updated Jan 28, 2021

Left out of the history books: the untold story of the Black sailors

Black sailors and their pivotal role in U.S. history

This Black History Month as we honor some of the most formidable and influential Black Americans, we’re also taking time and space to recognize and acknowledge what we don’t know — what was left out of so many history books. 

In doing so, we wanted to share an oft forgotten part of sailing history — the Black sailors and their impact on U.S. history. Revisionist history does a fantastic job of painting the past with a broad and white brush stroke; sailors with wispy, blonde hair taking to sea. But the truth is that dating as far back as the Tudor era in England, Black sailors were an integral, and even common, part of sea travel. 

During the age of sail, Black sailors were not only deeply influential in American history, but also in the creation of Black America and Black culture. While Black seaman appear sparingly in American literature and history, recent documentation and tireless work by historians unearth a very different reality — one where in the 19th century, one in five American seamen were Black. Both enslaved and free Black sailors served aboard a myriad of ships, and perhaps even more surprising for the era, held ranks ranging from pilots and mates to the occasional sea captain; meaning they often held rank over white seamen. 

Largely unseen elsewhere in society, this provided a glimpse into another kind of life compared to Black men on land and on plantations. Not just the experience on board, but because travel brought opportunity to see other worlds, and with that, even the slightest sense of freedom. So as history’s tides turned closer and closer to the Civil War, the number of Black seamen dwindled. 

Why? Because they were bearing witness to a better life. To other worlds and other ways of living. And they had the means to tell their communities back home, and abroad, what they knew and what they saw. They were activists without the label; catalysts for change aboard ships that could take them there both literally and figuratively. And anyone with any interest in maintaining the status quo couldn’t tolerate that possibility. 

So as we look back and ask ourselves why we weren’t taught this in school, we have to also ask ourselves who wrote those books and how history gets remembered. And at the end of the day it comes down to what we know to be true — that the racism that wove the fabric of our society is woven into the stories we’re told and the ones carefully omitted. Even the ones we’re dutifully tested on and told are historical facts.

This month as we celebrate Black America, we remember the Black sailors who didn’t get their rightful place in history books. Remembering them for their pivotal importance in history and honoring our promise to continue to learn and revisit our own teachings — recognizing and understanding our own industry's roots and ties to structural racism, and being deliberate about doing better. 

Join us on our social platforms as we highlight members of the BIPOC community (sailing and beyond) and ways in which we’re continuing to learn, support, and take action — not just for the month of February, but as a brand moving forward. 

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