When Black people faced racial discrimination in the workplace during the early Republic, many of them turned to the sea. Regardless of how dangerous it was to be on a ship, Black people were unconcerned because it provided them with a decent income to support their families.
The occupation was also one of the few that did not discriminate and allowed Blacks to advance through the ranks. It is documented that 18% of American seamen in the early 1800s were men of color, with the majority of them being free. Many Black seamen worked as cooks or stewards on merchant vessels, but historians believe that those who worked on whaleships received better pay and were more likely to advance than those who worked on merchant vessels.
Around 700 Black men worked as officers or harpooners on American whaleships in the mid-1800s. Only a few captains sailed. One of them was Absalom Boston. He began working at sea at the age of 15 after being born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, to an ex-slave father and a Wampanoag Indian mother. He saved enough money in his twenties to buy his first parcel of land on Nantucket and later opened a public inn.
Nantucket was the early whaling industry’s capital at the time. Typically, voyages lasted two or three years. The majority of ships returned with whale oil or ambergis, which was used to make perfume. Crew members would split the profits. Many people only worked on a whaleship once.
Boston returned safely with his crew on the whaleship Industry after becoming the first African-American captain to sail a whaleship with an all-Black crew in 1822. They returned with 70 barrels of whale oil after a six-month journey. According to massmoments.org, captains were disliked, but Boston’s leadership abilities drew him to his crew. They even wrote a ballad about him.
Boston retired from the sea after his 1822 voyage. He later opened a store and rose to prominence in the island’s Black community. He was a trustee of the African Baptist Church and supported the effort to integrate Nantucket’s public schools. He even won a lawsuit to get his daughter admitted to high school.
Boston was buried in a segregated cemetery when he died in 1855, despite his efforts to integrate the island’s public schools. His estate included his residence, two additional houses, two lots, and a store.