America’s First Black Sailors
“British gold and promises of personal freedom served as futile incentives among the Negroes of the American Navy; for them, the proud consciousness of duty well done served as a constant monitor and nerved their strong black arms when thundering shot and shell menaced the future of the country; and, although African slavery was still a recognized legal institution and constituted the basic fabric of the great food productive industry of the nation, it was the Negro’s trusted devotion to duty whichever guided him in the nation’s darkest hours of peril and menace.”
By Alex Hays (US Naval History Command) Kelly Miller, a premier black intellectual at the turn of the 20th-century, penned these words in 1919 to describe the patriotism of free and enslaved black Sailors during the Revolutionary War.
Despite slavery and British offers of freedom, thousands of black patriots served on American vessels during the American Revolution. According to a U.S. Army report on the African American military experience, higher percentages of black men served in the naval forces than the land forces, since the Continental Navy did not restrict their service like the army and militias did. However, the Continental Navy was relatively small, and black Sailors served in even greater numbers aboard state naval vessels and merchant marine privateers. These ships provided more opportunities for advancement and rewards than the Continental Navy. Detailed records of black Sailors’ service are scarce, but their stories are an important part of naval history and heritage as a group that fought on the seas for a country that denied them basic rights.
In American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm, Gail Buckley documents the amazing story of James Forten. Born free in Philadelphia in 1766, James Forten joined the crew of Royal Louis in 1781. This ship was a Pennsylvanian privateer commanded by Capt. Stephen Decatur, Sr. (father of Commodore Stephen Decatur, Jr.). Forten served as a powder monkey, running gun powder from the ship’s magazine to the cannons, alongside a crew of 200.
On Forten’s second cruise, the ship was overrun by a British frigate and the entire crew was captured. The British captain’s son befriended Forten and the captain eventually offered him a life in England. However, Forten refused to renounce his American allegiance and was imprisoned aboard the British Old Jersey. Confined with hundreds of prisoners off the coast of New York, Forten struggled to survive (11,000 prisoners died on this ship throughout the war) while continuing to resist the British. After seven months, Forten was released and made the 100-mile trek back to Philadelphia despite severe malnutrition.
After the war, Forten worked for a sailmaker and became the owner of a sail loft. He invented a sail-maneuvering tool and amassed a $100,000 fortune. He was a strong abolitionist and a founding member of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Forten’s relatives and descendants continued his abolitionist and patriotic fights after his death in 1842. His nephew, James Forten Dunbar, served in the Navy during the Civil War. From fighting for American independence as a Sailor to fighting against slavery, James Forten showed true American patriotism.
Unlike James Forten, many black Sailors were enslaved and their records of service are even scarcer than his. These enslaved Sailors were often victims of a substitution system where they served in their owner’s place, but the owners received their pay. In The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan document the lives of enslaved persons in the Virginian navy. Capt. James Barron, commander of the armed schooner Liberty (and the father of Commodore James Barron), wrote of the valor of the enslaved persons on his ship, which was involved in twenty engagements during the American Revolution:
“I take pleasure in stating there were several coloured men, who, I think, in justice to their merits should not be forgotten. Harry (a slave, belonging to Captain John Cooper) was distinguished for his zeal and daring; Cupid (a slave of Mr. William Ballard) stood forth on all occasions as the champion of liberty, and discharged all his duties with a fidelity that made him a favorite of all the officers.”
Multiple enslaved persons served aboard Patriot, another Virginian warship. David Baker served instead of his master and was re-enslaved after the war, although he petitioned the government for freedom in 1794 because of his military service. Caesar Tarrant served on Patriot as its pilot for four years and was present when the ship captured the British vessel Fanny, which was sailing to Boston with supplies. Tarrant was born into slavery in Hampton, VA, but was freed in 1789 by the Virginian government due to his military service. Before dying in 1796, Tarrant became a landowner. His daughter Nancy received 2,667 acres of land in Ohio in recognition of her father’s service. Finally, Capt. Mark Starlin commanded Patriot. Starlin was re-enslaved after the end of hostilities, despite his accomplishments. Capt. Barron wrote that Starlin was “brought up as a pilot, and proved a skillful one, and a devoted patriot.”
Although they all served this new country, black Sailors had vastly different experiences both during and after the war. Some enslaved persons, such as Caesar Tarrant, were freed after the American Revolution. Most enslaved persons, such as Capt. Mark Starlin, remained in bondage, and even free black citizens like James Forten continued to be treated unequally. Nevertheless, thousands of black patriots fought for American freedom, while their compatriots denied them this very freedom.
In 2013, the National Defense Authorization Act approved the creation of a memorial to honor the black patriots of the American Revolution. This National Liberty Memorial is currently undergoing site selection, funding, and design.
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