Today’s sailing community is pretty homogenous, but it hasn’t always been like that; at the beginning of the 19th Century, 20 percent of American sailors were Black. In fact, going to sea was one of the most equitable professions for Black Americans during the United States’ first centuries. The rich maritime history of Black sailors, whalers, and entrepreneurs is as inspiring as it is under-discussed. So, during Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history and legacy of Black sailors in America by featuring a notable figure in our e-newsletter every Friday.
Absalom Boston was an abolitionist and whaling captain from Nantucket, Massachusetts. He was born in 1785 to Seneca Boston and Thankful Micah who were African American and Wampanoag respectively.
Like over 3,000 other Black New Englanders, Boston went to work on whaling ships. The whaling industry was not a glamorous career. The work was difficult and dangerous, and racist attitudes were ever-present. But unlike most other jobs, Black sailors would receive the same compensation as their white counterparts and could hold high ranks and positions of responsibility. Going to sea became a comparatively good option for many Black men, and they were twice as likely to join the trade as white men.
Boston found success in whaling and was able save enough to purchase his own land on Nantucket by just 20 years old. He then took some time off whaling to open an Inn.
At age 37, Boston returned to the sea as captain of The Industry on which led a successful six-month voyage. Notably, he was the first whaling captain to lead an all-Black crew. He returned with 70 barrels of oil and every single one of his sailors, which was a remarkable feat in such a perilous industry. This would be his final whaling voyage as, upon returning home, he turned his attention to civil rights.
He wasn’t the first in his family to pave the way for progressive change. Absalom’s father and uncle Prince grew up enslaved. Years before Absalom’s birth, Prince had been sent to sea on a whaling voyage. Upon his return, he refused to hand his wages over to his enslaver and ultimately went to court over it. Prince won, and he was both allowed to keep his earnings and granted freedom. Notably, he was the first African American to be emancipated via jury trial.
Perhaps Prince’s strength of character and legislative activism were impressed upon his nephew who, after retiring from his final whaling voyage, became an advocate for Nantucket’s Black community. He established the African Meeting House in Nantucket and Nantucket’s African Baptist Society. When the all-white high school refused to educate his daughter, he put together a lawsuit to challenge them and won. Nantucket integrated their public schools in 1845, over one hundred years before Brown v. Board of Education. By the time Boston died in 1855, he was a respected community leader, wealthy landowner and tireless advocate for cooperative race relations between Nantucketers.
To check out other installments in this series, click here for Civil War maritime hero William Tillman or click here for American Revolution-era entrepreneur, sailor and abolitionist Paul Cuffe. Click here for sailmaker, entrepreneur, and activist James Forten.