Black Sailors

Date: 1800
Owner: Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, CT
Source Type: Images


This drawing from c. 1800 depicts black sailors operating a small vessel off the coast of the Caribbean. Although, by the late eighteenth century, many sailors in the Americas were slaves who were ordered to work at sea by their masters, black seamen--both slave and free--had been an integral part of Iberia's trans-oceanic exploration during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many of the most scientifically skilled navigators in both Spain and Portugal were Moors, a people integral to transmitting classical knowledge about astronomy and advanced instruments to Iberia. It was also common to find black men among the crews of sailing ships.

Despite the large role that black men played as navigators and mariners during the age of exploration, blacks on Iberian ships are still most closely associated with the slave trade. The Portuguese were the main slave traders of the early colonial period but, throughout the early modern period, Spanish, English, French, and Dutch vessels all participated in freighting millions of black men, women, and children across the infamous "middle passage" to South America, North America, and the Caribbean, a pitiless journey in which much of the human chattel died. Modern estimates are that out of the 14 million Africans sold into slavery, 5 million died during the process of being sent to the New World (that is, between the stages of capture, shipment, and acclimitization). The slave trade, like gold mining or sugar plantations (both of which were fueled by slave labor), was an immensely profitable enterprise resulting from the Iberian voyages of discovery and helped to fund and provide manpower for the further expansion of overseas empires.

Reference: Klein, Herbert S., Stanley L. Engerman, Robin Haines, and Ralph Shlomowitz. "Transoceanic Mortality: The Slave trade in Comparative Perspective." In The William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Ser., Vol. 58, No. 1, New Perspectives on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. (Jan., 2001), pp. 93-118.
CITATION: Speightstown boat, by George Tobin, 1800. Mystic Seaport Museum, Mystic, Connecticut. In Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.