• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #25: Black Jacks, African American Seamen in the Age of Sail


Not Jack

I had the great good fortune during my time at UNH to study under some splendid faculty in the political science department. I'm sure I'll mention some of them as this series wears on. I was equally as fortunate to encounter some of the truly world-class professors in our history department. I'll mention Professors McMahon and Sitkoff later, but today I'm excited to talk about Professor Jeff Bolster, and one of his books that remains a favorite of mine to this day.

Bolster was the one who dragged me out of the colonial and revolutionary era in American history and encouraged me to invest more energy in the rich post-revolutionary period of the early republic. It was there that the twin pillars, for good and ill, of our shared American ethos emerged: bare-knuckle capitalism and evangelical Protestantism. It's a time we'll revisit throughout the year with some books I cherish.

Bolster's 1997 monograph "Black Jacks" is a groundbreaking work. Our general conception of the black seafaring experience from 1750-1850 is as unwilling cargo in the slave trade. Bolster explores the significant role of free black mariners on whalers, trading ships, and privateers. By some counts, as many as a quarter of seamen during the era were men of color. Black sailors broke down barriers with their fellow white crew members, enjoying some freedoms and privileges, and yet tensions and prejudices remained. As the Civil approached, there were increasing barriers for African Americans to participate in what had long been a substantial employment for them. The mobility and communication associated with maritime commerce was a threat to the slave system, and free black sailors undermined that system in a way the southern white patriarchy would not tolerate.

A mariner himself, Bolster writes of sailing ships and her crews with an intimacy and immediacy that translates to the reader. An accomplished historian, he weaves together granular data and anecdotes with broader cultural and political themes. A gifted teacher, he passed along to some of us a passion for inquiry and critical analysis.

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