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Black Sailor Stories and the Pacific

From Africa To The American West
August 2005
The Far-Far West, Part 2 - Black Sailor Stories and the Pacific.

I started this article intending to write about the Civil War in the west and people of African descent, but while researching the Confederate ship "Shenandoah" in the Arctic in 1865, the article took a twist to tales of the sea, so for those who may have enjoyed the first Far-Far West article on whatever level, I return with The Far-Far West, Part 2 - Black Sailors and the Pacific.

The three segments of this article will deal with persons of African descent who were at sea during three timeframes: The War of 1812, the end of the Civil War in 1865, and the last days of whaling around 1880. I can't say that the stories aren't embellished or biased by the authors who wrote them, but they are non-fiction. As is typical, I like to include the excerpts in their original context, and in these cases, I think they are more compelling from the author's pen than paraphrased by me.

I'll begin with the story of an un-named Black sailor described in an incident witnessed by Captain David Porter of the U.S. Navy during the War Of 1812 on an island somewhere in the Galapagos. Porter wrote a journal telling his story while he was in command of the frigate " Essex " in 1812-1814. He engaged in action in the Pacific largely on his own, taking several British ships as prizes. One Galapagos Island had a station known as "Pat's Landing," named for an eccentric island recluse, and Captain Porter recorded an altercation between Patrick and a Black sailor left to guard the landing boat of another American ship, the following excerpt tells the story as Captain David Porter witnessed it:
Journal of a Cruise Made to the Pacific Ocean …
Porter, Captain David

"...He (Patrick) by some means became possessed of an old musket, and a few charges of powder and ball; and the possession of this weapon probably first stimulated his ambition. He felt himself strong as the sovereign of the island, and was desirous of proving his strength on the first human being that fell in his way, which happened to be a negro, who was left in charge of a boat belonging to an American ship that had touched there for refreshments. Patrick came down to the beach where the boat lay, armed with his musket, now become his constant companion, directed the negro, in an authoritative manner, to follow him, and on his refusal, snapped his musket at him twice, which luckily missed fire. The negro, however, became intimidated, and followed him. Patrick now shouldered his musket, marched off before, and on his way up the mountains exultingly informed the negro he was henceforth to work for him, and become his slave, and that his good or bad treatment would depend on his future conduct. On arriving at a narrow defile, and perceiving Patrick off his guard, the negro seized the moment, grasped him in his arms, threw him down, tied his hands behind, shouldered him, and carried him to his boat, and when the crew had arrived he was taken on board the ship. An English smuggler was lying in the harbour at the same time, the captain of which sentenced Patrick to be severely whipped on board both vessels, which was put in execution, and he was afterwards taken on shore handcuffed by the Englishmen,"

As eccentric as Patrick was, he was essential as well. Patrick was noted as farming crops and being the supplier for other goods needed by ships that stopped at his landing.

The next story brings us fifty years ahead into the last days of the Civil War. The High Seas front of the Civil War shows us how international the Civil War had become, with countries like France, Scotland, England and Australia all taking stands and providing clandestine support for one side or the other. I discussed in another article of how one Negro and two Mulatto sailors from the Azores served in the Union Navy. The Confederate Ship "Shenandoah" also had its share of multi-cultural diversity, sailors from Ireland, Hawaii, Germany, the Philippines, and even New York. The Shenandoah also had at least four seamen of African descent as listed from a tribunal that was held in Geneva after the war to determine if England would be held responsible for providing the ship to the Confederacy. Those seamen of African descent were, Joseph Steveson, John Williams, Charles Hopkins, and Edward Wicks, also mentioned as Edward Weeks. The private journal of Midshipman John T. Mason provides a view of Edward Wicks as he tended to the death of a person he was listed to as a servant. Whether the term servant in this context was synonymous with slave was a servant or slave should not be left to assumption, as there is some suggestion that Wicks was paid. The following excerpts provide some insight:


Introductions to our family

"...he (Baltriune Canning) was accompanied on board by an older Negro servant named Edward Weeks/ Wickes to whom he was very close and for whom he insisted on equal pay; he said he was wounded at Shiloh, as an Aide de Camp for General Polk (but no record exists of him there); he died on board ship Oct. 30, 1865, of phthisis, and was buried at sea with a Roman Catholic ceremony."

Private Journal of John T. Mason, Midshipman

"...Monday Oct. 30th. __ S rainy disagreeable day__ Poor Canning died this afternoon quite suddenly, that is although he has been declining gradually, getting worse every day, still we hoped he would last until we got into port. I saw the porr fellow for a few moments this morning & then he seemed to me stronger than he was a few days before. About four o'clock he sent his servant for me but the stupid fellow could not find me, he even sent for me a second time the negro told me this after his death. Although I was sitting quietly in the ward=room, I heard nothing of all this & the first intimation I had of his death was from the doctor, who went down to seem him about half past five o'clock & found him dying, already to weak to speak: when I went down he was quite dead. I saved a lock of hair from his head in case I should be able to find his friends."

The Confederate ship Shenandoah literally destroyed New England's Whaling fleet from the South Pacific, including Pohnpei, to the Arctic. From a point of combat, the logic was that whaling was as an important economic institution to the North as cotton was to the South.

The next and final tale is one that was not obscure, but reported as required reading for the Boy Scouts in the early part of the 20th century. I found this story, "The Cruise of the Cachalot Round the World After Sperm Whales," by Frank T. Bullen(1857-1915), to be part comedy and part super action hero when Bullen describes his first meeting with and a later altercation involving a Black sailor he called Goliath. As I include these next excerpts, I remind you again that these recollections are listed as non-fiction:


Excerpt 1) the meeting:
".... A motley crowd they were. I had been used in English ships to considerable variety of nationality; but here were gathered, not only the representatives of five or six nations, but 'long-shoremen of all kinds, half of whom had hardly ever set eyes on a ship before! The whole space was undivided by partition, but I saw at once that black men and white had separated themselves, the blacks taking the port side and the whites the starboard.

On board ship, especially American ships, the first requisite for a sailor who wants to be treated properly is to "show willing," any suspicion of slackness being noted immediately, and the backward one marked accordingly. I had hardly reached the deck when I was confronted by a negro, the biggest I ever saw in, my life. He looked me up and down for a moment, then opening his ebony features in a wide smile, he said, "Great snakes! why, here's a sailor man for sure! Guess thet's so, ain't it, Johnny?" I said "yes" very curtly, for I hardly liked his patronizing air; but he snapped me up short with "yes, SIR, when yew speak to me, yew blank lime-juicer. I'se de fourf mate ob dis yar ship, en my name's Mistah Jones, 'n yew, jest freeze on to dat ar, ef yew want ter lib long'n die happy. See, sonny." I SAW, and answered promptly, "I beg your pardon, sir, I didn't know." Ob cawse yew didn't know, dat's all right, little Britisher; naow jest skip aloft 'n loose dat fore-taupsle." "Aye, aye, sir," I answered cheerily, springing at once into the fore-rigging and up the ratlines like a monkey, but not too fast to hear him chuckle, "Dat's a smart kiddy, I bet." I had the big sail loose in double quick time, and sung out "All gone, the fore-taupsle," before any of the other sails were."

Excerpt 2) The Altercation:

"...Our task was over for the day, a goodly store of wood and casks of water having been shipped. We were sitting down to supper, when, in answer to a hail from the beach, we were ordered to fetch the liberty men. When we got to them, there was a pretty how-d'ye-do. All of them were more or less drunk, some exceedingly quarrelsome. Now, Mistah Jones was steering our boat, looking as little like a man to take sauce from a drunken sailor as you could imagine. Most of the transformed crowd ya-hooing on the beach had felt the weight of his shoulder-of-mutton fist, yet so utterly had prudence forsaken them that, before we came near them, they were abusing him through all the varied gamut of filthy language they possessed. My democratic sentiments are deeply seated, but I do believe in authority, and respect for it being rigidly enforced, so this uncalled-for scene upset me, making me feel anxious that the gibbering fools might get a lesson. They got one.

Goliath stood like a tower, his eyes alone betraying the fierce anger boiling within. When we touched the beach, his voice was mild end gentle as a child's, his movements calm and deliberate. As soon as we had beached the boat he stepped ashore, and in two strides was in the middle of the snarling group. Further parley ceased at once. Snatching the loudest of them by the breast of his shirt with his right hand, another one by the collar with his left, he flung himself backwards towards the boat, knocking the interveners right and left. But a protruding fragment of rock caught his heel, bringing him with his captives to the ground in a writhing mass. The rest, maddened beyond restraint of fear, flung themselves upon the prostrate man, the glimmer of more than one knife-blade appearing. Two of us from the boat--one with the tiller, the other brandishing a paddle--rushed to the rescue; but before we arrived the giant had heaved off his assailants, and, with no other weapons than his bare hands, was doing terrific execution among them. Not knowing, I suppose, whether we were friendly to him or not, he shouted to us to keep away, nor dare to interfere. There was no need. Disregarding such trifles as a few superficial cuts--not feeling them perhaps--he so unmercifully mauled that crowd that they howled again for mercy. The battle was brief and bloody. Before hostilities had lasted five minutes, six of the aggressors were stretched insensible; the rest, comprising as many more, were pleading for mercy, completely sober. Such prowess on the part of one man against twelve seems hardly credible; but it must be remembered that Goliath fought, with all the moral force of the ship's officers behind him, against a disorganized crowd without backbone, who would never have dared to face him but for the temporary mania induced by the stuff they had drunk. It was a conflict between a lion and a troop of jackals, whereof the issue was never in doubt as long as lethal weapons were wanting.
Standing erect among the cowering creatures, the great negro looked every inch a mediaeval hero. In a stern voice he bade his subjugated enemies to get into the boat, assisting those to do so who were too badly hurt to rise. Then we shoved off for the ship--a sorrowful gang indeed."
Copyright © 2001, Robert Mutch

This altercation apparently occurred at Port Lloyd, on one of the Bonin Islands near Japan around 1875, Iwo Jima is also part of that island chain. Frank T. Bullen seemed to have developed a measure of respect and friendship towards “Mistah Jones,” also known as Goliath in their four-year odyssey at sea. Westernization had already seeded in parts of those islands before the 20th century and this reading may give some insight as to why we were at Iwo Jima during W.W. II. I also should mention that Bullen discusses the Cape Verdean whalers on the ship and how they kept to themselves until they neared the Cape Verde Islands.
There have been many articles written about Black sailors who have been on the Pacific since the times of early Spanish America. There are also more exciting stories of specific events involving Black sailors in history which I have not included, especially during the Civil War.
Thanks for reading, Allen L. Lee

18 Dec 2002 :: 14 Nov 2008
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