In the nineteenth century, nearly all Native American men living along the southern New England coast made their living traveling the world’s oceans on whaleships. Many were career whalemen, spending twenty years or more at sea. Highlighting the shifting racial ideologies that shaped the lives of these whalemen, Nancy Shoemaker shows how the category of “Indian” was as fluid as the whalemen were mobile.
In the following excerpt from Native American Whalemen and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race (pp. 40-44), Shoemaker explores the racial profiling and “glass ceilings” that affected Native American and African American whalemen in the 1800s.
Native Americans were one small constituency in a diverse whaling workforce brought together by ship owners for one purpose only—to cooperate in gathering whale products from the world’s oceans. The merchant investors, who did the initial hiring, sought trustworthy, skilled officers and cheap, hardy, and obedient laborers. With profit as their objective, they were open to hiring any man who could do the job but not if the crew’s social composition threatened orderly collaboration. From the top down, federal laws and industry standards applied measures to enhance productivity by dampening the volatility such diversity produced: they privileged rank over race and regulated the number of foreigners serving on American ships. From the bottom up, seamen brought prejudices on board with them. The color of one’s skin, the land of one’s birth, and the language one spoke inflected how shipmates interacted with each other and at any time could combust in conflict. Even though race had no formal role in how the ship operated, it loitered beneath the surface to bear on who was hired to do what job and shadowed shipboard relations with unspoken assumptions. Cultural differences rooted in national origins, though more institutionalized in industry policies than race, created another kind of divisive social hierarchy informing shipboard relations. Gender had the capacity to ease tensions rooted in race and ethnicity by giving whalemen a means to construct a more unified shipboard culture around a common identity as men.
Race generalized to create distance between white men and men of color but also particularized to produce myriad, divergent experiences. That Native American and African American men were both racial minorities within the United States or that Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were both indigenous peoples confronting colonization suggests that bonds might have formed along these lines, but if any one ethnic group felt a special allegiance to another aboard ship, it is not apparent in whaling records. Even New England natives showed the strongest attachment to their own local communities, and Mashpee Wampanoags, Gay Head Wampanoags, and Shinnecocks often shipped in groups but did not usually intermingle. Five or six Shinnecocks on the same voyage was especially common. But the rare instances of Long Island natives and Wampanoags or Wampanoags from Mashpee and Martha’s Vineyard working on the same vessel appear to have happened only by chance. All whalemen recognized a connection as occupants of a small, floating social community, but their heterogeneity could often pull them apart.
Race was one of the most divisive elements even though it had no official function in how the whaling industry operated. Beginning with the first nationwide census in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau highlighted race as a vital social characteristic for understanding the makeup of the American populace, but federal maritime law downplayed race. The U.S. Customs Bureau’s paperwork for overseas voyages—seamen’s certificates of protection, crew lists, and shipping articles—had no category for race. The certificate of protection acted like a passport. Issued by a port authority, it gave a seaman’s name, birthplace, place of residence, age, and height and described his complexion and hair for purposes of personal identification. As the early American republic’s response to Barbary pirates, French and British privateers, and British impressment of American sailors, the protection vaguely hinted at diplomatic relief for sailors captured by pirates or foreign governments. Inside the United States, federal and state laws left ambiguous the citizenship status of free blacks and did not consider Indians U.S. citizens, but as American-born seamen of color on overseas voyages, they were entitled to the same protection afforded white native-born and naturalized Americans.
Information from protections was transferred to crew lists, which therefore had columns for height, complexion, and hair but still no category for race. One port authority in New London in the 1840s must have thought race important because, after filling in the complexion column with “black” or “Col’d,” the official added in the margins “A Negro,” “An Indian,” or “Mulatto,” but the form itself did not ask for racial designations. The absence of a racial category on crew lists has confounded historians investigating race in maritime history. Some have attempted to treat complexion and hair as a proxy for race. However, the plethora of complexion labels defies easy synthesis. Men who probably thought of themselves as white appear on crew lists with fair, light, dark, brown, sandy, ruddy, freckled, and occasionally swarthy complexions. Men of color were all over the map, too—rarely brown or dark, but instead black, African, negro, Indian, native, Kanaka (from the Hawaiian word for “man” and referring to a Pacific Islander), mulatto, colored, yellow, copper, and occasionally swarthy. Hair color, or “quality” as on some printed forms, added racial content. “Wooly” on a man with a yellow or colored complexion implied African descent, whereas a man with a yellow or colored complexion but “black strait” hair suggested Indian ancestry. That “brown” and “dark” rarely described the complexions of men known to be of Indian or African descent in a time when dark and brown had racial inferences, in phrases such as “darkies” or “brown people,” is one of crew lists’ peculiarities.
Another is how a man’s complexion might change over several voyages. Continue reading ‘Excerpt: Native American Whalemen and the World, by Nancy Shoemaker’ »