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Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 40, no. 3 (Fall 1992), p. 49-51

"I Will Take to the Water": Frederick Douglass, the Sea, and the Nantucket Whale Fishery
By Nathaniel Philbrick

Douglass's linking of the sea with freedom was no idle figure of speech, for his understanding of seafaring life enabled his escape from slavery in 1838.

As a slave on a landlocked Maryland plantation, Frederick Douglass would look longingly toward Chesapeake Bay and its sailing ships. For Douglass the ships represented everything that had been denied him by slavery, and in his Narrative (1845) he describes how he would "pour out my soul's complaint. . . to the moving multitude of ships":

"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! ... It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water."

Douglass's linking of the sea with freedom was no idle figure of speech. Although he would never sail as a seaman, he worked for several years as a caulker in the shipyards of Baltimore where he gained an intimate understanding of seafaring life, and in 1838 he exploited that knowledge to effect his escape. After borrowing a seaman's protection certificate from a free black sailor, he put together the appropriate clothes: "a red shirt and tarpaulin hat and black cravat, tied in sailor fashion, carelessly and loosely about my neck." Even in the slave state of Maryland, the carefully calculated disguise enabled him to board a train bound for Philadelphia without arousing a hint of suspicion. According to the historian Jeffrey Bolster, who has shown how Douglass's escape from Baltimore reflected the presence of "a more tolerant work environment" for blacks in the maritime culture of the Atlantic seaboard, "free black seamen were then so common as to cause few second looks."

Given Douglass's training as a caulker and the manner of his escape, it is not surprising that he ultimately settled in the whaling port of New Bedford, a popular destination for runaway slaves, where he tells us, "The sight of the broad brim and the plain, Quaker dress, which met me at every turn, greatly increased my sense of freedom and security." If the cultural pathway that led Douglass from Baltimore to New Bedford had a source, it was Nantucket—the birthplace of the American whale fishery. Indeed, in the cosmos of the abolitionist movement, the island held an exalted, even central place. In 1841, the same year Douglass would speak before a white audience for the first time in the Nantucket Atheneum, the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier published what would prove to be a highly popular poem about the island entitled "The Exiles." In the final stanzas of the poem, Whittier (whom Douglass labels the "slave's poet" in his Narrative) speaks of the island's current reputation as an abolitionist stronghold:

And yet that isle remaineth
A refuge of the free,....
Free as the winds that winnow
Her shrubless hills of sand,
Free as the waves that batter
Along her yielding land.

Just as Douglass's white-sailed ships "move merrily before the gentle gale," so is Whittier's Nantucket buffeted by the elements, providing a nurturing refuge within a wonderfully wild storm of liberation.

Whether or not Douglass's evocation of the sailing ships in his Narrative was influenced by Whittier's description of the island, it cannot be denied that Nantucket helped to fulfill Douglass's determination to "take to the water" in his quest for freedom. After examining the island's historic association with the abolitionist movement, this essay will compare Nantucket's reputation as a Quaker refuge with the realities of its whale fishery at the time of Douglass's first voyage to the island.

In 1716 the Nantucket Friends became one of the first groups in America to take a stand against slavery, establishing a precedent that would help create what has been called "the enthusiastically abolitionist atmosphere of the whale fishery," in which sailors of all colors were well paid for their services. In 1770 Prince Boston, a black slave from Nantucket, earned a steersman's lay of 28 pounds for a three-and-a-half-month voyage, which, as the historian Daniel Vickers has pointed out, was equivalent (on a monthly basis) to the wages earned by the captain of a British slaver! A dispute over who should receive the wages—(Boston or his master, John Swain)—resulted in a decision by the Nantucket Court of Common Pleas in 1773 that granted Boston not only his wages but his freedom. When Swain threatened to appeal, William Rotch, one of the leading Quaker whaling merchants on the island, let it be known that he would enlist the services of none other than John Adams to argue Boston's case. "[Discouraged by the feelings of the people and the circumstances of the country," Swain let the matter drop, thus effectively ending slavery on Nantucket Island.

That Nantucket's combination of Quaker abolitionism and mercantile savvy was an inspiration to blacks throughout the region at this period is indicated by the life of Paul Cuffe (1759-1817). A black sailor from Westport, Massachusetts, Cuffe based his own highly successful business practices on those of the Rotches, and by the beginning of the nineteenth century he had become one of the wealthiest black entrepreneurs in America. On Nantucket, Absalom Boston (1785-1855), kinsman to Prince Boston, captained the black-owned and -crewed whale ship Industry in 1822, a historic voyage that inspired a crewmember to write:

Here is health to Captain Boston
His officers and crew
And if he gets another craft
To sea with him I'll go.

Given Nantucket's legacy as a land of opportunity for blacks, Douglass must have felt as if he were embarking on a special kind of pilgrimage when he boarded the paddle-wheel steamer Telegraph for Nantucket. In his Narrative, however, he tells us teasingly little about what the abolitionist leader William Lloyd Garrison described as "the commencement of his brilliant career":

[While attending an anti-slavery convention at Nantucket, on the 11th of August, 1841,1 felt strongly moved to speak, and was at the same time much urged to do so. ... It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down. I spoke but a few moments, when I felt a degree of freedom, and said what I desired with considerable ease. From that time until now, I have been engaged in pleading the cause of my brethren. .. .

So ends his Narrative, with Nantucket Island (to which he would return four more times) providing the final stepping stone in his journey from the fields of a slave-worked Maryland farm to a life as one of America's foremost orators—black or white.

The quest Douglass describes in the Narrative is a fairly straightforward one, in which the evils of Southern slavery are exchanged for the blessings of Northern freedom. But were the whaling ports of New Bedford and Nantucket in the 1830s and '40s as ideal as Douglass would lead us to believe? Even in his own account there are unsettling indications that New Bedford did not prove to be the paradise he had initially assumed it would be. Soon after his arrival in the whaling port he discovers that he is unable to work as a caulker because whites refuse to work with him, forcing him to take a series of odd jobs throughout his three years in the city.

Although he does not mention it in his Narrative, we know that at the outset of Douglass's initial voyage to Nantucket the packet captain refused to leave New Bedford until the blacks on the saloon deck went below. And even though Nantucket was, in Whittier's words, "the refuge of the free," an abolitionist meeting that Douglass attended the following year sparked a violent riot, while attempts by Absalom Boston (who had captained the Industry in 1822) to integrate the island's all-white school system in the 1840s met with considerable resistance (see accompanying articles in this issue).

If Douglass does indeed view New Bedford and Nantucket through rose-colored glasses in the Narrative, it is so that he can keep the focus on the greater evils of Southern slavery. Given this thematic agenda, there is little to no place in his account for the darker side of life in the North, where racism flourished without the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Even on Nantucket during the heyday of Quakerism in the eighteenth century, the commitment to abolitionism was by no means island wide. Although the Nantucket Quakers took a stand against slavery early in the eighteenth century, it was not (as we have seen) until the 1770s that slavery on the island ceased to exist. There were even Nantucketers who participated in the slave trade. In a letter written from Havre, France, on May 16, 1796, Benjamin Tupper wrote to his mother on Nantucket:

I have bot [sic] a large ship of 5 hundred tuns and she sails this day for the west Indes [sic].... She carries 5 hundred negroes, if she arrives safe I shall have money enough to come home & live with my friends which I should like although I like france very much.

Despite Whittier's claims, a concern for "human suffering" was apparently not a top priority for all Nantucketers.

And as Ana Isabel Kaldenback-Montemayor has demonstrated in her excellent study, "Black on Grey, Negroes on Nantucket in the Nineteenth Century," the presence of a significant number of blacks on Nantucket in the 1840s was more directly the result of economic and demographic factors than a strong ideological commitment to abolitionism. In the aftermath of a 1763 epidemic, which virtually wiped out the local Indian population, Nantucketers looked to blacks as an alternative work force in the whale fishery. In 1807 a contemporary Nantucketer noted that blacks were indeed taking the places of the Indians and observed: "The negroes, though they are to be prized for their habits of obedience, are not as intelligent as the Indians. ..." Contrary to some of the myths that have sprung up about the island, there is no evidence that Nantucket was ever a stop on the Underground Railroad. Although in 1820 the fugitive slaves Arthur and Mary Cooper were protected from the authorities by a group of island citizens, the vast majority of blacks on Nantucket were Cape Verdeans and Azorians who had arrived on whaling ships. Reflecting that trend, the number of men in the "New Guinea" section of town far outnumbered the women (435 to 155 in 1840).

If Nantucket was not the abolitionist haven for runaway slaves Whittier made it out to be, its whale fishery did employ a large number of sailors "of color." However, the fishery of the 1840s had undergone some dramatic changes over the last decade, having grown to the extent that impersonal economic factors, rather than a few relatively high-minded individuals, had begun to determine the fishery's character. The inevitable result was a steady decline in working conditions and wages for the common seamen as profits for the whaling merchants increased. By the 1840s, the days in which a powerful and yet religiously devout Quaker whaling merchant such as William Rotch could insist upon a higher moral ground for the whale fishery (as he did in the Prince Boston case) were long gone.

As a result, the whale fishery evolved into what J. Ross Browne called a "coldblooded system of oppression." After a brief tenure aboard a whaler during this period, Browne published Etchings of a Whaling Cruise (1841), in which he claimed, "I would gladly have exchanged my place with that of the most abject slave in Mississippi" than serve another year on a whaler. The irony of the whale fishery's proverbial association with the abolitionist movement was not lost on Browne:

"Massachusetts being largely interested in the whale fishery, has constantly before her practical demonstrations of the horrors of slavery. The philanthropists of that state will, it is to be hoped, make some grand efforts in behalf of the seamen employed in their whaling fleet, as soon as they dispose of the African race."

Although Browne, from the slave state of Kentucky, directed his indignation toward the treatment of white seamen in the fishery, there are indications that Nantucket whaling captains were by no means color blind in their abuse of off-island crews. According to William Comstock writing in 1841:

"An African is treated like a brute by the officers of [the Nantucketers'] ships. Should these pages fall into the hands of any of my colored brethren, let me advise them to fly Nantucket as they would the Norway Maelstroom [sic]. To all who contemplate a whale-ing [sic] voyage, I would say,—avoid, if possible, Nantucket and New Bedford; although the latter place is not so exceptionable as the former."

If Comstock's observations are correct, they indicate that the Nantucket whale fishery was no different from the American maritime scene as a whole, in which the shipboard opportunities that had once been available to blacks at the beginning of the century had begun to diminish dramatically. According to Bolster, "individual black sailors' fortunes took a decided turn for the worse in the 1840s"—just at the time when Douglass came to Nantucket.

Rather than leading the charge against oppression, Quakerism's influence in the whale fishery appears to have been decidedly negative at this relatively late stage. In Comstock's view, many of the evils of the fishery could be attributed to the psychological effects of being what Herman Melville described as a "Quaker with a vengeance": "Unfortunately, the anger which they are forbidden to express by outward actions, finding no vent, stagnates the heart, and . . . the rancour and intense malevolence of their feelings poisons every generous spring of human kindness." Melville also recognized how the tenets of Quakerism could be corrupted by the economic pressures of the whale fishery. In Moby-Dick (1851) his depiction of Captain Bildad, the Quaker who craftily uses his religious principles to exact "an inordinate quantity of cruel, unmitigated hard work," very closely resembles Douglass's portrayal of the "pious" slave owner in his Narrative: "For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst." In this context, at least, the differences between Southern slavery and the Nantucket whale fishery were not all that great.

This is not to say, however, that the island's Quaker tradition had completely lapsed into a sad, even vicious parody of its former self. Off-island Quakers such as Levi Coffin, president of the Underground Railroad, and Lucretia Mott looked with pride to their Nantucket heritage. Through the efforts of those and others, such as the staunch Nantucket abolitionist Anna Gardner, the island maintained an important and vital link with the anti-slavery cause.

If Nantucket in the 1840s was something less than "a refuge of the free," the tradition the island had helped to foster in the eighteenth century was still very much alive. For an escaped slave by the name of Frederick Douglass in 1841, that was more than enough.

 

 

Nathaniel Philbrick is a sailing journalist and an independent scholar whose articles on Nantucket history and literature have appeared in such journals as the New England Quarterly and ESQ. He is currently at work on a history of the island to be published in 1993 by Mill Hill Press.