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Remembering Pyrrhus Concer, A Slave Who Built An Impressive Whaling Legacy In The 1830s

Photo: Eastville Community Historical Society

 

Despite being born a slave, he possessed virtues that kings lack.

This lovely inscription can be found on the stone marking Pyrrhus Concer’s grave in the Old North End Cemetery, where he is buried alongside his wife, Rachel.

Indeed, Concer was such a well-liked Southampton resident that when he died in 1897 at the age of 83, the New York Times ran an obituary about him. Friends and admirers attended his burial service at the First Presbyterian Church on Meeting House Lane and Main Street, including prominent speakers such as the Rev. Jesse Halsey, who described him as “good as gold.”

The inscription on Concer’s tombstone was written by Elihu Root, his neighbor and former Secretary of State. Concer’s story was little known until recently, when the Village of Southampton announced plans to rebuild Concer’s home. Concer was born a slave but made history while living an adventurous seafaring life. His house, which was designated a historical landmark in January 2021, was reduced to a dilapidated pool house. Authorities announced that his home would be rebuilt using historical and architectural materials collected.

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So who was Concer and why is his story so significant in history?

Concer was born a slave in Southampton in 1814, the son of slaves Violet William and Shadrach Concer. Concer became the property of his parents’ enslaver, Captain Nathan Cooper, who sold him to the Pelletreau family when he was five years old for $25 (approximately $513 today).

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By the age of 18, he had been released by the Pelletreau family and went on to join a whaling ship, as so many others did at the time. According to Patch.com, curators of joint exhibitions held in 1982 at the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum and the Black History Museum of Hempstead discovered that prior to the Civil War, the American whaling fleet employed approximately 3,000 Africans, West Indians, and American Blacks. Documents discovered revealed that the numbers were most likely higher post-Civil War.

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Whaling trips could last a year or more, and Concer went on four of them over the next 11 years, making history on his final trip in 1845. They rescued the crews of two shipwrecked Japanese vessels in the South Pacific that year as a boat steerer aboard the Manhattan, captained by the son of his former enslaver Mercator Cooper. Foreigners were not permitted to enter Japan during this time period, but thanks to Captain Cooper and Concer’s skillful steering, the Japanese sailors were safely returned home.

Their arrival with Concer and his team sparked a frenzy because many Japanese had never seen a Black man before. Many Japanese attempted, according to Arthur P. Davis in his booklet “A Black Diamond in the Queen’s Tiara,” to “rub off the black of his [Concer] skin, stare at his marvelous perfect white teeth, and listen to him speak.”

As a result, the Manhattan became the first American ship to enter Tokyo Harbor, and Concer became one of the country’s first African Americans. The voyage also paved the way for US Navy Commodore Matthew Perry to successfully land in Japan eight years later.

Concer made some money from his whaling adventures, but he moved to California during the gold rush in 1849. He hoped to make it big, but a year later he returned home with nothing. So he married Rachel and moved to 51 Pond Lane in Southampton, which had been left to Concer by his grandfather, Gad. During this time, Concer operated a ferry service across Lake Agawam, transporting passengers on his small sailboat from the center of town to the beach on the far shore.

Passengers paid 10 cents per trip, but for Concer, it wasn’t so much about the money as it was about the interesting stories he told passengers about his life along the way. He became a well-known figure in his community and a respected landowner in his final years. Unfortunately, he spent his final years alone because his wife died before he did, and his two children died before they could reach adulthood.

Concer’s estate, totaling $5,000, was donated to the church and other charities upon his death, including a fund for whaler widows. Concer is one of the formerly enslaved people whose histories have been best documented, owing to his good deeds and local records.

“This is an instance where we know his name, we know the family that enslaved him and his mother and family, and we know how his life went throughout; we can trace it,” Dr. Georgette Grier-Key, a founding member of the Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee, recently explained to behindthehedges.com. “And that’s not always the case, because when opportunities presented themselves or someone was enslaved and sold off, there was a dead, cold track in the research and understanding of how they lived and contributed to the community, and that’s not the case with Pyrrhus Concer.”

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Written by How Africa News

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