African Americans - Race, impressments, and maritime issues




Race was a factor in the maritime trades and in navies during the age of sail. Black men from North America, the Caribbean, and Africa, slave and free, were among the thousands employed in a range of industries and at war. They served on slavers, whalers, packet boats, warships, and were represented as sailors in almost all sectors of maritime activity. Rules governing the movements of both enslaved sailors and free men of color affected relations among states. In the antebellum South during periods of slave unrest, authorities enforced regulations that restricted the portside activities of West Indian seamen. Violators were threatened with enslavement. Abuse of foreign black sailors in U.S. ports sometimes brought protests from consuls or influential persons to whom they turned for support. The seamen's papers given black American sailors in 1796 did not afford them substantial protection from infringements on their rights, and until 1823, when civil equality was extended to black sailors in the British navy, black seamen of all nationalities were readily exploited, and those who were free faced the risk of illegal enslavement.

Impressment was a danger for all U.S. seamen, regardless of race, before and during the War of 1812. Those recruited into the British navy could expect harsher treatment than that experienced aboard U.S. ships. The fate of black loyalists enslaved in the West Indies during the American Revolution contributed to anti-British feeling among some African Americans in the early nineteenth century and helped preserve their loyalty to the United States during those years. The United States, however, was reluctant to recruit blacks into any armed forces except the navy. As a result, there were few black combatants except for those enlisted as volunteers in state units. The United States and Britain ultimately employed the same tactic that had been used in the revolutionary war in promising manumission to those who fought or served as military laborers. Those who allied themselves with Britain were taken to Canada at the end of the war and settled on plots of land. While many of the manumission promises made by U.S. authorities were honored, African Americans had no guarantee of civil equality.

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