Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

by W. Jeffrey Bolster


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Few Americans, black or white, recognize the degree to which early African American history is a maritime history. W. Jeffrey Bolster shatters the myth that black seafaring in the age of sail was limited to the Middle Passage. Seafaring was one of the most significant occupations among both enslaved and free black men between 1740 and 1865. Tens of thousands of black seamen sailed on lofty clippers and modest coasters. They sailed in whalers, warships, and privateers. Some were slaves, forced to work at sea, but by 1800 most were free men, seeking liberty and economic opportunity aboard ship.Bolster brings an intimate understanding of the sea to this extraordinary chapter in the formation of black America. Because of their unusual mobility, sailors were the eyes and ears to worlds beyond the limited horizon of black communities ashore. Sometimes helping to smuggle slaves to freedom, they were more often a unique conduit for news and information of concern to blacks.But for all its opportunities, life at sea was difficult. Blacks actively contributed to the Atlantic maritime culture shared by all seamen, but were often outsiders within it. Capturing that tension, Black Jacks examines not only how common experiences drew black and white sailors together—even as deeply internalized prejudices drove them apart—but also how the meaning of race aboard ship changed with time. Bolster traces the story to the end of the Civil War, when emancipated blacks began to be systematically excluded from maritime work. Rescuing African American seamen from obscurity, this stirring account reveals the critical role sailors played in helping forge new identities for black people in America.An epic tale of the rise and fall of black seafaring, Black Jacks is African Americans’ freedom story presented from a fresh perspective.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674076273
Publisher: Harvard
Publication date: 09/15/1998
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 313,821
Product dimensions: 5.75(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

W. Jeffrey Bolster is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction: To Tell the Tale
  • 1. The Emergence of Black Sailors in Plantation America
  • 2. African Roots of Black Seafaring
  • 3. The Way of a Ship
  • 4. The Boundaries of Race in Maritime Culture
  • 5. Possibilities for Freedom
  • 6. Precarious Pillar of the Black Community
  • 7. Free Sailors and the Struggle with Slavery
  • 8. Toward Jim Crow at Sea
  • Tables
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments

What People are Saying About This

Patrick O'Brian

The fruit of a truly prodigious amount of research carried out by a blue-water sailor turned historian, it deals with an important but largely neglected strand in the cable of American history...He shows many almost entirely forgotten aspects of that vanished world...I shall not soon forget his description of the hundreds of captured black American sailors in Dartmoor during the war of 1812.
Patrick O'Brian, author of The Yellow Admiral

Charles Johnson

Black Jacks places sailors of color squarely at the center of Atlantic maritime culture. W. Jeffrey Bolster deserves our thanks for recovering an exciting, essential chapter in African-American history, one that not only deepens our appreciation for the roles black men played (as both able seamen and buccaneers), but also vividly demonstrates the fluidity and multi-dimensional complexity of black identity.
Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage

Gerald E. Thomas

Bolster's own long experience as a seaman adds a note of realism and color to his fine descriptions of life aboard the early sailing ships. His extensive research has given him a notably sensitive understanding of the precarious lives led by black sailors, both at sea and ashore. He has breathed new life into the neglected history of black mariners, both slave and free. This story has remained too long untold.
Gerald E. Thomas, Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy

Ira Berlin

Black Jacks is a work of energy, imagination, and deep knowledge of a central experience in African-American history. It exudes Jeffrey Bolster's engagement with the subject, imbuing the history of black sailors with something of the mildewed stench of the forecastle and the bracing aromas of the open sea, the harsh realities of shipboard tyranny and the liberating possibilities of the sea. It will quickly become a central work in African-American history.
Ira Berlin, University of Maryland at College Park

Robert Farris Thompson

Bolster's book offers a marvelous entry into the world of the black sailor and the way men of African descent spread Afro-Atlantic art and culture across the seven seas. Melville would have been proud to read this text.
Robert Farris Thompson, Yale University

James Oliver Horton

This marvelously rich study of a scarcely known, but critically important, aspect of American maritime history will surprise and delight readers. A groundbreaking study told with sensitivity and depth, it demands that we broaden our view of eighteenth and nineteenth century African American labor and its importance to seafaring.
James Oliver Horton, George Washington University

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Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I knew that fugitive slaves and freemen were sailors, and now a book has been written about them. I also read that fugitives joined pirate ships, but I don't know why W. Jeffrey Bolster didn't write more about them. Black pirates! Who would have thought of such a thing. That is so COOL! It is also cool to read about other African American sailors. Some did their jobs so well and saved their money so they could afford to buy their own ship. Some became so rich they owned several merchant ships. COOL!!! Everyone should read this book.