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When Portland’s Waterfront Resounded with the Songs of Black Maritime Workers

by Andy O’Brien

Think I heard my

captain say

Pay me my money down

T’morrow is my sailin’ day

Pay me my money down

Wish’t I was Mr.

Coffin’s son

Pay me my money down

Stay in the house an’

drink good rum

Pay me my money down

You owe me, pay me

Pay me my money down

Pay me or go to jail

Pay me my money down

Wish’t I was Mr.

Foster’s son,

Pay me my money down

I’d set on the bank an’ see

the work done,

Pay me my money down

— 19th Century Black stevedore song

In the first half of the 19th century, Maine’s economy was booming. It had the second-most-valuable fishery in the country and constructed more than a third of the nation’s shipping fleet. Maine lumber was shipped to Cuba to build sugar plantations and Maine-caught salt cod was fed to the enslaved workers who cut and processed Cuban sugar into molasses, which was shipped back to New England. At one time, Portland processed 20 percent of all the molasses imported into the U.S., and as many as seven rum distilleries in the city ran day and night, converting the thick, sweet syrup into potent spirits.

Following the expansion of rail from Portland to Boston and Montreal in the early 1840s, the Portland Company opened its locomotive foundry on Commercial Street, in 1846. All this economic activity caused the state’s population to dramatically increase, from a mere 23,000 residents in 1763 to 150,000 in 1800 and more than 583,00 in 1850. Former slaves, Black Revolutionary War vets, Cape Verdean sailors and Caribbean migrant workers flocked to seaport cities like Portland to join an emerging multiracial, cosmopolitan working class.

Black workers were most commonly employed in low-wage occupations like domestic and maritime labor. They shipped out as sailors and cooks aboard the many ships that plied Portland Harbor. Others worked on the docks to load and receive cargo. As one contemporary observer wrote, Portland’s waterfront “resounded with the song of Negro stevedores,” whenever “a cargo of coffee or molasses came alongside a wharf or when lumber was being loaded aboard.” Among the singing stevedores was Robert “Bob” Craig (1769- 1849), an Africa-born caller and the highest-paid member of the dock workers;

In an 1872 article in the Portland Press Herald, Portland historian William Goold described Black longshoremen working at the old Custom House:

Here in good weather … were collected the stevedores, sailors, boarding-house keepers, and all who had an interest in the discharging and fitting away of West Indiamen, which was the principal …trade of Portland. … Conspicuous among the Sunday crowd was the black crew who discharged all the molasses by hoisting it out by hand, keeping time to their amusing songs while at work. They were sure to have a large audience to hear their singing. Many churchgoing people on coming out of meeting … then took Fore Street on their way home, no matter where they lived.

In those days there was a thriving Black neighborhood along Mountfort and Newbury Streets on Mountjoy, now known as Munjoy Hill. White Portlanders disparagingly called it “N— Hill.” At one point in the 1840s, Black residents represented a slightly higher percentage of the overall population in Portland than Blacks in Boston did, according to historian Michael C. Connolly. Some of the residents were the descendants of enslaved people in the South; others came from the West Indies.

Wages for Black maritime workers were very low for what was difficult, dangerous and precarious work. As one African American sea shanty went, “O rouse an’ bust ’er is the cry, a black man’s wage is

never high.” Although the Black neighborhood was one of the poorest in the city, maritime jobs allowed Black Portlanders to achieve a level of respectability and financial stability that was rare for free Black workers in Northeastern cities at the time, noted W. Jeffrey Bolster in his book, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail. 

“If seafaring in the age of sail remained a contemptible occupation for white men, characterized by a lack of personal independence and reliance on paltry wages,” Bolster wrote, “it became an occupation of opportunity for slaves and recent freedmen.”

Bolster writes that these Black seamen recognized the parallels between the ships and the Southern plantations. “Both manifested harshly exploitative elements of feudalism and capitalism, combining in one workplace the virtually unchecked personal authority of a feudal lord and the impersonal appropriation of workers’ labor so fundamental to capitalism.”

These Black seamen were often very politically engaged and, thanks to their worldly travels, culturally sophisticated. They were also very influential in free Black communities throughout the African diaspora in the U.S. and the Caribbean, carrying news of the day from port to port. Before there was a Black press in the United States, this informal network carried news about global events like the Haitian Revolution, and the latest broadsides in the fiery debate between abolitionists and the white colonizationists who wanted to send Black Americans back to Africa. According to Bolster, the network of sailors helped forge a Black diasporic identity by integrating local groups into the larger community of color.

Black sailors frequently smuggled abolitionist literature from New England into Southern ports. Black Bostonian David Walker encouraged Black sailors to smuggle his revolutionary 1829 pamphlet,

Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World, in their sea chests or sewn into their clothes, to hand out to enslaved workers in Southern ports. In his incendiary Appeal, Walker exposed the hypocrisy of white Christians and eviscerated the colonizationists:

Let no man of us budge one step, and let slave-holders come to beat us from our country. America is more our country, than it is the whites — we have enriched it with our blood and tears. The greatest riches in all America have arisen from our blood and tears: — and will they drive us from our property and homes, which we have earned with our blood? They must look sharp or this very thing will bring swift destruction upon them. The Americans have got so fat on our blood and groans, that they have almost forgotten the God of armies.

Walker called for all African Americans to unite and revolt against the slave masters, writing, “they want us for their slaves, and think nothing of murdering us… therefore, if there is an attempt made by us, kill or be killed … and believe this, that it is no more harm for you to kill a man who is trying to kill you, than it is for you to take a drink of water when thirsty.”

Walker’s writing terrified white Americans. Even radical white abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison thought it went too far. When copies of the Appeal turned up in the hands of enslaved people in the South, Southern elites passed laws putting restrictions on Black sailors entering their ports. Thousands of free Black seamen were arrested, jailed, beaten, and forced to perform hard labor for the crime of being Black in antebellum Southern cities. Some were even kidnapped and sold into slavery, despite being legally free. 

By the 1850s, the jailing of Black seamen was so common that it became almost a rite of passage, particularly among younger sailors, who associated arrests with “masculine bravado and contempt for ‘The Man,’” wrote Bolster. In Portland, what might be described as a Black middle class had emerged by the 1830s. The men of these families owned coach services, barbershops, used-clothing stores and cleaning businesses. They became leaders in the Black community and exerted political influence at a time when Maine carried much more electoral weight, nationally, than it does today. 

This was possible because white male delegates overwhelmingly supported the enfranchisement of African American men at the state’s founding convention in 1819. Calais Republican William Vance’s attempt to exclude Black Mainers from the right to vote failed when delegates from both parties overwhelmingly crushed his motion and pilloried him for his effort. As Massachusetts Congressman — and soon-to-be Maine Senator — John Holmes stated, he knew “of no difference between the rights of the negro and the white man — God Almighty has made none — Our Declaration of Rights has made none.”

Shortly after the vote, Vance’s credentials to serve in government were challenged because he lived outside Calais’ town limits. As historian Van Gosse noted, that was the last time Black citizenship was challenged in the free state of Maine. But while Black Mainers were considered citizens, they certainly did not enjoy the same rights as white men. Interracial marriage was banned both under a 1705 Massachusetts law and a similar law Maine lawmakers passed in the 1820s that wasn’t repealed until 1883. Black Mainers were also barred from most professional occupations and denied equal accommodations on passenger ships and coaches, and in theaters, churches, and even cemeteries. The final resting place for Portland’s early Black community can be found in the “colored section” of Eastern Cemetery at the foot of Munjoy Hill.

“You inquire, ‘what is the condition of the blacks here?’ Much, sir, as every where in New England — they need to be emancipated,” wrote one Portlander to Garrison’s Liberator in 1831. “I do not indeed see them bleeding under the lash, nor chafed with irons, nor galled with the yoke; but there are chains which ‘eat deeper into the soul,’ and such chains they feel.”

But Black Portlanders did not passively accept these indignities. They got organized. From the 1830s to the Civil War, Black Mainers like entrepreneur Reuben Ruby (1798-1878), barber Christopher Christian Manuel (1781-1845), church sexton Titus Skillings (1776-1842), the Rev. George H. Black (1799-1842) and used clothing dealer Charles Frederick Eastman (1821-80) founded the first Black church in Maine, formed abolitionist and political organizations, and served as conductors on the Underground Railroad. Next month, we’ll explore some of their extraordinary contributions in the fight for liberation and equality.

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