David Cecelski

2003 SeasonCecelski

David S. Cecelski is an independent scholar living in Durham, North Carolina. A native of the North Carolina coast, he is author of several books, including Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina, and the Fate of Black Schools in the South, and coeditor of Democracy Betrayed: The Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 and Its Legacy.


Along Freedom Road: Hyde County, North Carolina and the Fate of Black Schools in the South (1994)
The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina (2001)


The Waterman's Song

In October 1830 Moses Ashley Curtis arrived at the mouth of the Cape Fear River aboard a schooner from Boston. The North Carolina coast would be the young naturalist's first landfall of his first voyage into the American South. Emptying into the Atlantic, the Cape Fear was a tumult of heavy waves, strong currents, and dangerous shoals. Passage across the inlet's bar and outer shoals was folly without a local pilot. The schooner's master raised a signal flag and beckoned toward the village of Smithville for a pilot to guide him into the river. Curtis soon spied a pilot boat under sail, breaking through the waves toward him. Approaching the schooner, the fast, elegant craft turned into the wind and drifted alongside the larger vessel. "They boarded us," Curtis wrote in his diary that day, "And what saw I? Slaves!--the first I ever saw."[1] Preface
The Waterman's Song

Guided into Smithville by the slave pilots, Curtis "found the wharf and stores crowded with blacks, noisy and careless." After a brief stay, his schooner sailed toward Wilmington, a seaport 25 miles upriver. Unbeknownst to Curtis, this leg of his voyage was like a descent through the Cape Fear past. He sailed by Sugar Loaf, the high sand dune where colonial militia led by Colonel Roger Moore were said to have conquered the last of the Cape Fear Indians.[2] He passed under Fort Johnston, with its oyster-shell-and-pitch-pine walls built by slaves in 1802.[3] Along the western bank of the Cape Fear River, Curtis peered into cypress swamps draped with Spanish moss. Here and there, hundreds of black hands had hewn out great rice plantations along the water's edge.

Everywhere Curtis saw slave watermen: harbor pilots, oystermen, the entire crew of the federal revenue cutter, plantation boatmen. Among them was "a boat full of blacks [that] came rowing by us," chanting a song "repeated ad infinitum and accompanied with a trumpet obligato by the helmsman."[4] Curtis scribbled the lyrics and a line of music in his diary: "O Sally was a fine girl, O Sally was a fine girl, O!" It was the refrain of a popular sea chantey, called "Sally Brown," that spoke longingly of a beautiful Jamaican mulatto. Lonely mariners sang "Sally Brown" throughout the Atlantic and half a world away in the Pacific at the same time that these boatmen crooned it on the Cape Fear.[5] Other black maritime laborers crowded Wilmington on Curtis's arrival, and in his diary he noted that "a boat came along side with three negroes who offered an alligator for sale."[6] Curtis had discovered the maritime South--and the central role of African Americans within it.

When I began this study, I was no less surprised than Curtis at the degree to which slave watermen marked maritime life in North Carolina. His words--"And what saw I? Slaves!"--could have been my own. Until recently, few historians have recognized the prevalence of generations of African American maritime laborers along the Atlantic coastline. Scholars have tended to view the black South mainly in terms of agricultural slave labor--picking cotton, cutting sugar cane, winnowing rice, or priming tobacco, for example--not trimming sails or casting nets. But in recent years a new generation of scholars has begun to explore (from different angles, in a variety of locations, and in a number of eras) the complex and important roles played by black watermen and sailors in the Atlantic maritime world.[7]

While this research has only now begun to touch on the American South, rather than on New England and the Caribbean, nowhere was the magnitude of African American influence on maritime life greater than along the perilous seacoast and vast estuaries that stretch a hundred miles from the Outer Banks into the interior of North Carolina.[8] Slave and free black boatmen were ubiquitous on those broad waters, dominating most maritime trades and playing a major role in all of them. The intertidal marshes, blackwater creeks, and brackish rivers that flowed into the estuaries also teemed with black watermen. Between 1800 and the Civil War, African Americans composed approximately 45 percent of the total population in North Carolina's nineteen tidewater counties.[9] They made up nearly 60 percent of the total population in its largest seaports.[10] The percentage of black men working full-time as fishermen or boatmen or in other maritime trades probably ranged from as little as 1 percent on the upper reaches of tidewater rivers to as much as 50 percent or more on the Outer Banks, but any firm estimate would be recklessly speculative and probably deceptive. Most coastal slaves worked on the water at least occasionally, whether it was rafting a master's timber to market once a year or fishing on the sly for their own suppers. Working on the water was a part of daily life for most tidewater slaves and their free brethren. Their preeminence in boating, fishing, and shipping can be seen again and again in contemporary newspapers, wills and estate records, plantation ledgers, ships' logs, court documents, and travel accounts.

I soon discovered that African American maritime laborers congregated in the wharf districts of every seaport, not merely Smithville and Wilmington, and their range and diversity far exceeded what Moses Ashley Curtis described in his diary. Along the Albemarle Sound, prodigious gangs of black fishermen wielded mile-and-a-half-long seines in what was the largest herring fishery in North America. Nearby, on the Roanoke River, slave bateaumen dared harrowing rapids and racing currents to transport tobacco from the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to seaports. Far to the east, at Portsmouth Island, slave crews piloted vessels through Ocracoke Inlet, lightered their cargoes, and then guided them to distant seaports on the other side of Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds. Their slave neighbors at Shell Castle Island, a shoal at Ocracoke Inlet, ranged up and down the Outer Banks with their nets in pursuit of jumping mullet and bottlenosed dolphins. In every port, slave stevedores trundled cargo on and off vessels, while shipyard workers in bondage built some of the sweetest-sailing cedar and white oak boats afloat. Still other slave watermen hawked firewood to steamers anchored in the Cape Fear at night, rafted lumber down the Lower Neuse River, guided duck hunting parties along the freshwater marshes of Currituck Sound, tonged for oysters on frigid winter days, poled shingle flats out of the Great Dismal Swamp, shoveled coal in the sweltering firerooms of steamboats, manned the sloops and schooners that traded both within and beyond North Carolina.

The breadth and complexity of this African American maritime culture stands out prominently in firsthand accounts of slavery. Of the seven authors of surviving narratives written by former slaves from tidewater North Carolina, four had been engaged in the maritime trades, another had a father who was a slave pilot, and maritime laborers played key roles in the escapes to freedom of the other two. The most compelling of these narratives are those of maritime laborers London Ferebee, Moses Grandy, and Thomas H. Jones. Growing up by Currituck Sound in the 1850s, Ferebee learned boatmanship from his father, one of many slaves employed in local shipyards, and from the slave crewmen on his master's sloop. He had learned to sail that vessel over some of the most dangerous shoals along the Carolina coast before his twelfth birthday, as well as mastered the fundamentals of bluewater navigation. "Even at night," he wrote in A Brief History of the Slave Life of Reverend London R. Ferebee (1882), "I could steer by the compass, or by any star."[11]

Two generations earlier, Moses Grandy worked in several maritime trades that he described in his Narrative of the Life of Moses Grandy, Late a Slave in the United States of America (1843). Over three decades, he operated a river ferry in Camden County, captained barges between Elizabeth City and Norfolk, and crewed a schooner on Albemarle Sound. After purchasing his freedom, he served on packets that ran along the eastern seaboard and eventually on brigs and schooners that sailed the high seas.[12]

Far to the south of Grandy's haunts, a Wilmington stevedore named Thomas H. Jones was no less a part of maritime life. In The Experience of Thomas H. Jones, Who Was a Slave for Forty-Three Years (ca. 1854), he chronicled how loading and unloading seagoing vessels exposed him daily to sailors and boatmen from up and down the Atlantic coast. He eventually used his position to identify a sea captain willing to transport his wife, Mary, and their three children to New York and later negotiated his own escape with a black sailor bound for the same city.[13] None of the three maritime careers was exceptional in that era. All highlight a lost African American maritime culture whose vitality and significance still speak to us.

In Zora Neale Hurston's lyrical novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, her heroine Janie is comparing love to the sea when she says, "It takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore," but she could just as well have been speaking of the lives of African American maritime laborers. As I waded through archival records in my research for The Waterman's Song, I was first struck merely by the sheer magnitude of African American involvement in maritime society. I soon realized, however, how remarkably varied maritime life was within North Carolina waters. A bustling seaport like Wilmington, a quiet river town like Camden, a remote piloting village like Portsmouth, a mullet fishing camp at Core Banks, and a canal-digging outpost in the Great Dismal Swamp represented virtually different maritime worlds. In them, race relationships and the degrees of slaves' independence, mobility, and access to the political and cultural currents of Atlantic shipping varied enormously. Yet, for all their diversity, maritime trade and travel also united the state's beaches, wharves, and pilot camps, so that the lives of black watermen, like magician's hoops, were simultaneously held together and apart, distinctive but interconnected too.

I gradually recognized common patterns in African American maritime life. No pattern emerged more forcefully than that of black watermen serving as key agents of antislavery thought and militant resistance to slavery. The nature of their labors frequently meant that they could not be supervised closely, if at all, for days or even weeks. For all their grueling toil and severe hardships, many maritime black laborers traveled widely, grew acquainted with slaves and free blacks over a wide territory, and dealt with seamen who connected them to the revolutionary politics that coursed the black Atlantic. Almost invariably, black watermen appeared at the core of abolitionist activity, slave insurrections, and other antislavery activism in North Carolina.[14] When a slave insurrection spread across the coastal plain in 1775, a black waterman named Merrick was one of the two main conspirators.[15] When another slave revolt, later known as Gabriel's Rebellion, swept southside Virginia and the Albemarle Sound vicinity in 1800, and again in 1802, slave rivermen directed the rebels, passing secret plans for the uprising along waterways.[16] In the aftermath of Nat Turner's bloody revolt in southside Virginia in 1831, dozens of maritime slaves at Portsmouth Island, North Carolina, absconded with a schooner and disappeared into the Atlantic, their escape foiled only by an ill-timed nor'easter.[17] In antebellum Wilmington, a slave harbor pilot named Peter was at the heart of a far-reaching conspiracy to help fugitive slaves board seagoing vessels bound for New England and Canada.[18] At the outbreak of the Civil War, black watermen led a massive boatlift of slaves from the state's interior to freedom in Union-occupied seaports and islands. Liberated slave watermen piloted Union vessels and shared their knowledge of local navigation, undercutting one of the few advantages held by Confederate forces--their familiarity with local waters.

Most black maritime laborers never led a slave rebellion or escaped into the Atlantic, yet collectively they still had a powerful hand in building a culture of slave resistance that shaped African American freedom struggles before, during, and after the Civil War. Reinforced by strong linkages to black communities elsewhere in the Atlantic world, this maritime political culture was grounded in the egalitarian ideals of the Enlightenment, in an evangelical theology that stressed the "natural rights" of all peoples before God, and in a homegrown brand of abolitionism born of the African American experience of slavery in and around southern ports. Not surprisingly, this culture emphasized racial equality, political freedom, and the sort of expansive communitarian values upon which coastal slaves had long staked their survival. These predominately illiterate people preserved their political vision in song, sermon, and saying, which eventually made its way onto the written page at first flush of formal learning.[19]

It was no accident that David Walker, born a free black and raised in the seaport of Wilmington, North Carolina, became a celebrated abolitionist pamphleteer. After Walker settled in Boston in the 1820s, he recruited sailors at his secondhand clothes shop to carry copies of his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World--one of the seminal treatises of American antislavery thought--throughout the South. As Peter Hinks has shown in his recent study of the Appeal, Walker arrived in Boston with his own abolitionist ideology in hand. He did not come under the spell of the more renowned white abolitionists of New England; he and his black colleagues, many of whom had roots in the maritime South, were the driving wedge of early abolitionism in the North. Walker's thoughtful, articulate, and militant call for armed resistance to slavery expressed the culture of slave resistance shaped by African Americans in the maritime districts of North Carolina and other southern states.

That spirit of militancy survived along the darkest edges of plantation society, but it burst into daylight during the Civil War. Beyond the African American watermen who boatlifted slaves out of Confederate territory, another revolutionary development unfolded within the Union-occupied seaports of the South. In these communities, maritime laborers, along with their families and neighbors, forged an African American politics that became decidedly independent of the Union cause by mid-1863 and projected a more expansive, democratic vision of the South's future into Reconstruction. That story will be told here through the mercurial life of Abraham H. Galloway (1837-70), who had been born a slave in the piloting village of Smithville. After escaping to Philadelphia aboard a schooner in 1857, Galloway returned to North Carolina at the outset of the Civil War as a Union spy and soon became an abolitionist leader in occupied New Bern. He played a leading role in organizing one of the first African American regiments in the South but refused to relinquish his recruits to the Union army until military commanders agreed to the soldiers' demands for racial justice and fair treatment. Determined that if the former slaves were denied political equality "at the ballot box, they would have it at the cartridge box," Galloway also organized chapters of the Equal Rights League in several Carolina ports in the last year of the war. In 1865, Galloway called one of the South's first political conventions of freedpeople. He later served as colonel of a black militia that fought the Ku Klux Klan, and he carried his "Jacobinical" politics and combative style into the state senate in North Carolina's first class of black legislators. In Galloway's life, we see the flowering, and ultimately the demise, of an insurgent political vision that emerged from the African American maritime society of the slave South.

The Waterman's Song explores African American maritime life in North Carolina over the course of a little less than a century, spanning the years from the consolidation of American slavery around 1800 to the last days of Reconstruction. This was the heyday of black maritime activity along the Atlantic seacoast and on the state's inland waters. My research looks mainly toward the shoreline, at slaves and free blacks who labored as boatmen, pilots, ferrymen, fishermen, sailors, and nautical artisans in ports and on the sounds, rivers, and creeks within maritime North Carolina, as well as in parts of the Atlantic accessible from shore by fishing boats and other small craft. Those maritime occupations, not deepwater sailing, were the mainstay of coastal life in North Carolina and, with the exception of a handful of seaports, all of the American South.

An exhilarating new wave of scholarship about black seafarers in the Atlantic also helped me to understand better how this local maritime culture was entangled with the Afro-Caribbean, with the work culture of seafaring men, and with revolutionary political tides that roiled the black Atlantic. Though I saw signs in the documentary record for every port that slaveholders feared the revolutionary ideology spread by black sailors, they would never have resonated for me if I had not read Julius Scott's powerful work on West Indian black sailors as agents of political communication during the Revolutionary era.[20] Similarly, I was able to put into historical context a distinctive strain of racial egalitarianism and antiauthoritarianism that I observed in some parts of the maritime culture of North Carolina because I was familiar with Jeffrey Bolster's groundbreaking research on the work culture of African American seafarers, mainly those sailing out of New England ports in the nineteenth century, as well as Marcus Rediker's compelling study of Anglo-American sailors in the seventeenth century.[21] Along with a number of other scholars who have recently examined elements of race and maritime society in New England ports, Scott, Bolster, and Rediker have revitalized American maritime history by viewing the staid old field anew through the lenses of race, class, and power. Their vision makes it possible for an almost literally provincial study like mine to carry expansive meanings, certainly for the American South and possibly for the Atlantic as a whole.[22]

While the historical events chronicled in these chapters occurred mostly in North Carolina, I intend to evoke the broader experience of the maritime South. The black maritime culture in seaports such as New Bern, Wilmington, and Beaufort was in many ways more similar to, and more in touch with, African American life in southern ports like Norfolk, Charleston, and Savannah than farm market towns only 30 miles inland. Antislavery militancy, for which North Carolina watermen were renowned, was certainly no less evident in Charleston, home of former cabin boy Denmark Vesey's famous revolt in 1822 and slave pilot Robert Small's commandeering of a Confederate vessel in 1862.[23] Similarly, slaveholders in other southern states felt no less threatened by black sailors and watermen than did those in North Carolina. Indeed, judging by the vigor with which they prosecuted black sailors under the Negro Seamen Acts, slaveholders in other parts of the South may have felt even more endangered by black salts.[24]

The watery pathway to freedom that I have chronicled in Chapter 5 ran through every port along the eastern seaboard, and a similar maritime escape route extended up and down the Mississippi River.[25] Likewise, canal labor varied little from the Great Dismal Swamp to the Louisiana bayous or the Georgia lowlands. The shad and herring fishery along the Albemarle Sound had only one comparable cousin, off the Chesapeake Bay, and the commercial mullet fishery between Bear Inlet and Ocracoke Inlet was unique. But slave fishing and boating were a deeply imbedded and important part of plantation life throughout the southern seacoast. There is obviously much more to learn about that vast seashore stretching from the Chesapeake Bay to the Texas Gulf, but the story of African American labor on North Carolina waters is at least a good starting point, and perhaps far more than that.

When I first began the research for this book, I had difficulty reconciling the enslaved status of African American watermen with what I knew of maritime labor in my childhood. I grew up among a seafaring and fishing people in a quiet tidewater community in North Carolina. A waterman's life was our greatest symbol of freedom and independence. As a child, I watched my elders cling tenaciously to their boats and their poverty rather than forsake their liberty for farming or factory jobs. I do not mean to draw a rigorous parallel between maritime life in the South in my day and before the Civil War, but this at least seemed clear to me from the outset: a waterman's life could exist only in a dynamic tension with a system of human bondage, at least in the tidal creeks, estuaries, and salt marshes within the Outer Banks and our other barrier islands. Navigating the region's shallow inlets and shifting shoals has always demanded a sharp mind and a free hand. A fisherman must rely on his own wits and intuition, not somebody else's orders, to guide the laying of a mullet net or a fish trap. And no boatman survives one of our nor'easters if he is not free to read weather and tide to his own reckoning. Above all, every waterman that I have ever known has a part of himself that is restless on land and belongs to the sea and its distant shores. If all this was no less true in an earlier era, then what, I wondered, did it mean for coastal slaves and their masters, for tidewater plantation society, and for the black struggle for freedom?

As I wrote The Waterman's Song, I often hummed the sea chantey sung by the black boatmen who passed Moses Ashley Curtis in 1830. Their version of "Sally Brown" reminded me of other, more recent chanteys that I heard when I was a child: the raucous songs hoisted by black menhaden fishermen as they hauled purse seines out of the Atlantic and the vibrant melodies sung by black women while they worked in Pamlico Sound crab canneries. Playful, reverent, or wistful, "Sally Brown" and these more recent songs helped pass the time and lighten the labor, but they also brought forth joy, hope, and a faith deepened by sorrow and affliction. Their singers' struggles, like the songs themselves, have deep roots in an African American maritime heritage that has nearly been forgotten. And no matter how much maritime life has changed from the slavery era to today, I will always suspect that African Americans, slave and free, found their hopes uplifted and their lives unbounded merely by the nearness of the sea, by working on the water, and by the vast horizon over Pamlico Sound and the Atlantic. I have never known a soul who did not.

From THE WATERMAN'S SONG: SLAVERY AND FREEDOM IN MARITIME NORTH CAROLINA by David S. Cecelski.  Copyright (c) 2001 by the University of North Carolina Press.  Used by permission of the publisher. www.uncpress.unc.edu