There is a long and storied tradition of Black sailors in Maine and New England. People of African heritage also worked in related shore-side industries such as longshoremen, blacksmiths and sailmakers. For the South Portland Historical Society’s next lecture, on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Community Center, we’ll take a look at this interesting topic.

A Freedom Trail marker for the Jacob C. Dickerson barbershop. The Black-owned business was an important stop on Portland’s Underground Railroad. South Portland Historical Society image

The roots of Black seafaring in New England originate in Africa where ethnic groups living along the coast were known for their boating prowess. The Kru people of modern-day Liberia and the Mina of modern-day Ghana were known to be extremely adept canoe-men. At times, the individuals would be enslaved by Europeans for their boating knowledge. For example, some of the enslaved Africans who plied boats on the South Carolina coast in the colonial period had been kidnapped from Liberia and the Gold Coast for their maritime expertise.

When many of us think of African enslavement in British North America, and later in the United States, we think of plantation labor in the American South. Forced labor in large-scale agriculture did not take place in northern New England because the farming conditions, climate and soil, made that type of farming impossible. Instead, many enslaved Africans were trained in trades.

For example, if an enslaved African’s owner was a blacksmith, then the enslaved individual would be taught smithing. This free labor and knowledge of a given trade greatly assisted the enslaver at a time when labor was hard to find. It also increased the value of the enslaved person since they now had a transferable skill if they were sold.

Enslaved Africans in New England were forced to engage in a variety of skilled jobs including coopers (artisans who crafted barrels), longshoremen (individuals who loaded and unloaded ships at the docks), fishermen and sailors. Enslaved Africans also served as sailors in the American south but their labor was of particular importance here, in New England, where much of the economy was based on fishing and maritime trade.

Legal emancipation of enslaved Africans in Massachusetts and its province of Maine occurred in 1783. Mariner, and occupations related to the waterfront, continued to be important to free Black men and women in the region.


In southern New England, significant numbers of Black sailors shipped out on whaling voyages. Author Skip Finley asserts, “Indeed, whaling was the first American industry to exhibit any significant degree of diversity; but even compared with diversity today, the proportion of men of color was incredibly high.”

Finley estimates that mixed-race individuals, Indigenous Americans, free Blacks and self-emancipating enslaved Africans constituted 20 to 30 percent of sailors on whaling vessels before the Civil War.

One reason for the high number of sailors of African and Indigenous heritage was the nature of the work. Whaling voyages could last for years and were incredibly dangerous. Men drowned, were crushed by falling rigging and were killed by enraged whales. Under these circumstances sailors were judged on their abilities and knowledge of their profession, not on the color of their skin. Some whalers of color even achieved the position of captain and voyaged with exclusively Black and Indigenous crews. Nineteenth-century American whaling captains of color were able to generate more wealth than any other individuals in their community.

Whaling voyages did sail from Maine but it was never a large industry here. Still, a significant number of Black sailors called Portland home. As with whaling, merchant vessels provided men of African heritage a reliable method of supporting their families. Black sailors were typically older and more experienced than their White counterparts. They were more likely to be married and have children. Whereas young White sailors were likely to be drunk or jump ship in foreign port, Black sailors were more reliable due to their work experience and because they had mouths at home to feed. This was especially true in Portland. In “Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail,” Jeffrey Bolster wrote, “Black sailors in Portland, Maine, had a degree of residential and occupational stability atypical in larger cities such as Baltimore or New York. Of thirty-three Black seamen listed in the city directory in 1830, nine lived there sixteen years later, most still shipping out, and many at the same address.”

This community congregated along the base of Munjoy Hill, close to the waterfront and the jobs related to it. The 1850 Maine census reflects the importance of maritime industries for Blacks in Portland. The occupations of stevedore, fishermen, stewards and shipwrights are listed as the employment for over half of the city’s Black population. Industries that supported sailors and maritime trade also provided a large number of jobs for Black Mainers. sailmakers, ship caulkers, blacksmiths, hackmen (men who drove horse-drawn carriages), restaurateurs and boarding house owners were all jobs that provided a livelihood for people of African heritage in Maine.

We’ll talk more about the history of Black sailors in Maine and New England in next week’s column.


Society lecture on Feb. 21

The South Portland Historical Society hopes you will join us in the Casco Bay Room of the South Portland Community Center on Wednesday, Feb. 21, at 6:30 p.m. for a lecture by Seth Goldstein about Maine’s Black mariners. The lecture is free for current South Portland Historical Society members, $20 for non-members. Annual family memberships will be available for $25 at the lecture. Please arrive early if you wish to join. Our speaker series is brought to you with the financial support of Bristol Seafoods.

The society is always enthused to learn more about local history. If you have information related to this topic, please contact South Portland Historical Society at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106, by phone at 207-767-7299, or by email at Thank you.

Seth Goldstein is development director for the South Portland Historical Society and also serves as the director of the society’s Cushing’s Point Museum. He can be reached at

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