Black Jacks

W. Jeffrey Bolster, Author, Bolster, Author Harvard University Press $27 (352p) ISBN 978-0-674-07624-2
Shipping aboard a merchant vessel in the 18th and 19th centuries was fraught with danger and discomfort. However, for those opting for a maritime livelihood, the degree of disquiet had to be weighed against one's alternatives ashore. Some slaves were permitted to spend a year at sea while their owners collected their wages; and for the slaves the maritime hazards were tempered by the heady joy of freedom. In 1740, most black seamen were slaves, but 60 years later, most were freedmen who recognized, as Bolster notes, ""that however brutal and seamy seafaring was, it offered leeway to men of color."" It also offered new opportunities to forge connections: for example, during the War of 1812, thousands of black tars jailed in England formed a cohesive self-governed prison society. Bolster, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire and for 10 years a professional seaman, notes that ""If seafaring in the age of sail remained a contemptible occupation for white men... it became an occupation of opportunity for slaves and recent freedmen."" Many black sailors were sophisticated linguists, entrepreneurs in port, ready raconteurs; and Bolster draws from a range of literate, often lyrical voices in this little-known labor force. In such a well-researched book, the profusion of names and sources make the scholarly apparatus doubly important, so the lack of a bibliography is a perplexing oversight. Illustrations not seen by PW. (May)
Reviewed on: 12/30/1996
Release date: 05/01/1997
Paperback - 320 pages - 978-0-674-07627-3
Ebook - 349 pages - 978-0-674-02847-0
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