During the eighteenth century, maritime culture throughout the Atlantic world was pulsating. Unlike the nineteenth century, in which men increasingly turned attention Westward during the expansion of the United States, men of the eighteenth century went to sea in substantial numbers. Historian Daniel Vickers asserts that unlike popular memory’s image of mid-nineteenth century seamen who ventured to sea for wanderlust as enshrined in James Fenimore and Herman Melville novels, most eighteenth century seamen went to sea because it was the most logical extension of their coastal environment. Historians of maritime culture have animatedly debated what pushed or pulled a diverse subset of men (free white men, free black men, and the enslaved) throughout the Atlantic World to a precarious life at sea. What drove men into maritime culture, making the risk of a high mortality rates due to epidemic diseases like smallpox or the possibility of re-enslavement of free black seamen worthwhile? History books such as Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, W. Jeffery Bolster’s Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, and the Autobiography of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813) edited by Daniel Vickers, show that men in coastal regions were pushed to to sea in the eighteenth century due to their familial connections, poverty, or war. The historiography disputes whether enslaved Africans entered maritime time forcibly or of their own volition; the divergent treatment of Equiano’s life by Rediker and Bolster best exemplifies the contrasting representations of how Africans engaged with maritime culture and life on the Atlantic Ocean.

Marcus Rediker’s contribution to maritime historiography is his exclusive treatment of the slave ship between 1700 (the year of the first recorded slave voyage from Rhode Island and Liverpool) and 1808 (the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade). Rediker integrates dozens of individuals’ stories with vignettes to humanize slavery, fearing quantitative driven slave histories by historians like David Eltis and Philip Curtin eclipse the terror of slavery.

In this clip, David Eltis explains why he believes a quantitative understanding of slavery in the Atlantic World is critical.

If you are interested in using the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database in your classroom, the video below provides a tutorial of its different research and classroom functions.

In his “ethnography of the slave ship,”Rediker designates four major dramas that comprise his analysis. The first three struggles were onboard: between slave-ship captains and their crew; between sailors and African captives; and amongst slaves of different tribal groups. The fourth drama occurred throughout the British Empire as abolitionists fought to end the slave trade using slave ships as the ultimate symbol of oppression. Due to his projects’ limited analytical framework, Rediker only explores how white seamen and African slaves entered maritime culture, which restricts the evidence he analyzes in primary sources. Rediker neglects free black men or the enslaved who worked on slave ships.  Rediker gives two dominant reasons white men in coastal locations entered the Atlantic slave trade: either their family had apprenticeship connections or men went to sea due to dire financial need. According to Rediker’s portrayal, Africans forcibly entered maritime culture via the Atlantic slave trade under a reign of terror as commodities of exchange due to their displacement by European sellers, transforming from personhood to object hood through the trauma of the Middle Passage aboard slave ships.

Marcus Rediker’s study gives extended descriptions of the slave ship Brooks:


Below, Marcus Rediker gives a lecture on the history of the slave ship in the long eighteenth century:

Rediker first shows how white seamen in seafaring towns with family ties to the Atlantic trade first went to sea in his vignette of Cabin Boy Samuel Robinson. Robinson grew up in Garlieston, Scotland, and went on his first voyage to the Gold Coast in 1801 at 13 with his uncle from Liverpool. Robinson grew up listening to a neighbor “spin yarns about a voyage to West Indies” which instilled in Robinson “an irresistible desire for a seafaring life so completely carried away, that it became a matter of perfect indifference to me where the ship went…provided that I was on it.” Rediker uses young Robinsons’ romanticized view of the Atlantic as an “ocean paradise that loomed so largely in my imagination,” to juxtapose his naïve ideals with the reality he found: violent clashes with a “drunken and tyrannical Captain John Ward.”  Rediker, therefore, uses the entry to show how boys in seaport towns fantasized about the “ocean paradise” because it was a daily presence in their environment and the primary source of labor for their kinship, yet were subject to terror on board. Robinson not only went to sea because of boyhood fantasies, his context shaped his fantasies, which familial connections turned into reality. Rediker solidifies the connections between a white man’s first voyage to sea, the historical subjects’ context in a landscape that accommodated sea labor, and their family ties increasingly throughout the Slave Ship. Chapter 6, entitled “John Newton and the Peaceful Kingdom,” chronicles how famed Captain John Newton completed four slave voyages (three as a Captain between 1748 and 1754) before transforming into the Church of England minister who renounced slavery, wrote Amazing Grace, and the 1788 abolitionist pamphlet Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade. Rediker describes Newton’s path towards a life at sea as “fated to be a ship captain.”  Newton’s father was a Captain who groomed his son for commandership.  Newton sailed repeatedly between 1736 and 1742. In 1743, he was impressed into the Royal Navy, showing how commercial seamen became involved in Colonial Wars. Even while in the Navy, Newton’s father arranged his promotion to midshipman. Similarly, slave ship Captain Hugh Crow went to sea because his father, a craftsman at the waterfront. “Being brought up in a seaport town,” he explained, “I naturally imbibed an inclination for a sea-faring life.”  Therefore, through the writing of Cabin Boy Samuel Robinson and Captains John Newton and Hugh Crow, Rediker upholds Vicker’s arguement that most seamen in the eighteenth century took to sea due to their environmental, neighborhood labor markets, and family.

Rediker’s second dominant reason white men entered maritime culture was to escape poverty or to avoid debtors’ prison. Rediker argues that the eighteenth century practice of Captains bailing prisoners out of British debtors’ prison in exchange for service “reveals the coercive side of recruitment.” He insists, “Sailors as a whole were widely known as among the poorest occupational group.” The story of Peter Pipe and Joe Chissel as told by sea surgeon Thomas Boulton exemplifies this form of maritime recruitment. Guinea Captain Jack Sharp bailed Pipe and Chissel out of debtors’ prison in return for their service.  Nicholas Owen, an Irish sailor went to sea “after his spendthrift father had squandered the family fortune.” Rediker uses Owen and the debtors to highlight the proletariat nature that characterized white sailors, and the motivating factor that pushed white men to sea. Rediker shows that slave trading was not a profession often used by the poor to achieve social mobility, but a way to avoid imprisonment on land in coastal communities. Rediker concludes, “as proletarians with no other means of subsistence, sailors wanted and needed ready money.” Therefore, the second most common way many white men chose to go to sea, according to Rediker, was their immediate financial need.

Both of Rediker’s exposés focused on sea life due to his analytical framework of the slave ship. Daniel Vickers’ work on the life of Ashley Bowen adds the landside experience to this historiography of maritime culture, showing there was a crucial distinction between being in maritime culture and going to sea. Ashley Bowen wrote The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen, 1728-1813 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, the most lucrative fishing port in North America. In 2006, Daniel Vickers edited Bowen’s autobiography, which Vickers argues is historically significant as Bowen was “the first common sailor in the British American colonies ever to write an autobiography detailed enough to open a world on that maritime world.” Vickers’ introduction, written a year before Rediker published his slave ship history, argues that due to the sensationalism of the nineteenth century, we “hang more on the socializing power of the ship” instead of investigating the implications of “maritime” which he defines as “living near or by the sea.”  Bowen’s autobiography spans both his sea excursions and his maritime life in Marblehead after he marries Dorothy Chadwick in 1758 and opens a family rigging business with his wife who created “colors” that identified sea crafts, giving a peek into how women worked in maritime commerce. Bowen’s autobiography gives historians a glimpse into not just the social interactions of men employed on ships, but the larger political economy of households supporting maritime culture. Bowen’s autobiography shows that throughout the coastal regions of the British Empire in the eighteenth-century, boys did not “enter” maritime culture because they inhabited it. Men in towns like Marblehead made the active decision to go to sea during specific phases of their maritime life. Resultant from their upbringing within a seafaring community with family connections to sea trade, Marblehead boys became ship apprentices, as it would prepare them to be industrious men in their community. Ashley Bowen, born in 1728 to Nathan Bowen, developed sailing skills because his father “taught the art of navigation” on land. His brother Edward was at sea and impressed into the Royal Navy, so Bowen’s family connections made his decision to go to sea commonsense. His father placed him in an apprenticeship with Captain Peter Hall in Boston with the intention of Ashley further learning navigation (regrettably, he was instead treated more like a personal slave to his “master” who he was to “serve him seven years” due to his bound contract of servitude).  Finally, Bowen’s autobiography shows that during the eighteenth century, the colonial wars and the era of Atlantic Revolutions drew many men back to sea due to volunteering or being drafted into the Navy. Bowen explained from a ship’s bow to General Wolfe in 1759, “I come from New England with a company of volunteers to serve His Majesty in the reduction of Canada.” Bowen went to sea to serve the British government during the Seven Years War as a volunteer. Then, after he retired to a life on shore with his family, supplemented by his position as Marblehead’s Chief Rigger, he was “drafted twice as a soldier.” In 1778 during the American Revolution, he served under Captain Thomas Boyles in Boston.  These colorful episodes in Bowen’s autobiography are crucial, because Bowen shows that like Rediker’s Captain Newton, a sailor could already be at sea and switch from commercial sail to military service electively, be impressed, or a seaman could be drafted back to the sea later in life.

Throughout Ashley Bowen’s autobiography, he never explores the involvement of Africans with maritime culture. Rediker’s analytical framework on the slave ship seeks to highlight not only the experiences of white sailors and slave ship captains, but enslaved Africans; he argues Africans entered maritime culture forcibly through the middle passage. Curiously, Rediker neglects W. Jeffery Bolster’s 1998 research in Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, in which Bolster argues attention on slave ships “reinforces whites’ belief that blacks were acted on, rather than acting; that blacks aboard ship sailed as commodities rather than seamen. Yet until the Civil War black sailors were central to African Americans’ collective sense of self, economic survival and freedom.” Bolster argues between 1740 and 1865, over 20,000 black seamen, comprising one fifth of all berths, maintained an active presence throughout the Atlantic maritime culture and that the “rise and fall of African American seafaring in the age of sail was central to the creation of black America.”  Bolster diverges greatly from Rediker’s representation of how Africans were drawn into maritime life forcibly with terror by showing how enslaved Africans were both “pushed by masters and pulled by personal predilection into an Atlantic labor market.” Additionally, Bolster examines four generations of free men of color who worked as sailors who “followed the sea for a livelihood and knew no other mode of life,” due to their skill set and family connections in port towns. Bolster therefore shows that black men (both free and enslaved) engaged commercially in maritime culture like white men: due to their geography and connections.

The divergent interpretations of The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African, originally published in 1789 highlights the polarized treatment of African seamen in the British Empire by Rediker and Bolster. Equiano (pictured below) provides a first-person testimonial about the horrors of the greatest forced migration of modern history: the Atlantic Slave Trade.



His slave narrative, used as a mouthpiece for the British abolitionist movement, chronicled the supposed Igbo’s capture, voyage from Nigeria, his conversion to Christianity, ascension to sea Captain and his purchase of freedom (1745-1766). Equiano’s capture and voyage is the focus of Rediker’s fourth chapter entitled “Olaudah Equiano: Astonishment and Terror.” Rediker’s title, derived from a line in Equiano’s slave narrative upon seeing a slave ship for the first time, expresses how he was possessed “with astonishment, which was soon converted into terror.” Rediker’s focuses on Equiano’s displacement, separation from his sister, and his fear that Europeans were cannibals. Rediker focuses on Equiano’s fear on the ship’s deck, which made him faint, “overpowered with horror and anguish.”  Rediker briefly explores literary scholar Vincent Carretta’s claim that Equiano was born in South Carolina, not in West Africa. Rediker justifies using Equiano’s slave narrative to voice the experiences of millions of transported slaves by arguing Equiano was an “oral historian, the keeper of the common story, the griot of sorts of the slave trade.” Rediker mobilizes the autobiography’s first movements, which he analyzes in subchapters entitled “Kidnapped,” “On the Magical Ship,” “Middle Passage,” “Barbados,” “Long Passage,” and “Terror in Black and White,” as a collective tale that conveys the trauma and terror used at every phase of the slave trade, introducing Africans to maritime life forcibly through physical and psychological violence. 

Bolster, conversely, shows that Equiano’s experience was representative of a larger pattern. Beyond his experience in the Middle Passage, Equiano shows how “the very vessels that carried Africans to New World slavery not infrequently became pipelines to freedom for slaves on the lam. Black men who understood the way of a ship found a degree of protection, liberation, and worldliness at sea.”  Rediker stressed Equiano’s harrowing, violent push into maritime culture through. Bolster argues that enslaved Africans, once in the New World, often reentered maritime culture with their masters (a form of substitute family) where: 1) “enslaved masters of vessels found a degree of physical and psychological freedom within maritime slavery” and 2) became critical mainstays of the trans-Atlantic black community.  Bolster argues these points using Equiano’s life story, stressing that Equiano’s form of resistance was to use the knowledge gained by sailing during the Middle Passage to earn his freedom. First generation slaves often returned to sea with their skills and “regularly took charge of coastal vessels in the West Indies, the lower South, and the Chesapeake, managing their crews, their navigation, and their landing.” Therefore, Bolster shows that Equiano might have first entered maritime culture forcibly under a reign of terror as Rediker argues, but his second phase at sea under the order of his master as an enslaved sailor during the Seven Years War was comparable to white sailors placed in the Atlantic labor market by family connections. Black seamen also went to sea with the Navy while in coastal areas, often in the hopes of gaining freedom, as was the case with Lord Dunmore’s plea, which largely attracted enslaved seamen. Equiano then returned to sea for a third phase in his maritime life as a free man after purchasing his freedom from wages earned as an enslaved sailor, to establish a maritime career of his own volition. Again, like white sailors, Equiano did this as it was the most logical extension of his skill set and environment. Bolster’s focus on the second half of Equiano’s slave narrative shows that Equiano was also motivated to go to sea due to the enhanced freedoms available to him while enslaved. He built strong relationships with white sailors, writing, “everybody on board used me very kindly, quite contrary to what I had seen of any white people before,” compared to on land.  Most significantly, Equiano’s enslavement at sea allowed him to travel the world, gaining physical mobility denied plantation slaves, he was a leader on board, and he became literate. One of the most insightful arguments Bolster makes, countering Rediker’s limited treatment of the slave narrative due to his narrow focus on the middle passage, is Equiano’s increasing self-identification as an “almost Englishman,” showing that after the terror of the Middle Passage, he came to identify with British culture.  He was, in his words, “extremely well-treated by all on board; and had leisure to improve myself in reading and writing.”  Therefore, through Bolster’s larger framework, extending beyond the slave ship, contributes important details about how of African sailors (while enslaved or free) reentered maritime culture outside of the Middle Passage’s reign of terror that Rediker was unable to investigate.

Maritime slaves and freemen such as Equiano “became forces for change because they grasped revolutionary ways of imagining the world and their place in it.”  Between 1791 and 1830, thousands of black seamen sailed to Haiti, who shared what they saw with the US, “developing consciousness of the black Atlantic community.”  The ability of black sailors to earn the same wages as white sailors, gave black sailors a unique opportunity to purchase their freedom, like Black Elk. Free black seamen could invest in black organizations such as churches, benevolent societies, and to purchase land for their families. This made black sailors leaders in their community, as opposed to their white counterparts who were often a community’s poorest working class.  Therefore, Bolster complicates Rediker’s treatment of Africans in the slave trade and larger maritime culture, stressing that although their introduction to maritime life was forced, many reentered maritime culture or went to sea for reasons very similar to whites. The primary difference to Bolster was not why Africans returned to sea, it was the antithetical status of sailors in their respective communities: “Whereas white seamen were among the most marginalized men in white society, black seamen found access to privileges, worldliness,” and they became community leaders. 

In conclusion, Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History, The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen edited by Daniel Vickers, and W. Jeffery Bolster’s Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail all show that sailors most often went to sea for the first time due to their family connections within coastal communities. Financial need was a prime motivating factor, but while white sailors were largely unable to get out of poverty through sea labor, enslaved seamen could purchase freedom. Free black seamen could purchase homes and invest in black institutions. Sailors at sea left commercial maritime trade for Naval service throughout the Colonial Wars and the Era of Revolutions, while others returned to sea after retiring to shore due to drafts, making war the third prominent reason sailors went to sea. Finally, the historiography splits over how Africans engaged in maritime culture due to the differing analytical frameworks adopted by Rediker and Bolster. Rediker’s narrow focus on the slave ship, lead him to focus only on the first half of Equiano’s slave narrative, supporting his argument that Africans entered maritime culture under a reign of terror. Bolster, who uses an expanded analysis of maritime culture like Vickers was not restricted in his analysis of Equiano, examining the reasons he returned to sea multiple times. Bolster argues that once in the New World, slaves and freemen of African descent returned to sea due to the same motivations as white sailors, often achieving greater degrees of freedom. All historians, however, uphold Vicker’s original claim that during the eighteenth century, geographic context is what made all interactions with maritime culture possible.

For more information:

  1. Bowen, Ashley, and Daniel Vickers. The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen, 1728-1813. Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Eds, 2006, 12
  2. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007, 12
  3. Rediker’s quoted primary sources sometimes mention black cooks, but he does little to investigate black seamen’s role on slave ships. Only on page 229 does Rediker comment “Free sailors of African Descent also joined the ships as their voyages began in European and American ports, not least because they had relatively few employment opportunities and seafaring was one of the most open and available,” clearly evoking Bolster’s argument, but never exploring it in that chapter entitled “The Sailor’s Vast Machine”
  4. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007, 21
  5. ibid., 20-21
  6. ibid., 159
  7. ibid., 159
  8. ibid., 159
  9. ibid., 189
  10. ibid., 201
  11. ibid., 227
  12. ibid., 201
  13. ibid., 24
  14. ibid., 228
  15. Bowen, Ashley, and Daniel Vickers. The Autobiography of Ashley Bowen, (1728-1813). Peterborough, Ont: Broadview Eds, 2006, 13
  16. ibid., 10
  17. ibid., 29
  18. ibid., 19
  19. ibid., 35
  20. ibid., 37-8. Unlike Rediker, however, who stresses white men were often coerced into maritime labor due to personal finances and the grim alternative of imprisonment on land, Bowen never articulated a feeling of regret or coercion by his family’s placing him in his apprenticeship
  21. ibid., 72
  22. ibid., 82
  23. Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997, 2
  24. ibid., 4-6
  25. ibid., 28, 2
  26. Equiano, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaugah Equiano (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 1987), 30, 81, 100; Gates, Henry Louis Jr., The Classic Slave Narratives (Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd, 2002), 247
  27. Rediker, Marcus. The Slave Ship: A Human History. New York: Viking, 2007, 108
  28. ibid., 108
  29. ibid., 109
  30. ibid., 113
  31. Bolster, W. Jeffrey. Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1997, 232
  32. ibid., 157
  33. ibid., 132
  34. ibid., 97
  35. ibid., 39
  36. ibid., 33
  37. ibid., 157
  38. ibid., 145
  39. ibid., 4, 161, 168, 189
  40. ibid., 36
Rhae Lynn Barnes is an Assistant Professor of American Cultural History at Princeton University (2018-) and President of the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Fellows in Critical Bibliography. She is the co-founder and C.E.O. of U.S. History Scene and an Executive Advisor to the documentary series "Reconstruction: America After the Civil War" (now streaming PBS, 2019).

Leave a Reply