Ellie Brigida: Welcome to Sweetbitter, where we explore the untold history of women and queer pirates. We’re your hosts, Ellie Brigida…
…and Leesa Charlotte.
EB: This episode is our first of two episodes discussing the Black Atlantic.
LC: But before we get into that, let’s welcome our resident pirate expert, Alyse, for a game of Fact or Fiction. Hi, Alyse.
Alyse Knorr: Hello, friends.
EB: Oh, I’m excited for this one. I might have peeked at the outlines, so what do you have to say to us today? What are we talking about?
AK: Did pirates really have a lover in every port, so to speak?
EB: I mean, are we saying like, quite literally? Like, what if they had a lover and like a few ports? Does that count as fact?
AK: Yeah, just basically, were they as, like, you know, promiscuous as they are depicted in mythology?
LC: I mean, okay, so first of all, now I have Mambo Number Five in my head.
EB: A little bit of Jessica in my port.
LC: I’m going to say no, because they had their love and their mates on the ships, if we’re going with the whole gay pirates thing. So that’s going to be my answer. And Ellie, I’m kind of just handballing you the other.
EB: Yeah. Okay. And so you think that they were faithful to their loves on the ship? Always.
LC: I don’t think they were necessarily faithful. I just don’t think that they needed, you know, lovers in every port, you know, or even multiple ports.
EB: Okay, because they got enough love in on the ships, is what you’re saying?
LC: They had their life partners on the ship.
EB: They were very satisfied with their life partners on the ship.
EB: I think this is a fact, but I do want to mention that some ships did have like codes of conduct for these things. Like we literally just talked about Ching Shih, who said like, if you sleep with a woman who is not your wife, you will die, right? But I feel like that was uncommon. And she made that pirate code because pirates were known to just, like, have a wife, quote unquote, and then sleep with whoever they wanted. They slept with like their prisoners. Like they are very much known for being like, very promiscuous, pretty misogynistic, like raping and pillaging was like not just a saying, it was like what they did and what they were known for. So I’m gonna say fact, but I’m also going to give a caveat of lovers but like, not in the consensual way. But they just took what they wanted whenever they were in port.
LC: Yes. Which I was taking lovers very literally to mean actual lovers.
EB: I like your beautiful, like, interpretation of faithful love.
LC: I do feel like this Fact or Fiction section really illustrates that the world is not black and white. It’s shades of gray.
EB: Yes, exactly. 50 shades, yes.
LC: And that each time we tried to give a definitive answer we’re like, “But, but…”
EB: But I still will go with fact, in terms of the promiscuity of pirates. They loved having sex and they loved doing it as much as they could, in whatever port they could.
LC: Isn’t that everybody, really?
EB: I mean, valid. And in whatever ship they could, as well. So that’s my answer.
AK: All right. Well, I mean, Ellie’s right again, in that gray area.
EB: Sorry, Leesa.
AK: So, yeah, I mean, it did depend time and place and ship, like we talked about with Ching Shih last week. Her pirates were staying faithful to their wives, or they might get the death penalty. So yeah, it depended on the pirate ship. But if we’re talking about Golden Age pirates in the Caribbean, they were pretty promiscuous, just because they knew they were gonna have such short lives. They knew that like the lifespan of a pirate was like three years tops. So they were just trying to live it up. And prostitution was really, really big in all of these port communities, and all these harbors–prostitution of all genders. And then of course, on the ships, they were sleeping around a lot. We’re gonna be talking about, in a few weeks, a marine sailor’s diary of everyone he slept with in the 19th century.
LC: Yes, I really wish that I kept one of these diaries, because it was always one of my favorite history stories. Like John Maynard Keynes has one, like a spreadsheet basically, of all of the people that he slept with, and I’m like, damn, that’s some record keeping. I wish I could go back to 19-year-old me and be like, yo.
AK: It’s never too late to start!
EB: Yeah, exactly. I’m like, you could start this right now. Like you probably remember some of them, at least.
LC: I do track it on my period tracking app.
EB: There you go.
LC: I love that Ellie you’re like, you probably remember some people.
EB: I’m just saying. I mean, no shame in that. I’m just saying.
AK: Leesa, you’re such a pirate.
EB: It was a long time ago. You know what I mean? Memories fade. That’s all I’m saying.
LC: My memories do fade! Of like my younger like, you know, partners from when I was younger.
EB: Yeah, right, you’re like, “Oh, that person?” Or like you know when you like look in your phone and it’s like somebody’s name and next to it, it just says like the bar you were at? Yeah. No, I got nothing.
LC: Every woman I’ve made best friends with at like 3 AM in the bathroom.
EB: Literally nothing. Like nothing is happening up here.
LC: And we’re like, we’re gonna catch up. This is gonna be different than all the other times.
AK: There’s no friendship deeper than that one, but no friendship that lasts shorter than that one. It’s the deepest, most intense, and shortest friendship on earth.
EB: Oh, yeah. You like–you experience so many emotions, too, I feel like you’re like laughing, you’re crying. You’re like everything. And then you’re like, wow, that was like 10 years of my life. See you never. Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Oh my gosh. So many times I walk into the bathroom, actually at my shows. I’ll walk into the bathroom like during a break and there’ll be girls crying and they’re like–one time this girl even literally, she took her phone and she goes, “Look at him. Look at him. He’s so ugly. He’s this ugly and he made me cry.” I was like, “Well, I’m a lesbian, honey. So like, I will tell you to leave him any day.” Like there’s nothing. There’s no–you’re not going to get anything from me.
LC: She would never.
AK: Come join our team. We have rolling membership, no membership dues. You’re welcome.
EB: Unless you want a little card. What was the–what’s the card?
AK: The Daughters of Bilitis?
EB: Yeah, I just bring cards for Daughters of Bilitis in every bathroom I go to. I’m like, “Here. We meet on Sundays.”
AK: One time when a friend of mine came out, I literally made her a card and like a certificate. And I was like, “Congratulations. This is a big moment.”
LC: I’m a really big fan of making people certificates for things. I do it sometimes, I would just randomly send it. I mean, who doesn’t want a certificate?
AK: I know one time I made one for a friend who like–she had been putting off doing the laundry for a long time. And then when she did it, I sent her a certificate about like doing her laundry.
EB: That’s so beautiful.
AK: What do you make certificates for, Leesa?
LC: I’m trying to think of the last one that I did. I definitely have like done it for bisexual people who don’t feel bisexual enough before. Where I’m like, you know what, what do you need? What do you need?
AK: They need that. Yeah.
LC: Do you want a certificate saying that you’re bi enough? I will make it for you. I will send it to you. And so I’ve done that one before. I feel like I make them for my roommate a bit, but I can’t remember the last one I made her, but I think that’s all.
EB: I love it. Everyone needs a bi enough certificate.
LC: Oh my goodness. 100%.
EB: We end up getting like a flood of emails being like, “Please, Leesa, get me my bi certificate.”
LC: Look, if you need a certificate to say you’re bi enough, you just email us, and I will make one for you.
EB: Yes, beautiful.
LC: And I am a self proclaimed bi-con, and I will make it for you.
AK: And if you need a certificate for doing the laundry, I will make one for you.
EB: I’m like, I don’t make certificates. But I would make you a certificate for waking up in the morning and getting out of bed. You did it! You woke up today. I’m proud of you.
LC: Sometimes you need it.
EB: Incredible. Alright, well, this has been honestly a really beautiful way to devolve at the beginning of this episode.
LC: We love to do it.
EB: Into these certificates.
LC: I’m going to make you a certificate because you continue to win Fact or Fiction, Ellie.
AK: Yeah, she’s been crushing it. She’s been crushing it.
EB: Give it to me. We should be keeping track. People should be betting on us, you know what I mean? Like, there’s like pools out there and they’re like, who’s gonna win? Duh duh duh, duh duh duh.
LC: How do we make money off of that though? Can we make money off of that?
EB: I mean, not legally.
LC: We’ll throw the game, Ellie.
EB: We good. Thank you Alyse, as we’re talking about illegal gambling on our show, yipee. We’re pirates. Thank you so much, Alyse, we loved talking to you about our Fact or Fiction. We’ll be back after a quick break.
LC: And we’re back. As we said at the top of the episode, today we’re discussing the racial politics of piracy and the untold black maritime histories.
EB: We’re going to set the scene with a few clips from two of our guests. First up is historian Jamie Goodall, who we’ve heard before. A reminder that her views do not represent those of the US military. Then we’ll hear from Ryan Burns, a term instructor of history at Regis University.
Jamie Goodall: Some pirates would take enslaved peoples and they would free them and they would give them a couple of options. They would either allow them to attack the overseers and captains on board the ships that they’ve been enslaved on, they would offer to take them to the nearest island where they could form a maroon community, or they would allow them to join their pirate ship. Now, as far as how free they were on those pirate ships, there is debate as to whether or not they were more enslaved on the pirate ship. Some say that they were treated as equal partners on some pirate ships, whereas on other pirate ships, they were just sort of transitioned from one slavery to another. And some pirates were very active in the transatlantic slave trade. They had no problem treating enslaved peoples as yet another commodity. And so, for them, slavery was an economic means to an end. And so the racial politics are really complicated on board pirate ships, because you have those that were sort of very egalitarian and were against the man and sort of that bottom up style of leadership. Whereas other pirates were no holds barred, just terrible atrocities. It’s on a spectrum, if you will, it just varies quite significantly from ship to ship.
Ryan Burns: Pirates of the Golden Age have a very interesting and complex relationship with issues of race. So there were some pirates who actually were very vocal about seeing their attempts to rob and plunder on the seas as creating a new equal world. And not only are barriers of class broken down in that effort, but also barriers of race. So on some pirate ships, there were pirates with more or less a drive to seize slave ships so as to free slaves on board, and then offer slaves the opportunity to join as equal crew members with an equal share in the plunder. And there’s plenty of evidence of not only black crew members who have an equal share with their white counterparts, but also black members of different pirate ships that had senior leadership roles, whether as lieutenants, including some, in some cases, as captains. Blackbeard’s immediate subordinate was himself likely an escaped slave. But we know very little else about him other than he served on Blackbeard’s ship, under him directly. And so there’s a sense that pirates, in some cases, are creating a sphere of relative equality against the world that is around them. And yet, at the same time, there were some pirates that attacked slave ships so as to sell those slaves off. So you had some pirates that very much weren’t invested in breaking down barriers of race, and you had some that were. And then you had many pirates that simply saw this equality as something that was practically useful, because there was a common enemy that would hang every member of the crew worthy to overpower them. So there’s a clear sense that, well, we can’t do anything that would jeopardize this effort in any way. So all hands on deck literally means exactly that, that you need any support that you can possibly have. So in short, some pirates free slaves, some pirate sell slaves, some pirates do both. Bartholomew Roberts, one of the most effective pirate captains during the Golden Age, he seizes over 400 ships, and his main base of operation was off the west coast of Africa. He, in some cases, replenished crew members by overtaking slave ships and liberating slaves and having those slaves join his crew. At the same time that he was doing that, he would, in some cases, sell slaves that he acquired if he had a sufficient number of crew members, or he would simply sink slave ships with all the slaves on board, if there was a firefight that he needed to get out of. So his conception of equality was very practically based. And there’s a very interesting way that race is approached in the General History of the Pirates, too, where Defoe, or Captain Charles Johnson, or whoever, in fact, wrote the book, will sometimes emphasize the social equality aboard pirate ships as a means of attacking piracy, as a means of saying that pirates are these kind of dangerous, libertine revolutionaries that need to be kept far away from any reader of this text. And in the description of Libertalia, this utopian pirate republic in Madagascar, there is complete equality of the races. And there’s a heavy emphasis on this fact. So it’s very complicated when it comes to race.
LC: I feel like this is an often used thing, like when people mix together or like, are just, you know, accepting of each other’s differences and treat people like equals, it’s called–
EB: Socialism? Communism? Commies?
LC: Yeah, exactly. Like, how dare you respect people for who they are?
EB: It’s very dangerous. It’s a very dangerous thing for us to have everyone equal.
LC: Acceptance, equality. They’re very dangerous ideas, Ellie. Anyway, Ryan also told us about a famous black pirate referred to as Black Caesar, who I’m sure a lot of people have heard of before. So you’ll hear from him first. And then we’ll hear from author Carole Weatherford, who has written about black maritime history.
RB: We don’t necessarily know his particular name. He’s referred to obliquely as Black Caesar. And if that was, in fact, his name, then that was given to him by the person who purchased him and owned him. There’s all kinds of stories about his origins, that he was an African prince, that he was of royal descent in some way. But we just don’t know. He’s referred to as Black Caesar. And there’s a kind of very thin historical record about his life.
Carole Weatherford: Black Caesar, the name Black Caesar comes to mind, much like the cowboy tradition, I think like it’s something like one in four cowboys were African American, and you find a similar representation in the vocation of pirate. You know, they were drawn to piracy because it extended freedom to them. It’s the same way that African Americans get erased from any, any history. You know, first, the stories are not told, or perhaps the people who lived it did not commit their own stories to paper, or no one thought enough of them to commit their stories to paper. And of course, many of these people were illiterate, so they could not have committed their stories to paper themselves. And the stories that get lifted up, or that get retold, are the stories of the people who write their stories down. And you know, so it’s all about who is telling the story, and whose story gets told. And so those stories just did not get told, because that did not fit the stereotype of African Americans that white supremacists wanted to foster and to perpetuate. So, you know, African Americans are not to be depicted as having independent spirits or having intellect or bravery enough to be a good cowboy or to be a good sailor, or certainly not to command the ship. So you know that is typically how stories get omitted, erased, and skewed.
LC: Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?
EB: I thought you said you had something to say, Leesa, not something to sing.
LC: I had something to sing. No, but when I was listening to that, that’s all I could think of is those lines, is like what is like, legacy? It’s like, whoever tells your story. And obviously–I mean, that’s our whole podcast. I feel like it always comes out.
EB: I mean, of course it does. Because that’s our mission statement, baby. Yes. I think also, too, like thinking about where they’re talking about, like Black and African American cowboys and pirates, right? Like, there’s this tendency for Black people to be drawn to these outlaw society-type things. I think it like comes to the civil disobedience, right? Even if you’ve been taught to bring up like Martin Luther King. Like the whole point is like, if you don’t agree with society, like fight against it, right. And so they’re living on the outskirts of society, because they can’t live freely within the actual confines of society, right?
LC: Well, I mean, yeah, like, why would you want to live in a society that doesn’t accept you?
LC: And I think like, that’s the point of like, piracy. And that’s like the idea of being a good person in a society and I was just–didn’t Roxane Gay write an article just recently about this, about the fact that like, within this society, you can’t be an innocent person, because you’re participating in society, you’re participating in a society that is corrupt. And then we talk about these outlaws as if, you know, they’re the worst and like, there are bad things about them. But, you know.
EB: To me it just makes sense that, like, of course, not every one of these pirate ships was white. Like, it makes sense that there were a lot of different people on those pirate ships, particularly Black people. And we learned a lot from Carole about not just Black pirates, but also about how water relates to the African American experience, and about the many lesser known stories from Black maritime history.
CW: I think African Americans have had a love-hate relationship with water. Of course, delivering people into bondage, of course, that is a reference to the Middle Passage, the perilous journey that captive Africans took in the bowels of ships from Africa to either the West Indies or ultimately to the Americas. Yet, some enslaved African Americans escaped via water routes. Granted, most African Americans escaped on foot via the Underground Railroad, but there, you know, there were some escapes that were over water, and they waited in the water to elude hounds and patrollers, who could not pick up their sin after they waited into the water. And so there’s that famous spiritual weighed in the water. And occasionally, a river was actually the border, or the only thing standing between enslaved Black people and freedom. So, you know, there are stories of African Americans crossing the Ohio River, for example, to free soil. Even Harriet Tubman did part of her journey during her initial escape was overwater. One that I’m particularly intrigued by is Absalom Boston, who was a whaling captain of the ship industry. He was out of Nantucket, Massachusetts, of course, it was a whaling capital, and whaling, at the time, was the fifth largest industry in the United States. And on board these whaling ships, there was kind of a different set of rules. It was more democratic perhaps than on land. So each member of the crew was respected for what he usually–they were usually men–what he brought to the task. And the men had a measure of freedom, as long as they were on the water. But then when they came on shore, the men who were enslaved were once again, you know, treated as enslaved people, as property. And free Blacks who worked on these ships were once again treated as second-class citizens. Actually, Absalom Boston was Prince Boston’s nephew, Prince Boston was an enslaved whaler out of Nantucket, and both of them sued for various rights during their time. Absalom Boston sued for the rights for his daughter to attend the white school. Many of the white people in the community at that time in the Nantucket community were Quakers. And although they were abolitionists, they did not necessarily want Black people on equal footing with them either. So they did not want to attend school. But Absalom Boston did, he had the money to fund this legal battle, because he had been a whaler and also a merchant. And he did prevail. And of course, I’m intrigued with him because of his last name–Boston, which is my maiden name. I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up Frederick Douglass. I’m in the midst of research about my family’s heritage. And much of my father’s side of the family hailed from a plantation called White House on the eastern shore of Maryland, in Talbot County. Now Talbot County, since we’re talking about water, has more miles of shoreline than any other county in the United States. The county seat of Easton only has like 10 or 15,000 people, but there are 600 miles of shoreline in Talbot County. And so White House is on the Wye River in Talbot County, and it was owned by the Lloyd family, it still is. It’s in the 11th generation of ownership. And the most famous African American who was enslaved there was Frederick Douglass. In his autobiography he wrote about his time at White House, he wrote about a member of my family. But one thing that I want–one anecdote that I want to bring forward is the fact that Frederick Douglass looked out at the water from the banks of the Wye River, because this plantation, you know, was a waterfront plantation–and he looked at the sailboats and yearned to be free. He equated, you know, the wind and the sails and the boats with freedom. And he did eventually become a ship caulker, and because he was literate, he was able to fake his way to freedom. The most famous mutiny, of course, is the Amistad Mutiny, and I don’t recall the date of it, but of course, there was a movie about it that was produced by Steven Spielberg and directed, I think, by Debbie Allen. And what it involved was a mutiny on board this ship, and then the ship docked in Connecticut, and there was a trial, the mutineers were jailed. There was a trial. And John Adams, who had been president, was the defendants’ lawyer, and they also prevailed and were returned to Africa. Ultimately, return to Africa.
EB: I love this idea. I mean, it’s something that’s come up a lot as we’re talking about pirates of like, the water as a place of freedom, the water as a place of escape from the rules of society. Also as someone from Boston I’m like, Absalom Boston seems like a really incredible person. I’ve never been to Nantucket. It’s a little too expensive for me, but I’m sure it was not quite the same then. I love hearing these stories of people that we have never heard of before. Or another story from obviously, like Frederick Douglass, like people that we have heard a lot about, but hearing more about their ideas of like, what does freedom mean. And like how the sea is a part of that for them, is just so cool to me.
LC: Yeah. Ships in the sea played an enormous role in slave revolts and slave escapes, as we learn from historian David Cecelski.
David Cecelski: Every time there’s a slave revolt, every time there’s a slave insurrection, somewhere boat men and women are going to be close by. For example, in the early 1800s, there’s a series of two–they’re called the Easter Revolt in the Albemarle Sound area of the North Carolina coast, and up into Virginia. Everyone caught–you can look at the map of where the revolt played out over several different villages and across a number of different counties. They’re all on the river–it’s the slave water men and women that are connecting all those places. So, who were these people? Was this common? Were there slave water men and women? What did it mean within their world? And how did they connect enslaved people here in general to the outside world? The short answer is, if you had gone to the North Carolina coast, and looked out on the waterfront in a place like Southport or Beaufort or New Bern or any of these places before the Civil War, almost everybody you would see would have been African American working on the water. In every capacity. I discovered a new slave memoir by a man named William Henry Singleton that he wrote after he got free. It caught my eye right away, because he grew up just seven, eight miles from where I did. And when he was young, William Henry Singleton, his owner kept selling him away from his plantation, and away from his mother, probably because he was family. And every time he’s sold away, even as a young child, six or seven years old, he escaped and comes back to his mother. He doesn’t go north, he’s seven, he’s eight, he’s nine. Sometimes it’s only 10 miles away, or 20 miles away. But at one point, he’s sold all the way to Georgia. And he still gets back. It helped that he was a child, people didn’t suspect him as much. Like once he was on the road as they might have somebody older. On one occasion, he gets close to his mother’s home. And there’s a bay in between where he’s at, and where his plantation is where his mother’s enslaved, and it’s getting dark. And he knows that the slave patrols that are looking for slaves that are loose are getting close to him. And he says, “I looked down on the water, and it was so late, all I could see was a silhouette, but I could see the silhouette of a fisherman in a boat.” And he said, “I couldn’t tell if it was a Black man or a white man, just I knew if it was a white man, then if I give my position away, I’ll be caught.” But he says, “I had never seen a white fisherman before. So I signaled to the man.” Admittedly, we’re in a very African American area. But knowing that area the way I do, that could have been an enslaved man, or there was also a free African American community there. But either way, he signals to the man, the man comes over. Turns out he was African American, and he takes him across the bay.
LC: These kind of stories are always so heartbreaking. There’s an Australian film actually called Rabbitproof Fence. I don’t know if anybody in America has seen it. But it’s a similar sort of story. Australia had this program where they were basically trying to like–there’s no like, nice way to say this, because this is actually the words that they use, like “breed out” indigenous people. And so they would take any mixed children away from their parents and like raise them as white in these schools. And these three kids–this is like, based on a true story–walked all along the middle of Australia by themselves to like, go to find their mom. Oh, wow. I’m tearing up thinking about it. And it’s just like making me think about like that and just how fucking awful these stories are. And yeah, I’ve never really–like obviously I understood that that probably happened, but that’s like my first account of actually hearing that happening within like the slave trade community. I know the history of it in Australia, but that’s just really sad and I’m glad that you know–glad that that child was saved, at least.
EB: Yeah, it is. It’s so, so heartbreaking. David told us that along the eastern coastline, it was extremely common for slaves to work as river pilots or crabbers or fisherpeople, which meant that they were very experienced sailors.
DC: And so that’s how central to maritime occupations African Americans were. And they did many, many different kinds, everything from extremely independent, working by themselves. In some cases, they were captains of vessels owned by their owner. My first chapter tells a story partly of a man named Moses Grandi, who eventually becomes captain of his own vessel, and probably doesn’t see his owner for three or four months at a time. He’s making his own trades. He’s going back and forth between Albemarle Sound with a crew all the way up to Norfolk, Virginia, and Baltimore and back. That kind of freedom and independence came with, on one hand, it’s very distinctive to the people that worked on the water. Grandi would see workers in the cotton fields as he moved around, in his sailing vessel. And he knew he was like relatively lucky. It meant in a way that he had sort of the space, you know, like this liminal space, he could help slaves to escape, and watermen were always–watermen always escaped more than any other occupation of enslaved people, and the Underground Railroad in easte or north–kind of places like East or North Carolina–always operated towards the sea. This thing about white people helping slaves escape 10 miles a day in the back of a little carriage. I’m sure that happened other places some, that was extremely rare. It was black people, usually black watermen and women, getting enslaved people down rivers and to ships. You probably weren’t thinking about it at the time, but I bet you’ve read Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. That’s how Harriet Jacobs escapes. She goes by ship. It’s not easy. Most were caught, vast majority, I’m sure, were caught. The slaveholder’s world relied on those slave watermen and women to move their goods and supply their families with fish and seafood and to pilot their ships and all kinds of other things. But they also built up walls, specifically aimed at those people. In many seaports, you had to have a special badge to come into this work district. There was a time in North Carolina where it was the death penalty for a free Black man to talk to a sailor, to talk to a sailor. Because of the danger that they considered these worlds. On the Cape Fear River, the law required the owners and captains of ships to fumigate the ships twice, whenever they left the port. So if you’re in Wilmington, North Carolina, you had to close all the hatches. And they would put in basically sort of a turpentine tar mixture and light it to drive fugitive slaves up, and then it would go down river 20 miles to where the river met the ocean. And they had to do it again there.
EB: This is crazy. Because like what I learned in school, like what I think most Americans learn in school, is like we’re talking about the Underground Railroad that was like, very much on foot, very much like driven by white abolitionists. And obviously, we talked about like, a few very small amounts of Black people who helped other Black people, but like this is talking about–no. And of course this makes sense. Because who writes the histories? White people, and they’re like, “Look, we were so good. We were such good abolitionists, look at us.” And it’s like, yes, there were some, but the majority of the people who were helping other Black people were Black people on these ships, like getting them to safety. Ideally–it’s also very, very heartbreaking that most of them probably did not make it. But I do think it is really good for us to understand that, like, it was not just white abolitionists who were helping. It was very much like Black people helping other Black people.
LC: Yeah, I feel like sometimes it’s a real privilege to explore American history as a non-American because while there like some things that filter through international politics and stuff, I didn’t really study American history until I was at a university level, and I didn’t study American history from an American perspective. Some of my lecturers were American, but they were also Americans living overseas who are like very learned about these things and had like a bit more of a like, overarching, true perspective on history than what’s taught in schools. But it’s always interesting to hear–I’ll like learn about something for the first time, but I’m seeing like a lot of white people learning it for the first time as well, like the Tulsa massacre, for example. Obviously it makes sense that I learned that when I learned that, because I’m coming in, like, pretty blank about American history, but to see that like that had just like not being taught in schools seems like wild to me.
LC: Anyway, y’all have been brainwashed. But David told us more about the role that the sea played in the slave resistance and liberation, especially in terms of information sharing.
DC: A very unique and important intellectual culture of slave resistance, of liberation, grew in the maritime districts of the South. If you were an African American man or woman in even a little southern seaport, you knew what was happening in Haiti, and you’re getting the latest abolitionist literature from New England. You were also at this nexus where most of these seaports would have been–like, the river would have been coming down to the seaport, you’re meeting the sailors and such as their ships come and go in the seaport. But you’re also there, at the end of a line, where the river probably comes down to your seaport, bringing the cotton and everything else that would then be loaded on those ships. So everybody upriver is also learning what you know, all those river boats and all those canoes and such that are moving up and down the rivers, they stop at night on the side, they tie up. Most of them only have slave crews. There’s not a white man around. And once they do, and night falls, the local enslaved people from the plantations would gather around. There would be sharing music, there’d be sharing of socializing, and romance in some cases. And of course, there would be the sharing of news about Haiti and New England and all this other world. One of the enslaved men that I wrote about in New Bern, North Carolina, was subscribing to The New York Post while he was still enslaved. This is not the world that we were like–this is not the slavery we were taught. I don’t mean to say that everybody that was part of this maritime subterranean culture was, you know, literate like that. But there was this whole other thing, where enslaved people connected to the sea were part of this larger Atlantic world, and in many cases of a larger revolutionary movement to end slavery throughout that world. Before the Civil War, all this, the radical parts of it, were helping slaves to escape, it has to be a subterranean thing has to be a secret, clandestine thing. Once the Civil War starts, it just burst out.
EB: So what was the role of sailors in the sea during the Civil War? David has more.
DC: It becomes apparent that they’re organized, that they’re political, that women are especially prominent and political in it. As soon as they gather in this area on the coast, they’re organizing relief societies, they organize their own black militia. There are African American women, I think we would call them spy masters. One that I wrote about, her name was Maryanne Starkey, and she ran a boarding house and one of the seaports–New Bern. She had been a slave, you know, a year earlier, half year earlier. But it meant that she had all these people in, out, all these white people. But she also was the doorway, there was a whole network of enslaved spies, that once they reached here, freedom here, they were going back out, in some cases just on their own, they’re freelancing, they’re going, they’re going back to help family escape, to lead other people, to lead other people back. And other cases, they’re doing it for the Union army. And in a lot of ways, the Union army can be pretty disappointing if you want them to be like, good on race during this time. But it was a big army, and there were people, including militant abolitionists, who ended up on the margins, but who were important, and they reach out to African American militant groups in the north to become intelligence agents inside the Confederacy. I wrote a whole book about one of them. His name was Abraham Galloway, and he worked with Marianne Starkey in New Bern, and he had escaped from a little seaport in North Carolina, by ship in 1857. He had gone to Canada and gotten involved with militant black groups there and the John Brown crowd and he was actually part of a plan to do a second John Brown.
EB: And yet again, we have women leading the way again. I’m very much here for Marianne Starkey as this like, incredible spy in the Civil War. Like, I’m here for it, former slave, like she’s amazing. Incredible.
LC: I also love like the sea ports as news-traveling places. I don’t know if you’ve listened to one of the more recent episodes of our audio engineer Sarah’s podcast, Cruising, which is an awesome podcast, you should all listen to it. But in their Seattle episode, they were talking about like, the lesbian whispers that went around and like, the people would be going like, “Everyone’s in Seattle, like that’s where all the lesbians are.” And so like everyone, like whatever to Seattle, and like, they had all these like networks and like phone numbers, you could call if you like, arrived at a different house, and it just made me think about that.
EB: Love it.
LC: Very, very cool. People always find a way to communicate. Anyway, David told us a lot about Abraham Galloway. So Galloway escaped from slavery at the age of 20 by stowing in the cargo hold of a ship heading from North Carolina to Philadelphia. He had revolutionary ambitions and took a big leadership role during the Civil War.
DC: What they wanted to do was drive the United States into a war to end slavery. Abraham Galloway was in Haiti, helping to organize the quote unquote, second John Brown, when one of the few really militant union army leaders up in Massachusetts at the advice of the man that supplied John Brown’s guns, he knew Galloway, so they recruit Galloway out of Haiti, and sent him back home. Basically, he begins to infiltrate the South, and organize networks of enslaved people doing intelligence work, before the first Union troops are ever in North Carolina, and he’s active. Just in his case, he’s acting all the way from Chesapeake Bay to Mississippi. And women did the same thing. There was a woman in the Confederate White House, an African American woman in the Confederate White House, She acted like she was illiterate. And she never protested about anything. She was extremely literate. She was sending intelligence missives through this network for the entire war. All of this, you have to remember, is like this maritime militancy that is being carried forward here. You know, it’s like, this is the reveal. And unlike in a lot of places, as the war goes on, they have no patience with Lincoln, in the area that’s occupied by the Union army, they quickly discover how racist the Union army is, overall, how they abuse African American women, how they carry their white supremacy, not everybody, but a lot. And they’re very frustrated that by the middle of the war, President Lincoln has done the Emancipation Proclamation, that he’s now asking African Americans to serve in the Union Army, and Navy, in very large numbers, and he still hasn’t offered them even the most basic rights of citizenship in exchange, voting rights, nothing. And eventually, in this maritime world, down the North Carolina coast, they say enough is enough, in a way they become kind of a third force. This is the period where they’re organizing their own militia, they realize that they can’t count on the Union to fight for them or look out for them.
LC: I love the audacity here, it’s like, could you please fight in a war so that we can continue to enslave you? Kay, thanks, bye.
EB: It is absolute insanity. But it also just shows like, as we know, like we’ve talked about Abraham Lincoln as this huge abolitionist and like, he really helped all of the Black people and like–there still was racism in the Union Army, which is really not surprising, but very disappointing. David also told us this great story about Galloway and how he demanded emancipation in a really amazing way.
DC: In the spring of 1863, they send the Massachusetts governor, who’s an abolitionist leader, sent a emissary to the seaport of New Bern, because they’ve heard about this militia, the Black militia, they think that a place that had a Black militia would be a good spot to begin to recruit African Americans who had been enslaved in large numbers. Free Blacks have been joining. They’re up in the north, they’ve been joining the Union Army. Now the question is will slaves fight for their freedom in the army? And when they get to New Bern, no, African Americans won’t join. And the emissary, his name is Edward Kinsley–Kinsley keeps wondering, you know, what the hell’s going on here. Like I had heard that these people–like these people had petitioned, they actually petitioned for the right to serve in the Union Army earlier in the war. And now they’ve had this militia and everybody keeps telling him, “Well, you have to talk to Galloway. You know, he’s a white guy, he kind of sends word out to have Galloway come.” It is becoming a national embarrassment to the north. Like they’re supposed to be there to like free the slaves, right. And plus, the Union desperately needs African American soldiers. Eventually, Kinsley’s eating at Marianne Starkey’s boarding house and she tells him that Galloway will see him now. They carry Kinsley, with a bag over his head, to a house on the outskirts of New Bern. And he says in his letters, he says it’s the most frightening experience of his life because they carry him up into an attic where the eaves are kind of like this. And man, Starkey is there to let him in and guide him up. And they take the bag off from his head. And he says, “There’s a long line of armed African American men going down the attic.”
LC: Oh my god. So what did he do?
DC: And Galloway is sitting at the end of that line behind the table, with I think just a candle and a Bible on it. Galloway, in a way, is like the epitome of that maritime culture. He’s illiterate but brilliant. At that point, he’s 26 years old, I think. And he tells Kinsley, you know, this is what we want. And he lists the demands, that if they want African Americans to fight for the Union Army, and he does everything from you know, equal pay and equal outfitting and weapons, to looking out for their elderly and providing schools for the children. And a big one was to force the Confederacy to treat African American prisoners of war as prisoners of war instead of re-enslaving or executing them. And they spent all night hashing through all this, and Kinsley promises everything, most of which he can deliver, and what he could not deliver, they had to know he could deliver. They let him go around sunrise the next morning, and Galloway and his lieutenants disappear back into Confederate lines. They go back across into New Bern, but on the edge it’s a no man’s zone between the Confederate forces and the Union forces. And several days later, people Black and white in New Bern see these large columns of light coming out of the forest, a little bit after midnight. In a single night, some 4000 African American men, women, and children escaped from slavery into New Bern. And the next day, the first regiment, it’s called the African Corps, is what they call themselves. It’s the 35th USCT, United States Colored Troops, is organized there in New Bern, and there will be thousands of more soldiers, Black soldiers, who were former slaves organized. But there’s a lot to unpack there, right? Because like, their attitude towards the union is interesting in one way. But Starkey’s in the center of it, like these people had to be organized already. Like you don’t disappear and two days later or three days later, come back with thousands of people, even though they were still behind. They were still in the Confederacy, they’re able to do this. And as they organize politically, in general, they’re more radical and have a more liberationist way of looking at the world than almost anybody in the north. This has already been incubating there. This is not like the old view was that kind of, you know, a few northern Blacks came down and took care of southern blacks. And they were just happy to be there in the Union army. And they were, you know, good patriotic souls. But they go on, they organize what become the first what we would call today, the first civil rights groups. Below the Mason Dixon Line. They’re called Equal Rights leagues. They were roughly 40% women, you know, one of them is called the John Brown Equal Rights League. There was an Abraham Galloway Equal Rights League.
EB: Alright, so Galloway was a complete badass.
LC: Sounds like.
EB: Very much here for this. It’s not surprising yet again, that like, even in the Union Army, like Black people still had to fight for their rights within the Union Army. But I also, too, am just like, alright, good on Galloway for standing strong, and like getting all of these things for his men, and what I love too, and women, right. Like they already did have a good percentage of women who were helping, as spies, we know that, like women are constantly like, putting those roles of like, I’m gonna be invisible here, because you’ll never suspect that I’m spying on you. So seriously, love it.
LC: Do you know, like the women in the Algerian terrorist movement? They’re the ones who like blew up the bombs? Like they were like the suicide bombers? Because nobody, like nobody suspected them. They just–people don’t pay attention to women. And that’s–look where it gets you. Look where it gets you. Anyway, what ended up happening to him, to Galloway?
EB: In 1864, he and four other black leaders met with President Abraham Lincoln, urging him to advocate for the suffrage of African Americans. And then eventually he served as a senator in the North Carolina General Assembly and was able to vote on the 14th and 15th amendment during his tenure, which gave citizenship and the right to vote to Black people.
LC: What a fucking life. I feel very unaccomplished right now. I mean, he’s pretty awesome. Pretty awesome.
EB: Yes, but it’s okay.
LC: So we wanted to end with some words from Carole that we found to be particularly poignant. So I’ll let her take it from here.
CW: My relatives hail from Talbot County, Maryland, but also Dorchester County, Maryland, which is where Harriet Tubman is from. And both of those are areas where, you know, where there’s a lot of water. One is on the Choptank River. And, of course, I told you about Talbot County with the 600 miles of shoreline. And so I grew up in Baltimore, which is another port city. And there’s something about growing up in a port city that stays with you forever. And you may not appreciate it as much until you move somewhere where there is not a port, and then all of a sudden, you feel landlocked. And that’s kind of how I have felt in the regions of North Carolina, where I live, and fortunately, we do have the mountains and we have the coast and I can go to the beach, but it’s not quite the same as living beside the water. So I just–I think water is such a powerful force. I have a book coming out. I’m not sure when, but it’s called Troubled Waters. It’s about the Selma to Montgomery march, but it’s told from the perspective of a river, of the water. And I conclude the book by saying water is really–is one of the most powerful forces on earth, but that the desire for freedom is even greater.
LC: I don’t know about you, Ellie, but like growing up in Australia, like I spent so much time in the water, like I was obsessed with the water. So I really love this idea. And I just can’t wait to see this book, written through the perspective of a river. But definitely that’s something that like, I love living in major cities, but I hate not being like, able to go easily to the ocean. I mean, I’m surrounded by water, obviously, I live in New York, but yeah, it’s really like, that idea was beautiful to me.
EB: I am a coastal girl. Like I literally–I’ve only ever lived in like a landlocked place for two years of my life. And it was like the most miserable I ever was. And then I was like, why am I so miserable? And I was like, oh, I’m not near the ocean. Like I can literally–I could walk to the beach from my house if I really wanted to. Like, yes, I agree. Like give me the water, like let me live on a coast. There’s just something very freeing about being near the water, I agree.
LC: Mm. Love it. Well, that’s it for today’s episode.
EB: So in the meantime, here’s a taste of what’s to come on Sweetbitter.
LC: Thanks for listening to Sweetbitter. Our next episode will be released on Thursday, March 10th.
EB: If you enjoyed the podcast, please subscribe, rate, and review us. It really helps, especially written reviews on Apple podcasts.
LC: You can also support us on Patreon at patreon.com/sweetbitter.
EB: Sweetbitter is an independent production by me, Ellie Brigida, Alyse Knorr, and Leesa Charlotte, in partnership with Three Springs Media. Our audio engineering is by Sarah Gabrielli. Our production assistant is Thea Smith and our artwork is by Istela Illustrated. Thank you to our guests this week, Jamie Goodall, Ryan Burns, Carole Weatherford, and David Cecelski. You can read more about our guests and where to find them on our website.
LC: You can find us on Twitter and Instagram at @sweetbitterpod, or contact us on our website, sweetbitterpodcast.com.
EB: And this week’s sea shanty was written, performed, and produced by Joshua Nelson. I can’t wait for you to hear it.