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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 218-220

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Book Review

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail

Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. By W. JEFFREY BOLSTER. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. Pp. xiii + 310. $27.00 (cloth); $14.95 (paper).

W. Jeffrey Bolster's book, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, is an attempt to add a particular nuance to the recent challenges of the once standard narrative of slavery as a system of constant, direct supervision and mindless toil for all slaves on plantations. Bolster's investigation of slave laborers and emancipated blacks employed in the water transportation trade finds workers in and out of slavery who were independent, worldly, and highly skilled. Bolster is not the first historian to make these assertions, but Black Jacks does stand out as a landmark: the first published history of the American black men that documents their lives as sailors in a broadly conceived Atlantic world.

Bolster's account begins by establishing that, from the earliest days of slavery in the Americas, there were black bondsmen employed as sailors on oceangoing vessels. European and later colonial reliance on African watermen began with the canoemen of Africa and extended to deep-sea voyaging sailors as well as local boatmen transporting goods on the internal waterways and coastal passages of the Caribbean and North America. These seamen were able to straddle the lines between slavery and freedom, and between isolation and worldliness. Unlike their plantation counterparts, slave sailors were appreciated for their skills and rewarded with respect and privilege meted out by white captains and fellow sailors. Thus, according to Bolster, black sailors gained a sense of achievement that many slaves, and later free blacks, were unable to experience. Indeed, Bolster argues that it was the northern free black population that found the most benefit from an occupation at sea. The pay and treatment by white coworkers was far better than land work. In addition, northern black sailors could aid their southern neighbors in flight from slavery and keep them informed of northern antislavery activities, slave rebellions, and political events. The central argument in Black Jacks is that all of these advantages and opportunities were available to slave or free black sailors, and that, in fact, their common employment throughout the Atlantic allowed them to create and shape a black Atlantic community from the 1700s until the 1830s.

In Bolster's account, he relies heavily on secondary sources, making his contribution one of synthesis rather than a work of purely original research. Aside from published firsthand accounts from black sailors such as Olaudah Equiano and a variety of European travelers in [End Page 218] Africa and the Americas, Bolster's primary sources are drawn from archival work that includes the use of crew lists for United States vessels (of little utility beyond establishing numbers of black sailors), the records of Dartmoor prison in England during the war of 1812, official Haitian records documenting black sailors seeking asylum, and small numbers of newspaper and manuscript records relating to United States slavery and seafaring. While these sources add some interesting vignettes to the broader narrative, Bolster's sparing use of them forces him to make broad inferences. He frequently resorts to the use of such unsupported statements as: "[There were] innumerable Yankee ships on which black men before the mast ranked higher and earned more than their white shipmates" (p. 76). Indeed, the lack of evidence for the black sailors' experiences leads Bolster to generalize about their lives based on the experiences of white sailors. Thus, the primary evidence he has gathered does not allow him to move beyond mere assertion regarding relatively privileged treatment for black sailors.

The reader is also left unsatisfied by Bolster's emphasis upon northern black seamen at the expense of southern slave and free watermen. Bolster is concerned primarily with northern black sailors who worked on the open sea rather than these more geographically contained mariners. By glossing over the...