David S. Cecelski. The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Xx + 288 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-4972-9; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-2643-0.
Reviewed by Alexander O. Boulton (Assistant Professor of History, Villa Julie College, Stevenson, Maryland)
Published on H-South (May, 2002)
African American Maritime Culture in North Carolina
As long as America endures as a nation, we will probably be debating the nature of slavery and its legacy. As the antithesis of our cherished national ideal of freedom, how we describe slavery largely defines who we are, or at least how we perceive ourselves. While most people in America today would perhaps agree that slavery is one of the worst imaginable conditions of mankind, historians over the last dozen or so years have reached their own kind of consensus on the nature of slavery in the United States. While recognizing the inherent injustice and brutality of the institution of slavery, historians increasingly have described the ways in which American slaves were able to forge a space in which they could act with some degree of independence.
American slaves were not merely passive victims, but were in many places able to establish a culture based upon African traditions and the necessity to survive, which allowed them to resist the most brutal psychological effects of slavery. In the process, they were able to exert a large amount of influence over their own lives, and ultimately over the course of American history. In addition, the institution of slavery was far from a single monolith. It could vary dramatically from place to place and over the course of time. Finally, despite America's ongoing climate of racism, which prevented much of this history from being written, there have been times and places in America when racial boundaries have been contested and ambiguous.
David S. Cecelski's book, The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, is the most eloquent expression of this current historiographical consensus that I have seen. According to Cecelski, virtually the whole of the North Carolina coastline, much of it cut off from the major shipping routes of the Atlantic by the Outer Banks, was distinctly different from the inland plantation South. On the Outer Banks, in the Albemarle and Pamlico Sounds, in numerous bays, inlets, and rivers, and in their neighboring communities, African Americans in North Carolina working as fishermen, ship pilots, and sailors were able to carve out a unique space, in which, Cecelski argues, they were able to establish an "African American maritime culture." This culture constantly contested the racial boundaries of the larger society, and stimulated an egalitarianism, which in turn fostered a radical black political agenda, independent of the major white political factions.
One product of this North Carolinian maritime culture was Moses Grandy, a slave who worked as a ferry man and then as a canal boat captain. Allowed to live apart from his master and hire out his own time, he ultimately purchased his freedom around 1830. He moved to Boston where he continued to work as a seaman sailing to the Mediterranean and the East Indies. With his wages and the money he earned from publishing his memoirs in 1843 he was able to purchase the freedom of his wife and several of his children.
Cecelski points out that life for the average sailor, black or white, before the twentieth century could be little different from slavery, but ships were one of the few places where racial equality was nearly a reality. Wages, status, and duty assignments were not determined by race, although the lowest jobs were more apt to be filled by blacks, and blacks rarely reached the highest levels of responsibility. Consequently, radical ideas subversive of a rigid racial hierarchy spread not just on ships at sea but anywhere that sailing vessels traveled.
A slave named Peter was another product of this maritime culture. His job of piloting ships through the channels near Wilmington, North Carolina, gave him access to sea captains and local merchants who helped him spirit slaves out of the South to northern seaports. Unfortunately, he was eventually detected and sold into the deep South. (One of his white collaborators was possibly murdered for his complicity.)
The large commercial fisheries that depended on the springtime runs of shad and herring during the early nineteenth century also contributed to the maritime culture. For nearly two months all available men and women were needed to run fish nets, haul in the catch, sort, clean, salt, and pack the fish. Crews were usually given shares in the catch plus liberal incentives to encourage their efforts. When slaves and free blacks descended on the fisheries in early spring a festive atmosphere marked a break from their usual chores. On the other hand, slaves employed in digging the canals that promised to bring prosperity to North Carolina were engaged in "the cruelest, most dangerous, unhealthy and exhausting labor in the American South" (109).
A major effort in canal building began with the importation of eighty West African slaves in 1786 to open the land near Lake Phelps. "New Negroes" were preferred for this labor since they could be forced to do work that already domesticated slaves might resist. These newly imported slaves worked for months at a time in isolated camps in the swamps, working with axes and spades, up to their waists and higher in mosquito and snake-infested waters. While plantation slaves were frequently encouraged by a variety of incentives, slaves who dug canals were driven to work by brutal force rather than the promise of a plot of ground to raise vegetables, or time to spend with family.
It is not surprising that, "at night," according to a white overseer, some of these slaves "would begin to sing their native songs. . . . In a short while they would become so wrought up that, utterly oblivious to the danger involved, they would grasp their bundles of personal effects, swing them on their shoulders, and setting their faces toward Africa, would march down into the water singing as they [were] recalled to their senses only by the drowning of some of their party" (104).
Despite examples of such brutality, a rough equality sometimes prevailed in the communities of slaves and free blacks and of poor whites who lived in close contact on the waters or in communities near the water's edge. These communities often helped runaway slaves and sometimes supported the maroon camps that thrived in the swamps. It was not accidental, according to Cecelski, that both Denmark Vesey (the leader of a slave conspiracy in South Carolina in 1822) and David Walker (the author of a well-known pamphlet in 1829 advocating slave resistance) were both products of this African American maritime culture. 
One of the most outstanding figures that Cecelski discusses is Abraham Galloway. The son of a white planter and a black slave, Galloway was able to hire out his own time in Wilmington until 1857 when he was able to make a deal with a schooner captain who transported him to Philadelphia. In the years before the Civil War Galloway worked with the abolitionist movement in Ohio, and then in Boston. When war broke out, he returned to the South were he served as a spy for the Union army. By 1863 Galloway had become "the most important political leader among the more than 10,000 former slaves" who had flocked to the Union army in North Carolina (187). Although much of his activities were secret, he was probably involved in organizing a black militia unit, and with negotiating its incorporation into the Federal army on terms of equal pay, and benefits for their service. Galloway was one of a handful of black leaders who met with Lincoln in the White House in 1864.
Elected to the North Carolina state senate during the tumultuous early years of Reconstruction, he pressed a radical agenda far ahead of the wishes of his white supporters. He fought against the black codes, fought for full civil rights for blacks, for female suffrage, and for public education. Always candid about his own parentage, when white conservatives in the Senate expressed concern about the threat of black men to "white womanhood," Galloway could point to his own ancestry as proof that the "threat" worked both ways. He declared that, "the best blood in Brunswick county flowed" in his veins, and if he could do it, he "would lance [him]self and let it out" (197).
When the KKK tried to intimidate blacks from going to the polls in Wilmington, Galloway's belligerent attitude, Cecelski suggests, inspired blacks to resist them. As a result, the KKK was never able to gain a foothold in Wilmington during the period of Reconstruction. When Galloway died of fever in 1870, 6,000 mourners joined in a procession half a mile to the church. It was, as one newspaper described it, "the largest funeral in the state's history" (201). The chapter on Galloway alone is worth the price of the book, and would make for a good reading assignment for any undergraduate history course looking at the era of reconstruction.
Cecelski's book has extensive footnotes, illustrations, and maps. The writing is clear, and well-focused, if sometimes a little repetitive.
One could quibble perhaps that the chapter on Galloway does not fit with the rest of the book since Galloway, himself, had little contact with the sea and with Cecelski's "Black maritime culture." This perhaps points to a larger difficulty with the book. The North Carolina "maritime culture" that Cecelski describes is a very open-ended construction. Denmark Vesey, for example, had no tie that I know of with North Carolina. Cecelski stresses the continuity of this maritime culture, rather than its change over time. The central historical events he discusses are the Civil War and Reconstruction in the single chapter on Galloway. Cecelski could have placed the events of his book in a broader historical context if he had discussed at greater length, for example, the impact of the American Revolution, or the seaman's acts of the 1820s, or the Nat Turner insurrection, or the 1933 hurricane on "North Carolina's African American maritime culture."
Nevertheless, Cecelski's work gives substantial evidence that this "maritime culture" that he conjures up was not a monolithic presence but was itself a very varied and diverse thing subject to large historical forces, and these comments are minor criticisms of a generally excellent book.
. For a recent discussion of the Vesey conspiracy see "Forum: The Making of a Slave Conspiracy," part one, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Volume LVIII, Number 4 (October 2001): pp. 913-976; and "Forum: The Making of a Slave Conspiracy," part two, William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd Series, Volume LIX, Number 1 (January 2002): pp. 135-202; David Walker's Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, Boston, 1829.
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Alexander O. Boulton. Review of Cecelski, David S., The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina.
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Copyright © 2002 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.