in the first half of the 1800s, and African-Americans went to sea in large numbers, mostly from northern states.
It was aboard the Quaker whaling ships that Native American and African-Americans played important roles. Local tribes taught the Quakers how to harpoon whales and the African-Americans were hired because they were up to the task.
Stories are told of an Indian whale-hunting technique, where the hunter leapt onto the back of a passing whale and drove a wooden plug into its blow hole, suffocating the animal. The site must have caused a few green hands to shrink from the rail and consider career options. However, the basic tool, which had been devised by Native Americans, and which became the standard of the industry, was the harpoon with a detachable barb. But this fact, and the African-Americans willingness to work, did not affect the size of their share of the catch. Theirs was usually among the smallest, sometimes 1/250th. Required to buy their gear at the company store, it was not unheard off for a whaleman to come back from three years at sea owing the company money.
Whaleship owners were notoriously exploitive of crews, but slaves or freedmen had few other choices. A few managed to come out ahead. Many more did better working in the yards that built and maintained the whaleships.
The shipping industry and maritime culture was less restrictive, in some ways, than those on shore. Finding land to own, or a job to hold, remained difficult for freed slaves after the Revolution and the Civil War. Going to sea was a job, but for some it was also a means of escaping slavery. Running away from slavery was common, but literally running overland was dangerous. Aboard ship, escape might be complete as soon as the anchor was hauled. It has been said that if there was an underground railroad, it was in the form of a sailing ship, because so many slaves escaped aboard ships. Runaways often found African-Americans among the crew who were willing to help them. The ship might be a long-term home or just transportation north.
The former slave, famed public speaker, and leading abolishionist, Frederick Douglas, worked as a ship caulker in New Bedford. Douglas had escaped slavery in Maryland wearing a freed friends sailors clothes and used the friends protection papers to get to New Bedford. Douglas came north by train, but worked caulking whalers when a Quaker Society of Friends member got him the job.
The admiralty laws and maritime culture that made it easier for African-Americans to work and succeed at sea, also made life at sea more like slavery for free men. Rules were sharply defined, strictly enforced, and infractions harshly punished. Whipping was a standard punishment. A captain could trade crew members with other captains. Movement ashore was often restricted by port regulations. Sailors were considered a breed apart, and so treated by some governments. Liberty meant just that freedom from the ship.
Census records from Portland, Maine, indicate there were several African-Americans living there around 1850, whose occupation was seaman, with their particular positioncook, carpenter, sail makerstated.
Maine didnt have a large African-American population, but their numbers in Portland were disproportionate to both the rest of the state and other coastal towns. The 1850 census listed 67 in maritime-related occupations. Portland was a major port, where many sailors arrived, and some stayed. The state was known to be opposed to slavery from very early days, and this may have made staying more probable for some, at least before the Civil War. During the Civil War, 75 African-Americans, from Wells to Eastport, are documented as having served in the Union Navy.
There was a small presence of blacks in towns along the coast who lived, worked, and in some cases, operated businesses. In the late 1700s, Thomas Frazer settled in what is today Winter Harbor, Maine. There he made salt and sold it to passing ships from a place on shore named after him, Frazer Point.
Maine was not home to most African-American sailors, but most African-American sailors probably sailed on Maine-built ships. By the middle of the 1800s, Maine was the largest producer of ships in America. Nathaniel Palmer of Bath built and operated several schooners in the late 1800s. The opinionated Palmer injected himself into decisions about every aspect of the operation of his large business. They ranged from details of the construction of a wheel house to the racial composition of a crew. Palmer may have considered African-Americans equally skilled and capable, but he insisted on either all black crews, all white crews, or separate quarters for mixed-race crews. This was not the norm historically, but it was a sign of the times. In some ways, things had deteriorated at sea in the 100 years since the Revolution.
As the country, the economy and shipping changed, so did the role of African-American seafarers. After the Civil War, there were many more African-Americans who could go to sea. At the same time, the large schooner with its smaller crew was becoming the ship of choice. The transcontinental railroad was built, creating the first credible competition for shippers. Toward the end of the 1800s, large numbers of Europeans arrived, increasing competition for jobs on ships and in shipyards. Diminishing the rights gained in the Civil War was increased racial discrimination. Soon after the turn of the century, the age of sail ended. The result of it all was a declining presence of African-Americans at sea, in shipyards, and apparently in some of the museums since built on the vacant wharfs.