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Black Whalers

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Eastville men crewed Sag Harbor whaleship

By Jim Marquardt

On  the wall of the Eastville Community Historical Society on Hampton Street is a modestly framed roster of “19th Century Eastville Whalers,” the ships they sailed on and their crew assignments. A little research revealed that the 13 men listed were only a fraction of the thousands of African-Americans who manned ships that sailed from Sag Harbor, New Bedford, Nantucket and Greenport, pursuing their giant quarry throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. White and Black sailors joined rainbow crews of Shinnecock Indians, Pacific Islanders, Creoles, Peruvians, West Indians, Colombians and a few Europeans. At sea, skin color was far less important than courage and skill, and the only measure of a shipmate was seamanship and success at catching whales. One Black seaman in those days said, “A colored man is looked upon as a man, and is promoted in rank according to ability to perform the same duties as the white man.”

Sag Harbor whalers came upon great adventures. Pyrrus Concer, a steerman and harpooner was aboard the Manhattan, commanded by Mercator Cooper, when it rescued 11 shipwrecked fishermen near Japan in 1846. Captain Cooper decided to return the sailors to their homeland, though foreign vessels were forbidden to enter Japanese waters. Reaching port in the Bay of Jeddo, armed boats surrounded the Manhattan and Japanese officials demanded an explanation for the intrusion. The Japanese were intrigued with Concer, never having seen a Black man before. When they understood the Americans’ peaceful purpose, the Japanese rewarded Cooper with spars, water, rice and fresh provisions, then ordered the Manhattan to leave and never to return. (A few years later, Concer joined the gold rush to California, but soon came back and in retirement sailed excursions around Lake Agawam in Southampton.)

In the golden age of whaling from 1800 to 1860, according to “Black Hands, White Sails” by Pat McKissack, African-Americans made up at least 25 percent of whaleship crews, and after the Civil War, as white sailors found jobs ashore, the numbers grew to 50 percent.

Work on a whaleship was tough, smelly and dangerous, and voyages to the far reaches of the oceans might go on for two or three years. McKissak says whaling’s death rate was second only to mining. A young sailor wrote, “There is no class of men in the world who are so unfairly dealt with, so oppressed, so degraded, as the seamen who man the vessels engaged in the American whale fishery.”

We’d like to think ships out of Sag Harbor took a more enlightened approach to their crews, but that’s probably unrealistic. The heyday of whaling coincided with the years of slavery in the United States and many Black crewmen were escaped slaves who took any job under any conditions. On a whaleship they were safe from slave hunters.

According to the Long Island Historical Journal, when Fair Helen departed Sag Harbor in 1817, her crew included Black sailors Cato Rogers and Nananias Cuffee. The Abigail shipped out a year later with six Black whalers, and in 1819 there were seven African-Americans in a crew of 15. They served as steermen-harpooners, stewards, cooks, seamen and greenhands. A few became mates and masters.

In 2000, the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and Eastville Community Historical Society mounted a celebration of Black whalers. One of the exhibits was a heavy canvas “ditty bag” that belonged to Black boat-steerer Clayton King who shipped out from Sag Harbor in 1865 on the Odd Fellow, and in 1868 on the Myra. The ditty bag held a marlinspike and fid for splicing rope, a jack knife, a ball of beeswax to coat needles, a “palm” of leather fitted with a metal socket and thumb hole for mending sails.

Isaiah Peake was a cook aboard the Sag Harbor bark Oscar under the command of Isaac Ludlow of Bridgehampton. While the ship was anchored off Rio de Janeiro, a drunken crewman named Curtis instigated a mutiny. When Curtis came at Ludlow with an axe, the captain shot him, ending the mutiny. A New York court tried the mutineers   and sentenced Peake to only eight months in prison, probably realizing he was more a bystander than a mutineer.

Whaling was a major U.S. industry in the first half of the 19th century, producing basic ingredients for oil lamps, soap, smokeless candles, machine lubricants, bristles for brushes and brooms, bones for hoop skirts, corsets and umbrella frames. Crew compensation was calculated in the form of “lays,” a percentage share of the returning whaleship’s valuable cargo. Owners took 50 percent, captains 12 percent. A greenhand might get less than a half-percent before “expenses” were deducted to cover cash advances, clothing from the ship’s slop chest, tobacco and equipment. After months and years at sea some sailors owed money to the ship owners.

When the whaling industry began to decline, many ships sailed for the California coast where gold was discovered. One of them, the Sabina, with Black seaman John Crook aboard, took six months to reach the West Coast. In those times, square-rigged ships had to sail thousands of miles south down along two continents, west around turbulent Cape Horn, and thousands of miles north to California. Like many others, Sabina’s crew deserted the ship for the gold fields. She never returned to Sag Harbor and lies under the City of San Francisco. Some entrepreneurial Blacks made more money as cooks, barbers and shopkeepers in the mining camps that they could ever make chasing dreams of gold.

African-Americans made a unique contribution to whaling. Based on the “call and response” of slave spirituals, they created sea chanteys sung by sailors to the rhythm of their work. It was said that a good song was worth ten men on a rope. Many Black sailors now rest in the century-old cemetery near St. David’s AME Zion Church on Route 114. Locked away with them in the holy ground are memories of long voyages where they faced great hardship, but found pride and equality by meeting the challenges of a daunting profession.