People & Events
Black Revolutionary seamen
1775 - 1783
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Unlike the Continental Army, the Navy recruited both free and enslaved blacks from the very start of the Revolutionary War -- partly out of desperation for seamen of any color, and partly because many blacks were already experienced sailors, having served in British and state navies, as well as on merchant vessels in the North and the South.
To both the enslaved and free, privately owned vessels were more attractive than the Continental or state navies. For runaway slaves, there was less chance of being detected by slavecatchers, and for all crew members, there were greater financial rewards. Philadelphia's free blacks, for instance, were more inclined to serve on privateers than in Pennsylvania navy.
One of the most famous black seamen was James Forten, who enlisted on the privateer Royal Louis as a powder boy, was captured along with his ship's crew, and spent time on a British prison barge before being released in a prisoner exchange. Forten went on to become a successful businessman and a leader of Philadelphia's African American community.
Although Black seamen performed a range of duties, usually the most menial ones, they were particularly valued as pilots. Others served as shipyard carpenters and laborers. Both Maryland's and Virginia's navies made extensive use of blacks, even purchasing slaves specifically for wartime naval service. Virginia's state commissioner noted that it was cheaper to hire blacks than whites, and that whites could get exemption from military service by substituting a slave.
In his memoirs, U.S. Navy Commodore James Barron, who served as a captain in the Virginia navy during the war, recalled several black men among the "courageous patriots who... in justice to their merits should not be forgotten." He mentions four slaves: Harry, Cupid, Aberdeen (who subsequently befriended Patrick Henry and was freed by the Virginia General Assembly) and the "noble African" pilot known as "Captain" Mark Starlins.
In 1775, Jeremiah Thomas, a pilot, fisherman, "and Free Negroe of considerable property," was hanged and burned in Charleston for allegedly plotting an insurrection, timed to coincide with the arrival of the new British governor. Henry Laurens, a slave trader and the president of South Carolina's patriotic First Provincial Congress, reported that Thomas was "puffed up by prosperity, ruined by Luxury and debauchery and grown to an amazing pitch of vanity and ambition."
Two slaves, one of them Thomas's brother-in-law, testified that Thomas had urged other blacks to assist the British Royal Navy in capturing Charleston harbor, assuring them that "the War was come to help the poor Negroes."
Thomas was not the only African American seaman to ally himself with the British. Many royal naval vessels were piloted by blacks -- some of them runaways, other enslaved to loyalist masters, and still others pressed into service. Possibly a quarter of the slaves who escaped to the British made their way onto ships, some signing onto the ships' crews or joining marauding expeditions of bandits commonly referred to as "Banditti."
Image Credit: The Newport Historical Society
Portrait of a black Revolutionary War sailor
Colin Powell on blacks fighting during the Revolutionary War
Betty Wood on blacks fighting in the American Revolution
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