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Book Review:

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of the Sail by W. Jeffrey

Helen Meyers
HIST 4650
Dr. Wallace
March 16, 2016

Bolster sets out to define the experience of African American Seaman

from the 1740s to the 1860s. The sea and its role in the Atlantic World has
never been disputed, but these perspectives are almost always told by white
sailors. In this way, it would appear that African Americans did not work on
the sea often if at all, when in fact, many African Americans were employed
in the seafaring trade of the Atlantic world. Bolster Asserts that working on
the Sea allowed African Americans greater freedom and mobility than they
could have achieved on land. Maritime employment would shape African
American identities, communities, and the causes that they would take up in
the 18th and 19th centuries. In this way, the rise and fall of African American
seafaring was central to the creation of black America.1
Bolster divides his narrative at large by Chronology, and then
approaches smaller subthemes as he progresses through his timeline.
Beginning in the 1740s with the narrative of the slave Briton Hammon, he
begins by explaining the emergence of black slave sailors in plantation
society. Often slaves like Hammon were sent to work on ships by their
masters, or they would look work ship work during the winter time when
planting proved impossible.2 While they were not free, these experiences
allowed African American men to earn wages and in some cases, keep them.
Many African Americans managed to bargain freedom for themselves out of
voyages to London, and skilled African American sailors came to be in
1 Bolster, 1997, p. 6
2 Bolster, 1997, p. 10

demand in port Cities. Bolster then breaks briefly to explore how Africans
brought their own maritime culture with them when they were sold into
slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. In the African Continent, many
communities like the Bambara and the Kongolese had trade systems that
relied on canoes to move goods through rivers. European traders came to
rely on the pilots of these canoes to help them move their own wares and
would seek these men to take and put to work on their own, larger ships.3
Slaves in the Americas would continue to associate the sea with the after life,
and Bolster cites one instance where a slave carves a small canoe and places
it on the grave of his son, believing it will carry his spirit back to Africa. 4
Bolster then returns to ships and how African Americans used
stereotypes to secure roles and respect even among their white peers.
African Americans often functioned as cooks, musicians, and cabin hands,
roles that their white captains felt they were especially suited for. If not in
these positions, Black sailors could prove their worth by being skilled at
igging, steering, and other ship operations. Later Bolster explains that while
African Americans could achieve mobility and some respect, race was not a
non issue. Often subject to more frequent abuse at the hands of their
captains, black sailors were aware that the gains they wre making did not
change their entire position in society. This led to many sailors using their
experiences to engage in activism. As time progessed and the civil war
became iminant, Free sailors often became targets of aggression for
3 Bolster, 1997, p.48
4 Bolster, 1997, p. 64

southern white planters. They became the targets of laws requiring their
incarceration in port, for fear they would foster notions of liberty in local
slaves.5 After the Civil war, segregation became increasingly common in the
navy and no longer did crews intermingle as freely as they had done before.
Ship based commerce was no longer as powerful an enterprise as it had once
been before the mid 18th Century, leaving less work in more Brutal
Conditions. White immigrants like the Irish began lining up to take jobs on
ships as well.

Eventually the role of Sailors and the Sea no longer factored

into the culture of Black America as it had once done, but the impression left
by maritime pursuits from before remained.
Bolster supports his thesis with accounts from multiple people, not only
black sailors, but also the far more numerous accounts of their white
captains and crewmates. Not only focusing on their work on ships, he drew
connections between their social status as sailors and what that meant for
the communities that they came into contact with. The idea of ships coming
to represent a kind of freedom, rather than just the abduction and
humiliation of the middle passage is driven home by multiple accounts of
slaves running to port to get even the most tentative grasp of freedom. He
does pick instances to place more emphasis on as case studies, and to trace
how it reflected wider trends, such as with Kin g Dick in chapter four. While
in prison, he set up a system that ran much like the political systems of black

5 Bolster, 1997 p. 191

6 Bolster, 1997, p.219, 220

communities, where they would elect a boss of sorts to look out for their
The frank narrative style of the book made it easy to read. He takes the
time to explain unfamiliar terms and to make sure that the reader is aware of
where events are situated with in his chronology. Bolster has a talent for
weaving the multiple, smaller narratives of many sailors together in a
coherent, and engaging way that supports his arguments. He juxtaposes the
experience of white sailors against black sailors through out the book to
make the reader aware of the contrasts between the two even though they
worked in the same profession. While Bolster could have omitted these
comparisons, the narrative is richer for them and it helps place these
experience into the context of their time and place.
Less enjoyable was Bolsters tendency to drag on subjects that were
relatively minor in some parts of the book. He spends a lot of time discussing
European perceptions of Canoe construction and usage in Africa, for
example. While the insight was necessary, it felt excessive in places for a
particular piece of information that was relatively minor. This was in chapter
two, in which he related African traditions and beliefs about the sea to the
middle passage and later African American culture, where there would be a
recurrence of canoe symbols. Similarly, he spends a lot of energy on
overcrowding in jails in chapter seven.

7 Bolster, 1997, p. 111

Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of
Sail. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.