- The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina
Historians have understood the shaping impact of the maritime world on North American slavery for some time. Virtually every American history survey text [End Page 800] includes maps showing the concentration of slaves along the oceans and inland waterways of antebellum America. From the earliest days of slavery until emancipation, slaves lived and worked in close proximity to water transportation.
Given the centrality of water commerce to the history of slavery, it is remarkable that historians have been slow to conceptualize the meaning of this water orientation for African Americans. In the voluminous literature on slavery no historian has fully addressed the basic question: how did the maritime world shape the experience of North American slaves and free blacks? David S. Cecelski’s history of maritime North Carolina is the first full-scale study to address this important matter. His answers highlight slaves’ remarkable opportunities for independent action in the maritime world. Without underplaying the harshness of the slave experience, he argues that slave and free black maritime workers provided the slave community with material subsistence and possibilities for liberty.
One of the key themes of the book is that the experience of maritime work varied. While a growing body of scholarship focuses on black sailors on the high seas, Cecelski’s subjects work in a variety of jobs, most of which are closer to shore. In addition to revealing the lives of black schooner and lightermen, Cecelski discusses canal building, bateaux boating, rafting, levee work, and various kinds of fishing. Cecelski shows the difficulty of this work. His chapter on canal building makes the reader feel the horror of slavery. Wading in waist deep water in the swamps of coastal North Carolina, slaves were expected to clear trees, logs, and a jungle of vegetation, all the while evading insects and poisonous snakes. At the end of the day, slaves often slept unprotected in the mud. Even fishing was extremely arduous. While Cecelski illustrates the freeing mobility of fishermen and the significant impact of fish on the larger slave community’s diet, he also shows the dangers of diving for oysters in the dead of winter. In the herring, rockfish, and shad fisheries, which flourished seasonally in the estuaries of the coast, slaves dove into murky waters to clear river bottoms of branches and stumps in order to create clear pathways for their nets. When manual methods failed, they used dangerous explosives.
Cecelski stresses the diversity of the African American maritime pursuits, but he shows that a culture of resistance connected them all. This resistant culture was shaped by a fluid network of contacts that connected the various sectors of the maritime world to each other and to shoreside slaves. Watermen were inherently worldly, even if they were just local fishermen. Ports such as Wilmington, New Bern and Camden provided a meeting place for slaves hungry for news and information. One of Cecelski’s strongest chapters describes the importance of this maritime network to the success of slave escapes. Cecelski describes, with a precision absent in the literature, how slave escape networks connected plantations and coastal cities of Atlantic schooners. Black sailors helped runaways stow-away to freedom, risking imprisonment to challenge slavery.
Cecelski attempts to trace this culture of resistance into the eras of the Civil War and Reconstruction. His chapter on the war years brilliantly argues that slave waterman were important in bringing about Union victory and emancipation. By guiding federal vessels in occupied coastal North Carolina, serving in the [End Page 801] Union navy, and spreading word of federal invasions inland, Cecelski shows the continued role of the maritime culture of resistance. Less successful is his description of Reconstruction. While the strength of this book is its attention to maritime work culture, Cecelski leaves this world during the Reconstruction era to tell the story of Abraham Galloway, a former slave who served in the North Carolina senate during Radical...