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CR: The New Centennial Review 3.1 (2003) 147-178

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Mercantile Exchanges, Mercantilist Enclosures:
Racial Capitalism in the Black Mariner Narratives of Venture Smith and John Jea

David Kazanjian
Queens College, City University of New York

The historical development of world capitalism was influenced in a most fundamental way by the particularistic forces of racism and nationalism. This could only be true if the social, psychological and cultural origins of racism and nationalism both anticipated capitalism in time and formed a piece with those events which contributed directly to its organization of production and exchange.

—Cedric J. Robinson1

. . . the connection between nationalism and racism is neither a matter of perversion (for there is no "pure" essence of nationalism) nor a question of formal similarity, but a question of historical articulation. . . . This is to say, by the very same token, that the articulation of nationalism and racism cannot be disentangled by applying classical schemas of causality, whether mechanistic (the one as the cause of the other, "producing" the other according to the rule of the proportionality of the effects to the cause) or spiritualistic (the one "expressing" the other, or giving it its meaning or revealing its [End Page 147] hidden essence).. . . We must add one remark in conclusion to this hypothesis. Articulation—even complementarity—does not mean harmony.

—Etienne Balibar 2

Recent historical research has documented the striking rise of black men employed in seafaring industries on the North Atlantic during the eighteenth century, and their similarly striking decline during the nineteenth century. 3 Between 1740 and 1820, we see large numbers of North Atlantic black men, both free and enslaved, going to sea as common sailors, and occasionally as mates and captains. This rise is also reflected in black Atlantic literature, as nearly every text written during this period plots labor on the deep sea or coastal waters. 4 Both these recent historical studies and the black Atlantic literature indicate that eighteenth-century sea labor was not as racially hierarchized as shore labor. In fact, the dramatic increase in legal and extra-legal racism in North America during the eighteenth century seems to have pushed many black men and women to coastal urban centers where women could obtain shore work and men could go to sea, together forming strong social, political, and economic units in the orbit of sea ports. 5

In turn, it appears that by the beginning of the nineteenth century, racial codification and exploitation had begun to spill into the North Atlantic. For instance, in 1796 the U.S. government began requiring that mariners carry Seaman's Protection Certificates attesting to their national identity. Yet black sailors were systematically denied these papers, and so were denied whatever meager protections they provided. In addition, the U.S. Navy stopped enlisting blacks in 1799. Perhaps most devastatingly, the Negro Seamen Acts, which began in South Carolina in 1822 and quickly spread to all the other Southern states, required that black sailors be imprisoned while their ships docked in Southern ports. 6 W. Jeffrey Bolster has estimated that at least 10,000 black sailors were incarcerated under these Acts. 7 In addition, agents in ports who hired seamen became powerful middlemen in the 1820s and '30s, and institutionalized "white first" hiring in the U.S. maritime industry. 8 Also, after the 1820s, legal restrictions on black ownership of and command over maritime vessels intensified, ending the rare success stories of [End Page 148] merchant mariner families such as the Cuffes, the Fortens, and the Wainers, and precluding future black upward mobility within this sector. 9

However, some of the research documenting this trend tends uncritically to suggest that the relative egalitarianism on the sea in the eighteenth century was mutually inconsistent with or contradicted by the racism that drove black men off the sea in the nineteenth century. 10 Take, for instance, Bolster's important 1997 study, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Writes Bolster at the beginning of his text, "Moral complacency and...


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