Sunday, February 13, 2022

A Stock of Curios

W. Jeffrey Bolster:
Able-bodied seamen versed in “the Mariner’s art” were admittedly a minority among black seamen; but men like Daniel Watson, who made five foreign voyages from Providence between 1803 and 1810, cultivated professional identities as seamen. As sailors, they wove together worldliness, skill, and class. Watson, and men such as the African-born David O’Kee, an ex-slave who made at least eight voyages from Providence during the 1830s, were fully socialized to the world of the ship, and probably more at home there than ashore. A blind sixty-year-old black Philadelphian introduced himself to the census marshall in 1850 as a “Seaman,” though his voyaging days were over. The pride black men felt in being identified as seamen is evident in the possessions left by Henry Robinson, a black laborer who died in Boston in 1849. Robinson owned the clothing, chairs, and stove that one would expect, but he also lived among a stock of curios that seem to have been collected at sea. Cases of “sea shells of several kinds,” “two coral baskets,” “one statue,” “one toy ship,” a series of pictures, and “two african swords and arrows” perpetuated images of a life considerably more exotic than the one that ended in a down-at-the heels Boston tenement house.

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

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