Literary scholar Hester Blum proposes that the sea should become central to critical conversations about global movements, relations, and histories. Indeed “the sea provides a new epistemology and new dimension for thinking about surfaces, depths, and the extra-terrestrial dimensions of planetary resources and relations.” Since “oceanic studies is invested in assessing and moving beyond the limitations inherent in considering literary and cultural works as national products,” it allows us to reconsider the mobility of past agents with broadened perspective.
In terms of nineteenth century seafaring men who were former slaves, the sea allowed for “the best opportunity to earn a living beyond the reach of slave catchers and color prejudice.” These men had “embraced errantry or taking to the sea as the closest thing to freedom they could experience.”
When Dionne Brand lyrically composed “I don’t want no f***ing country, here, or there and all the way back, I don’t like it, none of it, easy as that,” she echoed the weariness of existence in hostile communities on land. Nineteenth century seafaring men re-appropriated the very vessel that brought their enslaved ancestors to the Americas and that began what would become the struggle between slavery and freedom.
The painting featured above was completed in 1884, and the subject, an Antwerp port sailor, caught the eye of artist Lovis Corinth. Where did Othello come from? We may never know. A crew list search on Ancestry.com under their Travel and Immigration category returns only one Othello of African-descended origin, and this was not the Othello featured in the painting as “Othello Hill,” the one name that search returned was born in 1882. The Othello in the painting may have come from the Americas or possibly may have emigrated from a country in Europe. Then again, Othello may not be the subject’s real name. The artist Lovis Corinth may have ascribed the iconic Shakespearean character to the sailor’s visage.
Black Sailors: Moses Grandy
The above document is a copy of a section from the Abstract of Colored Seamens Certificates from the Colored Seamen’s Certificates List, National Archives and Records Administration. It is a historical trace that reveals a tarnished genealogy concerning the life of formerly enslaved canal laborer Moses Grandy.
The strange and perilous journey of making freedom through the spaces and built environment that Grandy traversed across and entered were at times gloomy but doubtless spectacular. He was a great traveler, entering regions within the swamp inaccessible to most and then after purchasing his freedom journeys all the way to the urban cobblestone streets of Boston and beyond.
In Moses Grandy’s narrative of enslavement, his remembrances of his time as a waterman moving shingle flatboats up and down the Great Dismal Swamp Canal, considered alongside the trauma of his experiences in slavery, reveal a life of tragedy with flickers of promise upon gaining his freedom. In Moses Grandy’s narrative, his remembrances of swamp labor inform how dreadful enslaved life was and contributed to the collective suffering that went on in the Great Dismal Swamp among the enslaved community forced to labor there.
Moses Grandy: Life Before Freedom
Born in 1786 on a farm owned by slaveholder William Grandy in Camden County, North Carolina Moses Grandy learned as a child how difficult life was for an enslaved person. Of his early life Grandy writes,
“I was the youngest. I remember well my mother often hid us all in the woods, to prevent master selling us. When we wanted water, she sought for it in any hole or puddle formed by falling trees or otherwise: it was often full of tadpoles and insects: she strained it, and gave it round to each of us in the hollow of her hand. For food, she gathered berries in the woods, got potatoes, raw corn. After a time the master would send word to her to come in, promising, he would not sell us. But at length persons came who agreed to give the prices he set on us. His wife, with much to be done, prevailed on him not to sell me; but he sold my brother, who was a little boy. My mother, frantic with grief, resisted their taking her child away: she was beaten and held down.”
Here Grandy discloses his mother’s determination to keep her children with her, opposing the profit-driven designs of slaveholder William Grandy who, as this quote shows, could not be safely relied upon for keeping his word. This reminiscence also exemplifies how enslaved people, particularly enslaved women, found ways to adapt to the swamp’s ruggedness by nourishing themselves with nature’s bounty found within.
Ultimately, the swamp embodies the promise of freedom as a site of possible refuge, but also the horrors of the slavery regime itself, just as the ship at sea does.
Grandy’s narrative is part of the vast array of antislavery discourse that proliferated throughout the antebellum period, and the proceeds from the narrative were meant to secure funds to purchase the freedom of his family members who were still enslaved.
No Easy Walk to Freedom: Grandy in Boston
"At Boston I went to work at sawing wood, sawing with the whip- saw, labouring in the coal yards, loading and unloading vessels, & c. After labouring in this way for a few months, I went on voyage to St. John’s in Porto Rico (sic), with Captain Cobb, in the schooner, New Packet. On the return voyage, the vessel got ashare on Cape Cod: we left her after doing in vain what we could to right her; she was afterwards recovered.
"I went several other voyages, and particularly two to the Mediterranean. The last was to the East Indies, in the ship James Murray, Captain Woodbury; owner, Mr. Gray. My entire savings up to the period of my return from this voyage amounted to 300 dollars; I sent it to Virginia, and bought(the freedom of)my wife.”
Here Grandy reveals how his pursuits in employment had been as dogged as they had been when he was enslaved in North Carolina trying to purchase his freedom. Now the task at hand was to purchase the freedom of his wife, who was still held in bondage in Virginia. Grandy succeeded, and if the information on the seamens certificate is correct, they had a son named Thomas, who was born after his wife had arrived in Boston to be reunited with him. The seamens certificate reveals a tarnished family genealogy ripped apart from slavery.
This image of the abstract of the seamen’s certificate provides information on a number of sailors, including Grandy. Name, height, town of birth, and seamen certificate number are listed alongside each sailor’s name. His son Thomas Grandy is listed beneath his name and this demonstrates how life at sea was a viable mode of employment for formerly enslaved people fleeing the south. Grandy would want his son to have access to an occupation that could provide assured pay as well as allow him to see the world beyond the confines of land.
The original intent of Congress in authorizing seamens protection certificates in 1796 was to protect American seamen from impressment, primarily by the British Navy, a practice which led to the War of 1812. When the seamen were freed and applied for protection, they recounted tales of impressment by the British on the high seas and to foreign ports.
In considering the abstract of seamen’s certificate, we can find traces of their use in Frederick Douglass’s narrative published in 1892:
"But I had one friend- - a sailor- - who owned a sailor's protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers- - describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which at once gave it the appearance of an authorized document. This protection did not, when in my hands, describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start... one element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other seaports at the time, towards "those who go down to the sea in ships." "Free trade and sailors' rights" expressed the sentiment of the country just then. In my clothing I was rigged out in sailor style. I had on a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion, carelessly and loosely about my neck. My knowledge of ships and sailor's talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern, and from keelson to cross- trees, and could talk sailor like an "old salt." On sped the train, and I was well on the way to Havre de Grace before the conductor came into the negro car to collect tickets and examine the papers of his black passengers."
Douglass is describing how he was able to use the seamens certificate to gain a range of mobility denied to the enslaved. In becoming the sailor, Douglass became part of the “fraternity of sail,” and with that tarpaulin hat and black cravat, the course of history was changed.
In terms of the literary canon, Moby Dick is a much admired classic, and throughout the text we see slithers of life at sea through the eyes of the characters, namely Ishmael. Before embarking on his impending whaling voyage, he attends a chapel in New Bedford. He shares with us the inscriptions on an array of memorial tablets there:
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF JOHN TALBOT, Who, at the age of eighteen, was lost overboard, Near the Isle of Desolation, off Patagonia, November 1st, 1836. THIS TABLET Is erected to his Memory BY HIS SISTER.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF ROBERT LONG, WILLIS ELLERY, NATHAN COLEMAN, WALTER CANNY, SETH MACY, AND SAMUEL GLEIG, Forming one of the boats' crews OF THE SHIP ELIZA Who were towed out of sight by a Whale, On the Off- shore Ground in the PACIFIC, December 31st, 1839. THIS MARBLE Is here placed by their surviving SHIPMATES.
SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF The late CAPTAIN EZEKIEL HARDY, Who in the bows of his boat was killed by a Sperm Whale on the coast of Japan, August 3d, 1833. THIS TABLET Is erected to his Memory BY HIS WIDOW.
Here Ishmael describes the memorial tablets and is compelled to confront the reality of his own mortality. In spite of the morbidity of the occasion, he resolves that he shall sail nonetheless. Such a determination is emblematic of the pursuit of a vocation to supply oneself with the material benefit of an assured income, but also a need to tear oneself away from the emotional resonances found in the constraints of life on land.
Hester Blum has written on sailor’s literary culture and the epistemology of maritime narratives. Blum discusses how “maritime work was precarious in more ways than one. Maritime labor was deadly, with potential for accidents, storms, disease and drowning. Their work may have been divided into shifts, but sailors were nonetheless subject to the erratic and inexorable demands of the weather.”
African descended seamen in the nineteenth century overwhelmingly were placed into roles such as cabin boys, musicians, stewards and cooks. In this way the ship mirrored the social locations of roles within menial capacities afforded to blacks on land. Yet for Moses Grandy, life at sea was a means to an end. He needed the assurance of a decent wage, so that he could purchase his wife’s freedom.
It is ironic that the sea should become a vastness symbolizing opportunity and the ship the site of economic benefit, when the ship had historically been the conduit for transporting enslaved captives to the Americas. In thinking about this tension, it is important to point out how the concept of enslaved captives as commodities, objects and units for the wider protocapitalist project of slavery influences the way African descended people appear in the archive.
But for those men who ventured at sea in the nineteenth century, their lot was cast with the ebb and flow of the ocean.
That vastness symbolized a set of dictates all its own. In viewing nineteenth century life at sea through the eyes of the sailors who traveled across it, we gain the vistas of interpretation captured through the lens of oceanic studies.