore were said to have conquered the last of the Cape Fear Indians. He passed under Fort Johnston, with its oyster-shell-and-pitch-pine walls built by slaves in 1802. Along the western bank of the Cape Fear River, Curtis peered into cypress swamps draped with Spanish moss. Here and there, hundreds of black hands had hewn out great rice plantations along the water's edge.
Everywhere Curtis saw slave watermen: harbor pilots, oystermen, the entire crew of the federal revenue cutter, plantation boatmen. Among them was "a boat full of blacks [that] came rowing by us," chanting a song "repeated ad infinitum and accompanied with a trumpet obligato by the helmsman." Curtis scribbled the lyrics and a line of music in his diary: "O Sally was a fine girl, O Sally was a fine girl, O!" It was the refrain of a popular sea chantey, called "Sally Brown," that spoke longingly of a beautiful Jamaican mulatto. Lonely mariners sang "Sally Brown" throughout the Atlantic and half a world away in the Pacific at the same time that these boatmen crooned it on the Cape Fear. Other black maritime laborers crowded Wilmington on Curtis's arrival, and in his diary he noted that "a boat came along side with three negroes who offered an alligator for sale." Curtis had discovered the maritime Southand the central role of African Americans within it.
When I began this study, I was no less surprised than Curtis at the degree to which slave watermen marked maritime life in North Carolina. His words"And what saw I? Slaves!"could have been my own. Until recently, few historians have recognized the prevalence of generations of African American maritime laborers along the Atlantic coastline. Scholars have tended to view the black South mainly in terms of agricultural slave laborpicking cotton, cutting sugar cane, winnowing rice, or priming tobacco, for examplenot trimming sails or casting nets. But in recent years a new generation of scholars has begun to explore (from different angles, in a variety of locations, and in a number of eras) the complex and important roles played by black watermen and sailors in the Atlantic maritime world.
While this research has only now begun to touch on the American South, rather than on New England and the Caribbean, nowhere was the magnitude of African American influence on maritime life greater than along the perilous seacoast and vast estuaries that stretch a hundred miles from the Outer Banks into the interior of North Carolina. Slave and free black boatmen were ubiquitous on those broad waters, dominating most maritime trades and playing a major role in all of them. The intertidal marshes, blackwater creeks, and brackish rivers that flowed into the estuaries also teemed with black watermen. Between 1800 and the Civil War, African Americans composed approximately 45 percent of the total population in North Carolina's nineteen tidewater counties. They made up nearly 60 percent of the total population in its largest seaports. The percentage of black men working full-time as fishermen or boatmen or in other maritime trades probably ranged from as little as 1 percent on the upper reaches of tidewater rivers to as much as 50 percent or more on the Outer Banks, but any firm estimate would be recklessly speculative and probably deceptive. Most coastal slaves worked on the water at least occasionally, whether it was rafting a master's timber to market once a year or fishing on the sly for their own suppers. Working on the water was a part of daily life for most tidewater slaves and their free brethren. Their preeminence in boating, fishing, and shipping can be seen again and again in contemporary newspapers, wills and estate records, plantation ledgers, ships' logs, court documents, and travel accounts.
I soon discovered that African American maritime laborers congregated in the wharf districts of every seaport, not merely Smithville and Wilmington, and their range and diversity far exceeded what Moses Ashley Curtis described in his diary. Along the Albemarle Sound, prodigious gangs of black fishermen wielded mile-and-a-half-long seines in what was the largest herring fishery in North America. Nearby, on the Roanoke River, slave bateaumen dared harrowing rapids and racing currents to transport tobacco from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to seaports. Far to the east, at Portsmouth Island, slave crews piloted vessels through Ocracoke Inlet, lightered their cargoes, and then guided them to distant seaports on the other side of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. Their slave neighbors at Shell Castle Island, a shoal at Ocracoke Inlet, ranged up and down the Outer Banks with their nets in pursuit of jumping mullet and bottlenosed dolphins. In every port, slave stevedores trundled cargo on and off vessels, while shipyard workers in bondage built some of the sweetest-sailing cedar and white oak boats afloat. Still other slave watermen hawked firewood to steamers anchored in the Cape Fear at night, rafted lumber down the Lower Neuse River, guided duck hunting parties along the freshwater marshes of Currituck Sound, tonged for oysters on frigid winter days, poled shingle flats out of the Great Dismal Swamp, shoveled coal in the sweltering firerooms of steamboats, manned the sloops and schooners that traded both within and beyond North Carolina.
The breadth and complexity of this African American maritime culture stands out prominently in firsthand accounts of slavery. Of the seven authors of surviving narratives written by former slaves from tidewater North Carolina, four had been engaged in the maritime trades, another had a father who was a slave pilot, and maritime laborers played key roles in the escapes to freedom of the other two. The most compelling of these narratives are those of maritime laborers London Ferebee, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones. Growing up by Currituck Sound in the 1850s, Ferebee learned boatmanship from his father, one of many slaves employed in local shipyards, and from the slave crewmen on his master's sloop. He had learned to sail that vessel over some of the most dangerous shoals along the Carolina coast before his twelfth birthday, as well as mastered the fundamentals of bluewater navigation. "Even at night," he wrote in A Brief History of the Slave Life of Reverend London R. Ferebee (1882), "I could steer by the compass, or by any star."
What People are Saying About This
Cecelski's book is well-written and well-researched; it would be ideal for undergraduate courses dealing with slavery, pre-Civil War southern history, maritime history, or African-American studies.Journal of the Early Republic
A new approach to race relations and African American history in the nineteenth-century South.Civil War History
Meet the Author
David S. Cecelski is an independent scholar living in Durham, North Carolina. A native of the North Carolina coast, he is author of several books, including Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South, and coeditor of Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy.
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