The Seaman Protection Certificates (SPCs), also known as the Seaman Passport was authorized by the 4th US Congress on May 28, 1796, to protect the United States individual seamen from impressment by the British Royal Navy. The Britain Royal Navy impressed over 9,000 men who claimed to be US citizens!
Even one of the causes of the War of 1812 was this impressment, humiliation and dishonoring of the US seaman.The Seaman Protection Certificates for the men of color protected, and assisted in identifying them as free men! Thousands of other seamen of color became captains, worked on commercial ships, transported passengers, and prisoners, as well as “cutting in,” or removing the blubber of the whales. The individual applications help identify these invisible men, the type of vessels, journey, destinations, ship wrecks, and desertions.
Until slavery was abolished, seaman of color were always in danger of being enslaved at US, and international seaports. The SPCs assisted in identifying them as free men of color, while sailing the oceans of the world!
Jonathan Nicoll Haven (1754-1799), of Shelter Island was among the members of Congress, who made the decision to protect the seamen! Originally, the completed SPC applications were filed in the US Custom District offices, but today are found in museums, historical societies, and library archives.
Reviewing the certificates illustrate that many local men of color roamed the oceans of the world from 1 to 4 years sailing from the port of New London (CT), Providence (RI), Bristol (RI), Cold Spring Harbor (NY), Sag Harbor (NY), Nantucket (MA), and New Bedford (MA).
The SPC application required a seaman’s name, age, birthplace, current residence, physical description including height, and color of hair, eyes, as well as distinguishing marks such as tattoos, birthmarks, scars, or disfigurements. In most cases, the seaman’s complexion was given not his race!
The birthplace given by Samuel Havens (1781), an Indian, was Islip (NY), when he sailed on the schooner Sally on August 17, 1805 to the West Indies. Just eleven (11) years before, the schooner Sally and her cargo were seized, under the authority of an act of Congress “To prohibit the carrying on the Slave Trade from the United States to any foreign place or country” (3 Cong. Ch. 11, March 22, 1794, 1 Stat. 347).
The current residence would vary for many seaman, who would seek boarding houses near a ports! Nathanial Murray (1786) of Huntington (NY), an Indian indicated his current residence was New London (CT), when he sailed on the brig Mary Ann on October 2, 1816. But, on September 28, 1815, Nathaniel had listed New York City as place of residence on his “Affidavit of US-Born Seaman”.
At the age of 19-years old, Josiah Fowler (1786), an Indian of East Hampton (NY) on November 25, 1805 went to sea. The following year on December 30, he sailed on the schooner Wealthy to Demerara (Guyana), South America, a British Colony. At the time, Josiah sailed into Demerara, slavery was well-established in the colony!
The British Government passed on March 25, 1807, an act to abolition the slave trade, but not slavery within its colonies. Almost six months later on September 10, Josiah was on the brig Antelope, as she sailed to the West Indies. He was probably on board the brig returning from St. Thomas, West Indies, when she was taken possession by the British frigate (warship) Hebe.
According to the “Report of Cases Adjudged in the District Court of South Carolina 1792-1809”, six (6) of the brig’s crew were put on the warship. One of the warship officer with seven (7) men boarded the brig on December 6. The brig was ordered to sail for Jamaica, since it did not have a “Certificate of the Cargo” signed by the American Consul. Two days later, the Antelope crew and passengers overpowered the warship Hebe seamen.
On December 20th, the brig Antelope sailed safely into Charleston Harbor. The crew and passengers that rescued the brig sued for salvage rights! But, the Baltimore owners filed a plea to the suit alleging that the crew and passengers were not entitled to salvage rights. In the decision, the judge stated, “I cannot give salvage as a legal right, I think the actors (crew and passengers) are entitled to liberal compensation for their zealous, though mistaken endeavors to serve the owners”. Whether Josiah Fowler remained on the brig, or was taken to Jamaica has not been determined.
By June 2, 1809, Josiah was aboard the schooner Hope with Captain George Gilbert on a journey to Cayenne, French Guiana (SA). Guiana had become a French Colony in 1801, and just 3-years later there was a slave revolt. When Josiah sailed to Cayenne, the Portuguese and Brazilians occupied the country. It was not until 1817 that the country was restored to France, and it took until 1848 for slavery to be abolished.
The threat of US seaman of color being placed into slavery continued, on August 18, 1823 more than 10,000 slaves were involved in the Demerara Rebellion. The young Josiah was always endanger as he sailed through the British West Indies, French Guiana, and the Demerara Colony. Finally in 1833, the British Government passed an act to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.
Sailing on another commercial vessels, Charles Faro (Pharaoh), an Indian, born 1788 in Hartford (CT) was living in New London when he went to sea on the sloop Polly on July 11, 1806. This was just one year after, the sloop Polly with Captain Daniel Griswold was reported with a commercial cargo of rum and oranges loaded on board at Grenada and St. Croix. The sloop was heading for the Port of New London, where Charles Faro would complete his SPC, then join the crew. A SPC was completed whether a seaman was joining the crew of a commercial or transport vessel.
John Bents (1794), a mulatto of New York was living in New London when he sailed on the ship Flora on July 3, 1829. The Flora was a convict penal transport ship engaged on a voyage to carry convicted felons under sentence to their place of exile. It arrived in the East Indies on November 8, 1829. This was unique, since most seaman were now going on voyages around the southern most points of South America, or Africa in search of the whale.
Sailing around Cape of Good Hope, and Cape Agulhas, the dividing points of the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean, James Bunn, Jr. (1811-1895), an Indian from Southampton (NY) was a seaman on the vessel Chelsea on November 27, 1839. The Chelsea sailed the oceans unpredictable mammoth rogue waves reaching around 30-feet causing more than 150 ship wrecks before the Cape Agulhas Lighthouse was built in 1848.
As mentioned, the complexion indicated on a seaman’s SPC applications is just a clues to his race. On October 2, 1841, James sailed on the bark Eugene, where this time his complexion was given as mulatto. A seaman’s age can also be calculated from his SPC application.
On May 20, 1848, William Anderson listed as a mulatto born in New York sailed on the bark Superior, of Sag Harbor on May 20, 1848. He was just 18-years old, therefore born in 1830 when he sailed with Captain Thomas Welcome Roys (Royce) on a whaling voyage that would become famous.
The Captain stated, “I entered the Arctic Ocean about the middle of July and cruised from continent to continent, going as high as lat. 70, and saw whales wherever I went, ‘cutting in’ my last whale on the 22nd of Aug. and returning through Behring’s Straits on the 28th of the same month.”
He filed a report in Honolulu around September 4, 1848 with 1,800 bbls of whale oil on board mentioning “while cruising in the Arctic Ocean, they discovered a huge whale, which they were confident was too large for them to ‘cut in’ with a vessel of the size of the Superior.” The Corrector, the Sag Harbor newspaper on January 31, 1849 continued, “All agree in asserting that it was the largest whale they ever saw and if it had been taken must have yield more than three hundred barrels of oil. It was not thro’ fear for themselves, but the ‘whaling gear’ of the vessel, that they allowed the King of the Arctic Ocean quietly to hold on his way”. The bark Superior was already back in Sag Harbor by May 5, 1849.
Part II will look at the ship records, logbooks, crew list, and other seaport custom house records give a peek into the lives of the invisible seamen of color. The adventures of these men are not mentioned on their Seaman Protection Certificates, but in the ship logbooks that have survived in museums, historical societies, and library archives.