214 : Life at sea in the 1850s – black sailors on American ships

The experiences of black sailors on American-owned ships could be extremely unpleasant and sometime murderous. The first mate of the Squantum lying in the Mersey was alleged to have been attacked by Richard Williams who was committed on 26 July 1853. Problems had arisen when black and white crew disagreed and the mate had said the blacks should leave the ship. Boatswain Williams disagreed, there was a violent scuffle and then Williams fetched his knife. A wound had been life-threatening. The sailor went for trial at the assize court. Aged 48, Williams was charged with stabbing with intent to murder one month later. His lawyer argued it was self-defence but he was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for seven years.
In 1858 the first, second and third mates of the American Gleaner found themselves in court in Cardiff, for beating some of their crew who were mainly ‘negroes and coloured men’. The pilot reported the incidents on returning to the shore, and a police inspector took a boat out and rescued several men who said if they were left on the ship they would jump into the sea. Edward Riley was taken to hospital and days later he was unable to stand. John Smith (coloured) had his arm broken, and John Peters (‘a black man’) was knocked from the yards but the rigging saved him – then one of the accused kicked him. A German was left hanging on a rope when he fell into the sea, no attempt being made to rescue him for a long time. The mates were charged with wounding with intent to commit grievous bodily harm. The police had a struggle to get them back into the police station through a noisy and aggressive crowd, which ‘hooted fearfully, and appeared willing to inflict summary justice on the culprits’. There were discussions whether the ship was in British waters, and further problems came when it was found two of the accused were Britons, not Americans. One man was found guilty of wounding and sentenced to eight months with hard labour, and the other were found guilty of wounding with intent to do harm and each was sentenced to six years.
Legal papers had been served on the American captain of the Belle of the Sea accused to assaulting Charles Pope (‘man of colour’) in the East India Dock, London but failed to report at the court. Pope, the cook, had been attacked on board – a summons was issued to bring Captain Lewis before the court. Another American ship, this time in Bristol, was detailed because of vicious behaviour towards black crew. Henry Price cook on the Delphos told the court the captain with the first and second mates had assaulted him when he demanded to be discharged in Bristol when the ship arrived from New Orleans. He had obtained the support of the police and the officers were fined. On 8 September 1858 The Times reported Henry Price had escaped and told two policemen who took him to a magistrate. He issued a warrant to have the three men brought to court where they were fined the maximum (five shillings [£0.25p]) and charged with costs – the matter was not sent to a higher court despite Price’s injuries as that ‘would injure innocent parties’ (the ship owners, whose trade was needed in Bristol, it seems).
Aware of the risks of incarceration in the South and the possibility of being sold into slavery, black sailors were difficult to recruit in British ports for voyages to the US slave states. Trickery and falsehoods were common. The American Conqueror had a near mutiny in the Mersey in September 1858. Seventeen coloured men refused to work and were thought to have armed themselves with knives. Fifteen Liverpool police officers and the US consul reached the ship which had ten to twelve white sailors. The unrest followed news that the Conqueror might sail to Mobile, Alabama. A year later when the crew of Conqueror in Liverpool found it was bound for Mobile and not New York, first a man named Silver jumped ship and then on 23 September both Thomas Williams and William Johnson did the same – half a mile from shore and with a fierce tide flowing. It was due to watchmen and a police officer that they were rescued from the Mersey. One of the three had been a slave in America.
In March 1858 the actions of the captain of the Gertrude bound for Liverpool from New Orleans were mentioned in several newspapers. Finding a runaway slave on board the British ship diverted 400 miles (640 km) back to the U.S.A. A letter in the Liverpool Mercury (23 March) said such a diversion would invalidate the ship’s insurance. The Birmingham Daily Post (2 April) copied the Liverpool Mercury and added the escaped slave was probably helped by the crew and people in New Orleans. Captain Doane (a Canadian from New Brunswick) said US law meant he would be fined $5,000 and imprisoned for fifteen years – and that would apply when he set foot again in America: and the ship could be confiscated. Doane could not imperil his employer’s property. There was another side to this for the Liverpool Mercury (29 March) reported a charge of mutiny brought by the captain of the Gertrude against fifteen ‘coloured men’. One James George was named, and the case heard on 29 March was against eighteen sailors for behaviour that started on the voyage to New Orleans. The crew (captain and two mates apart) were black, for blacks were favoured by Doane. The defence said James George’s testimony suggested the captain should be in the dock. The judge decided the captain told the truth and sentenced Frank Miller, William Johnson, Peter Johnson, James Morris, Joseph Cole, James George, William Thompson and Samuel Johns to twelve weeks with hard labour, and the other ten lost any claim to wages.
The end of slavery in the U.S.A. removed one threat to dark-skinned sailors. When a crew member of the Tonmanda died in Liverpool in 1869 many other coloured sailors of that American ship arranged the funeral and wake through the captain and a Liverpool boarding house keeper. The latter said fifty blacks had attended. There was a dispute over the £3 cost of the coffin which the US consulate had provided.


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