FULL ARTICLE: Blacks on the Waterfront
“Blacks on the New York Waterfront During the American Revolution”
Charles R. Foy © 2016
Commissioned by PortSide NewYork
The American Revolution created opportunities for some enslaved Blacks to obtain freedom. Self-interested economic and military reasons prompted the British to declare free, all enslaved blacks in America who joined them in New York harbor as Royal Navy seamen, British privateersmen or as laborers in the British Army - thus providing blacks with financial independence. But, in a foreshadowing of 20th century racial conflicts on New York’s waterfront, black maritime workers found themselves largely shut out of dockyard work due to white artisans’ resistance. At the same time black mariners serving on captured British ships often found themselves sold into slavery. When the war ended, the best option for most of the British-freed blacks was to flee away from the United States but for the vast majority of enslaved blacks a door to freedom was firmly shut.
During the eighteenth century life in Brooklyn was largely centered around agricultural activities. The jumble of wharves, piers, ropewalks and dockyards that lined the Brooklyn waterfront during the Age of Sail and into the twentieth century, such as Sand Brothers’ rope-walk at the foot of Old Ferry Road and Red Hook’s Atlantic Basin, were not yet part of the county’s landscape. Brooklyn’s agricultural products were often the result of slave labor; by 1790 over 30% of the county’s several thousand residents were slaves, most of whom worked on farms. Despite the agricultural nature of the county’s economy prior to the American Revolution, Brooklyn’s location facing the East River and New York Bay meant that many of its residents, black and white, were connected to and worked in New York’s maritime sector.
To get Brooklyn’s farm products to Manhattan markets ferries and roads were required. Beginning in 1642 ferries shuttled people and goods from Brooklyn Heights across to New York. In the eighteenth century these ferries operated under licenses issued by the Brooklyn corporation, typically for five-year terms. The ferries had broad boards, flat bottoms, and lacking keels, were navigated by oars. The ferrymen manning them were typically slaves. They included James Ramsey’s two slaves who drowned operating a ferry and a “Negro Fellow belonging to Mr. Samuel Waldron.” In relying upon enslaved ferrymen, Waldron and Ramsey were like other ferry operators throughout the British North American colonies. Black ferrymen could be found on the Arno and Stono Rivers in South Carolina, Virginia’s James, Potomac and Rappahanock rivers, the Delaware and Schuykill Rivers of Pennsylvania, the Connecticut River, the Charles River in Massachusetts, as well as on Narragansett and Oyster Bays. Waldron’s “Negro fellow” was but one of scores of black ferrymen who made it possible to connect distant settlements at a time when roads were limited and fairly primitive.
Long Island farmers transporting goods to Manhattan used the Old Ferry Road (Figure 1). It allowed farmers from Flatlands, Flatbush, and Queens to bring their goods by wagon to the Fulton Ferry landing. Farmers from Red Hook farms also brought their produce to the landing. There wagons, animals and passengers would be loaded onto ferries for the short but hazardous voyage across the East River. The Fulton Ferry landing not only served as a connector between farmers and markets, but also was a social hub for African American life. Enslaved peoples observed Pinkster, the Dutch version of Pentecost, at the ferry landing. During Pinkster observations blacks engaged in African songs and dances. In doing so, Brooklyn’s slaves maintained cultural connections to their ancestral homelands.
The ferries between Brooklyn and Manhattan also connected blacks to New York’s vibrant maritime economy. Anyone looking across the East River from the Brooklyn shoreline would have seen a literal forest of ship masts. In the decades prior to the American Revolution blacks, free and enslaved, were commonly employed on these ships and along the Manhattan waterfront as seamen, caulkers, ship carpenters, sail makers and stevedores. Nero Tindam, Cezar Carvey, Curasco Nicholls and twenty-one other Negroes employed “pumping” water out of the Juno in 1764 were hardly unusual among New York’s waterfront workforce. When Shier ran away in 1768 his skill as a caulker was noted in his master’s fugitive slave advertisement. The maritime skills of slaves were also frequently noted in slave sale ads, with enslaved workers described as “used to the sea” (Figure 2) or a “good Ship Caulker.”
Enslaved individuals understood that the port’s maritime economy provided opportunities for freedom. Ship owners, ship captains and maritime business operators when hiring workers were often more concerned with muscle and maritime skills than skin color or enslaved status. Almost one-quarter of New York City eighteenth century fugitive slave advertisements contained warnings to masters of vessels not to harbor or employ fugitive slaves. Efforts to restrict the steady stream of slave fugitives seeking freedom via New York’s maritime industry were largely unsuccessful. Neither laws which made it illegal for ship captains to assist runaways or slave masters’ warnings to ship masters that they would be prosecuted for carrying off or hiring fugitives stemmed the flow of runaways obtaining berths on ships sailing from New York. Simply stated, black workers were indispensable to the port’s bustling maritime economy and their critical role provided some of them with opportunities for freedom and independent lives.
The outbreak of the American Revolution changed both the nature and scope of blacks’ presence on the New York waterfront. Blacks could be found in each of New York’s three key maritime sectors – the Royal Navy, privateers, and the Royal Dockyard– during the American Revolution.
The Revolution created four factors that significantly changed the nature of blacks’ maritime experiences in New York: British offers of freedom to American slaves who fled to British forces; a steep increase in the need for maritime labor; a significant presence by the Royal Navy; and the enticement of economic independence from service on British privateers.
BRITISH OFFERS OF FREEDOM:
In what some historians have termed “brutal pragmatism,” British forces took steps to offer freedom to American slaves. They did so to weaken the rebels economically; after all, the wealth of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Patriot leaders was largely based upon enslaved labor. But British military commanders also offered liberty to enslaved individuals as a military tactic. Both sides to the conflict faced practical concerns about finding sufficient men to fight and the tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans were a not an insignificant source of fighting men.
In November 1775 Lord Dunmore, the Governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation that “all indented servants, Negroes, or others, (pertaining to Rebels,) [would be] free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops.” As a result of this proclamation hundreds of slaves in the Chesapeake fled their masters and sought to join British forces. British authorities organized some of them into the Ethiopian Regiment and others into the Black Pioneers.
Upon Dunmore and the British leaving Virginia and coming to New York they brought with them the Ethiopian Regiment and other formerly enslaved blacks. In the ensuing years of the war, whenever British forces, and particularly the Royal Navy, entered a region, blacks flocked to them. This resulted in a not inconsiderable number of former slaves being shuttled from southern colonies to New York. By way of example, consider HMS Brune. In February 1777 this naval ship brought to New York not less than fifty runaway slaves. For Nathan, Moll, Charles, Jenny, George, Gefrey and the other formerly enslaved African Americans on the Brune the naval ship was a taxicab to freedom. These and other blacks swarming to British lines joined an estimated 30,000 refugees jammed into the city, all seeking employment.
The pool of enslaved people eligible for freedom under Dunmore’s Proclamation was expanded when on June 30, 1779 Sir Henry Clinton issued the Phillipsburgh Proclamation. Clinton’s proclamation forbad anyone from selling or claiming any right in a slave the property of an American rebel who took refuge with the British army. Moreover, Clinton promised “to every Negroe Who shall desert the Rebel Standard, full Security to follow within these Lines, any Occupation which he shall think proper.” Although the actual number of American slaves who fled to British and found freedom is disputed, and as is detailed below, not “any Occupation” was open to ex-slaves arriving in New York, there can be no doubt that the Proclamation resulted in considerable migration of black mariners and black maritime workers to New York from southern colonies.
Although British promises of freedom drew more blacks to fight for the King, from the very beginning of British occupation of New York blacks were involved on both sides of the conflict. Thus, at the end of the Battle of Brooklyn, with George Washington’s forces in flight, it was Sutphin and another black slave who helped ferry to New Jersey Continental soldiers, who prior to their retreat had occupied lines from Jamaica Road in the northeast to Red Hook on the southwest.
In the years before the American Revolution the Royal Navy generally stationed a single frigate at New York. These frigates typically had a single deck of gunports, carried between twenty to twenty-four guns and had crews of between 100 and 160 men. Thus, although blacks, such as John Incobs, served on naval ships prior to the outbreak of the American Revolution, the numbers of black naval seamen in New York were limited due to the small presence of the Royal Navy. By August of 1776 when Admiral Richard Howe had three hundred warships and almost four hundred transports in New York harbor, the scale of naval operations in the port changed geometrically.
Blacks who came to New York seeking freedom pursuant to the Dunmore and Phillipsburgh Proclamations needed work. A considerable number found employment with the Royal Navy. As the unidentified Brooklyn owner of the slave Frank noted in July 1777 when his bondsmen fled by stealing a canoe, the black was believed to have “gone to the [British] fleet at Staten Island.” When Frank did so, he joined scores of other blacks serving on Royal Navy ships in the harbor. To give but three examples, when HMS Rose anchored at Sandy Hook at the end of June 1776 John Baptista, Bristol Rogers, Cato Jeff, Alfred Hazzard, Peter Robarts, Quashie Ferguson, Boston Pearly, and Prince Johonson, all black seamen, were among the ship’s 116 men crew. While in New York other blacks, such as Richard Prince, a 24 year-old, and Bristol Rogers, a 26 year-old Guinea-born Able Bodied seamen, entered the ship. The naval ship St. Albans similarly had a number of blacks serve on it; in August 1777 alone Sanchio Ceazar, Peter Quamino and Emanuel Joseph Ordinary entered aboard. Blacks could even be found serving on Royal Navy galleys in New York waters. Cato, who entered onto HMS Crane galley as a refugee in May 1779, decided to remain on the vessel. For the next two years he helped row her as the galley patrolled as far north as City Island, south to Raritan Bay, east to Huntington and around New York harbor.
Blacks also served the Royal Navy in positions other than seaman. For example, Cato, served as a bargeman at the British Provision Magazine in Fort Brooklyn near Pierrepont and Henry Streets in 1781. Other blacks served as pilots, a position of great responsibility, particularly in New York where tidal waters and numerous sand bars made bringing a man of war into the harbor a dangerous endeavor. They included Pompey, who served as a pilot of HMS Greyhound in 1783, and an unnamed black pilot who on August 23, 1783 safely brought HMS Experiment through the dangerous Hell Gate strait into New York harbor while being chased by three French war ships.
While some blacks voluntarily choose to furl sails or swap decks of Royal Navy ships in New York harbor, others came aboard naval ships in a more coercive fashion. The Royal Navy’s need for mariners during the Revolution increased dramatically. Many naval seamen took the first opportunity they could to desert in North American ports. They did so not necessarily because of a desire to join the Patriot cause, but rather due to difficult working conditions, late pay and the lure of greater riches on privateers. As a result, Royal Navy captains often found their crews short of the necessary complement and thus willing to use any means to find the necessary manpower to sail. Naval captains frequently used the tried and true means of enlisting seamen into the Royal Navy – impressing them. Thus, in October, 1775, as were scores of other black tars, the black seamen William Cato and John Hercules, and black Ordinaries (seamen with less than three years experience) Jupiter Yound and Casar Tompkins found themselves impressed onto HMS Kingfisher at New York
When blacks, free or formerly enslaved, entered onto a Royal Navy ship in New York, they did not enter an entirely lily white world. Not infrequently they found themselves sharing a mess or a watch with other black seamen. By the Revolution, the Royal Navy had considerable numbers of blacks in its ranks. Men such as George Fennel, a twenty year-old Guinea-born able-bodied seaman and Michael Reading, a 36 year-old from Gabmia, on HMS Asia in 1777 while it was stationed in New York, could be found on many a naval vessel in American waters. Thus, in 1777, when the free Spanish black mariner Anthony Mingus choose to join the crew of HMS Brune after being captured at sea, his crew mates included John Wilson, an able bodied seaman from Africa, and black sailors John Henry, John Peter and Augustine.
With a two-thousand mile North American coastline to blockade, West Indies islands to protect, and combating American, French, Spanish and Dutch enemies across the globe, the Royal Navy’s resources were stretched to its limit. Commissioning private ships to attack enemy ships helped Britain maintain its maritime superiority during the American Revolution. Requiring large crews that averaged eighty-eight men per ship so as to be able to board and seize enemy ships, privateers strained New York’s maritime labor market. It is estimated that six thousand New Yorkers served on British privateers out of New York City. (See Figure 3) Many privateersmen’s crew members were black fugitives as ‘‘ship captains were hardly choosy about hiring black sailors.” In hiring former slaves New York privateer ship captains greatly assisted slaves in transforming their lives.
For fugitive slaves and free blacks the monies they could earn on a privateer far exceeded the wages they received for work on land. Although they received only one-half to three-quarters of the prize monies that experienced seamen would, inexperienced landsmen, including fugitive slaves, were eager to serve on New York’s privateers. It has been estimated that blacks comprised ten percent of a typical American privateer. However, on some, such as the Rhode Island privateer Success, the percentage was considerably higher; the Success’ 51 man crew included Thomas Piggen and nine other black seamen. On British privateers operating out of New York the percentage was even higher.
The Fair American, one of the more successful privateers sailing out of New York, had at least four African Americans among its crew: Cato Ramsey, Daniel Fisher, Luke Wilson and June, a “Negro Fellow” from South Carolina. These men clearly had New York ties as at least two, Fisher and Wilson, were said to have wives in the port.
Slaves owned by Loyalists also served on British privateers. When in 1780 William Smith, a Woodbridge Loyalist, sent his slave Andrew, out on a New York privateer, he sought to profit from Andrew’s maritime endeavors. Just as slave masters in earlier wars of the eighteenth-century had enriched themselves from the prize monies slave privateers obtained for them, so too did Smith hope to do so. Unfortunately for Smith, Andrew’s privateer was captured, causing Smith not only not to receive prize monies but to have lost his slave.
Privateer captains offered runaway slaves the promise of riches and a more egalitarian climate. And yet while slave owners such as William Smith were gambling with the potential loss of their bondsmen, fugitives were literally gambling their lives by privateering. Approximately one-half of the seamen on New York’s privateers ending up wounded, captured, or dead. Those blacks who had the bad fortune to have served on ships captured by enemy privateers—of which there were hundreds on the 1,300 New York privateers captured by American ships —not infrequently found themselves sold into slavery. Thus, when the ship black seaman Patrick Dennis served on was captured he was brought to Philadelphia and sold as a slave. Unlike most captured black mariners sold into slavery, Dennis was able to escape and believed to have sought his freedom once again by going to sea.
Although there was shipbuilding in New York prior to British occupation in 1776 it was not on a large scale, and very little of it took place along the Brooklyn waterfront. But soon after the Battle of Brooklyn the Admiralty ordered the creation of a dockyard on the East River which became the Royal Navy’s principal North American repair facility. The royal dockyard, which was located in Manhattan just below Corlears Hook, would prove critical to the Royal Navy’s operations against the American rebels.
The workforce in the dockyard was sizable; monthly it averaged 244 employees. And yet in a typical month there was only one black worker. During the Revolution only ten blacks, or 0.4% of the workforce, worked in the dockyard. Was this an under-representation of blacks in the workforce? And how to explain such limited employment of blacks at the dockyard? Several factors persuasively indicate that black maritime workers were significantly under-represented in the dockyard’s labor force. First, prior to the Revolution blacks comprised 14.3% of the city’s population and between 10% and 20% of New York’s maritime workforce. Second, during the Revolution many employers, including the British military, relied upon black workers. Blacks such as Bob Powell, Cato Fowler, Cuffee Wandrick and Prince Lowrey served as laborers in the British Army, while Cuff, Dover Stedman, Jack and Quaks served as wagoneers and drivers for the British military. And third, maritime workers and mariners were one of the largest occupational groups among the hundreds of fugitive slaves who fled to New York during the Revolution. Thus, it is rather apparent that blacks were statistically under-represented in the dockyard’s workforce and that there is no readily apparent business explanation for such low levels of black employment. The experience of the black naval seaman John Mosley appears to have been typical of blacks in New York. Although Mosley had worked for ‘many years’ in New York shipyards he never was employed in the naval dockyard.
The inequitable treatment of blacks in the dockyard was not limited to their underrepresentation in the yard’s workforce. Black dockyard workers also did not receive regular work, were generally assigned only low skill jobs and were denied less strenuous work that enabled whites to work longer hours. Dublin Negro was the sole black worker employed in the dockyard for more than a year. Cicero, Benjamin and the handful of other black workers in the dockyard were only employed for several months. Thus, in contrast to white workers who were regularly employed for extended periods of time, blacks could not rely upon dockyard work to sustain themselves.
In the Chesapeake, from which large numbers of fugitives fled to New York, blacks had been regularly employed as sawyers. Despite the presence of this experienced black sawyer workforce in New York not a single black sawyer, such as the twenty-year-old Joseph, was ever employed in the dockyard. High demand in the royal dockyard for their skills resulted in sawyers working the longest hours and receiving the highest pay among all the dockyard’s workers. Their wages of more than eleven pounds per month were double the wages of most local artisans. Blacks’ exclusion from service as sawyers in the dockyard thus kept them from work that held a strong possibility of transforming their lives.
As a laborer Dublin Negro made slightly more than four pounds per month, a living wage but less than 40% of sawyers’ pay. Moreover, neither Dublin nor any other black dockyard worker was assigned night watch work. Watchmen were paid two-thirds wages for work that did not entail the manual labor of daytime work. While blacks were never assigned night watches whites averaged more than five night watches every two months. As a result, whites not working extra workdays often received pay on level with Dublin’s without the hard physical labor he performed. “At the end of the Revolution a number of such black sawyers migrated to Nova Scotia. (Figure 4).”
What caused blacks’ unequal access to jobs at the dockyard and inequitable treatment? In the absence of records in which white workers and naval officials indicated their intent in maintaining a largely white workforce in the dockyard absolute conclusions as to the reasons for the workforce’s imbalance cannot be reached. However, circumstantial evidence does indicate that three factors appear to have caused the disparate treatment of black maritime workers: (1) white workers’ desire to resist blacks encroaching on their trades; (2) municipal regulation limiting blacks’ access to maritime work; and (3) the lack of external economic forces that might have compelled dockyard officials to hire blacks.
In the decades prior to the war, New York building-trade workers regularly took steps to bar outsiders from working in the city. In 1747 they petitioned Governor Clinton to take action against Jersey workers offering to work at lower wages. In 1763 New York ship carpenters refused to work on transports unless the mayor limited licenses for such work to city residents. In the dockyard whites’ desire for monopolistic control over maritime work appears to have been effectuated by an informal referral system. Pay records list more than sixty separate groups of white family members in the dockyard. It therefore likely that similar to many twentieth-century construction unions, whose members’ relatives received preferential access to well-paying jobs, whites in the dockyard referred their relatives for jobs and naval officials relied upon such referrals in hiring new workers. Thus, it appears white maritime artisans used their economic power to exclude outsiders, including blacks, from jobs at the dockyard during the Revolution.
Municipal regulations limiting blacks’ access to artisanal work also shaped and reflected white laborers’ ideology of racial superiority. Whites prior to the Revolution undertook to resist black encroachment into their trades. For example, as early as 1691, New York’s Common Council decreed “no slave be suffered to work … as a porter.” In 1737 artificers complained of the “pernicious custom of breeding slaves to trades” resulted in white tradesmen being forced to leave the city. Coopers complained that merchants’ slaves built barrels for sale to others. And in the aftermath of the 1741 Slave Conspiracy trials in which slave water carriers were deemed to have played central roles in the alleged conspiracy, legislation barring blacks from obtaining water at any well other than the closest neighborhood well was enacted. As a result, whites soon thereafter dominated the water transport trade.
As the sole naval dockyard in the region and New York lacking a shipyard in which a largely black artisan workforce was efficiently utilized, there was no external pressure on dockyard officials to hire blacks or to pay them equal wages. As a result, although many blacks had fled to New York, very few were employed in the King’s Dockyard and those that did received smaller compensation than their white colleagues.
In April 1782 peace negotiations to end the Revolution began in Paris. A last-minute amendment to Article 7 of the treaty, which was signed in September, 1783, prohibited “carrying away any Negroes and other property of the American inhabitants.” On November 25, 1783 British forces evacuated New York City. In the nineteen months between start of negotiations and Evacuation Day the status of blacks in the city who had fled their American masters would be a contentious issue.
In the spring of 1783 former owners came to New York seeking their former bondsmen. Boston King and other black seamen feared their former masters “dragging them out of their beds.” And these newly freed men had cause to be fearful. British officials found themselves prosecuting men such as Job Hatfield who attempted to steal blacks. Blacks eagerly sought certificates of protection issued by British officials that declared them to have “reported to the British lines in consequence of the proclamations of Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton” and therefore free to leave the city.
Although Americans believed Article 7 meant all their former bondsmen were to be returned to them, Sir Carleton, the British commander in New York took a different view. Carleton informed George Washington that to compel blacks who had crossed British lines pursuant to Dunmore’s and Phillipsburgh Proclamations would be a “dishonourable violation of the public faith” in that they had been freed prior to the Treaty of Paris.
With the departure of British troops from New York on November 25, 1783 the protection of British military forces for those seeking freedom ended. Blacks understood that whites would and could take steps to assert ownership claims over them without hostile government officials taking steps to protect black freedom. As a result, in the months leading up to Evacuation Day, enslaved peoples such as Henry Stanton’s twelve-year old boy Jess, took the opportunity and ran away.
The Revolution created opportunities for some enslaved African Americans to obtain freedom. Assisted by British pragmatic desires to economically and militarily weaken Americans, formerly enslaved blacks found economic independence in New York harbor as Royal Navy seamen, British privateersmen or as laborers in the British Army. But in a foreshadowing of 20th century racial conflicts on New York’s waterfront, black maritime workers found themselves largely shut out of dockyard work due to white artisans’ resistance. At the same time black mariners serving on captured British ships often found themselves sold into slavery. Evacuation Day may have been a day for Americans to celebrate their newly created nation, but for blacks still enslaved in North America the Royal Navy ships leaving New York harbor meant their last best hope of finding freedom had vanished. And for the approximately three thousand blacks who left New York on British vessels at the end of the Revolution, freedom would require having to travel far away — Nova Scotia, England or Sierra Leone — to establish new independent lives. Thus, for blacks, the New York waterfront during the Revolution represented both freedom for hundreds of them, but for the vast majority of enslaved blacks a door to freedom that was firmly shut.
The most complete survey of black maritime life during the Age of Sail is W. Jeffrey Bolster's Black Jacks: African American Seaman in the Age of Sail (Cambridge, Mass, 1997). Philip D. Morgan's essays, “Maritime Slavery” Slavery & Abolition 31, no. 3 (Sept. 2010): 311-326 and "Black Experiences in Britain's Maritime World," in Empire, the Sea and Global History: Britain's Maritime World, c.1763-c.1840 (New York, 2007) provide well-balanced depictions of Anglo-American sailors' lives. Cassandra Pybus' Epic journeys of freedom: runaway slaves of the American Revolution and their global quest for liberty (Boston, 2006) and "Billy Blue: An African American Journey through Empire in the Long Eighteenth Century," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 5:2 (Fall 2007): 258-28 describe the global migration of black mariners from New York in the revolutionary era. Four of my articles — "Seeking Freedom in the Atlantic World, 1713-1783," Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 4:1 (Spring 2006): 46-77; “Eighteenth-Century Prize Negroes: From Britain to America,” Slavery and Abolition 31:3 (Sept. 2010): 379-393; “‘Unkle Somerset’s freedom: liberty in England for black sailors,” Journal for Maritime Research 13:1 (Spring 2011): 21-36; and “The Royal Navy’s Employment of Black Mariners and Maritime Workers, 1754-1783,” International Maritime History Journal, 28, no. 1 (Feb. 2016): 6-35 — describe how during the American Revolution maritime markets provided blacks with opportunities for independent lives while at the same time often limiting their freedom. (Many of my publications are available at http://works.bepress.com/charles_foy)
This essay is based, in part, upon “The Royal Navy’s employment of black mariners and maritime Workers, 1754-1783,” published in The International Journal of Maritime History, 28, no. 1 (Feb. 2016): 6-35 (http://ijh.sagepub.com/), by Sage Publications Ltd., all rights reserved.
Dockyard workers, Mariners, Royal Navy, American Revolution, Racial Discrimination