Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Sea = Free

Last night, I was watching the History Channel's "The Story of Us" and learned a something very interesting about the seamen of yesteryear.  During the mid 1800's capitalism was just getting it's legs; factories were able to run longer and people able to work later as a result of a new oil made from whale blubber.  It was also during this time that slavery threatened to divide our nation into North and South..."where is she going with this!?" you on...

The whaling industry during the 19th century was one of (if not the most) prominent business at the time with hundreds of ships leaving the North East coast every year.  While I am in no way a supporter of hunting whales - during the time leading up to the civil war this industry was one of the first to ever employ slaves as equals.  The sea became a place of freedom for escaped slaves fleeing the south.  Although life aboard a whaling ship was hard, dangerous and potentially deadly - it was a risk worth taking and better than a life lived for someone else.

Fredrick Douglas, visionary, American abolitionist and reformer wrote:
"You are loosed from your moorings, and are free; I am fast in my chains, and am a slave! You move merrily before the gentle gale, and I sadly before the bloody whip! You are freedom's swift-winged angels, that fly round the world; I am confined in bands of iron! ... It cannot be that I shall live and die a slave. I will take to the water."
Douglas's linking of freedom and the water was not arbitrary or simply for poetic license.  Nantucket - the birthplace of the U.S whaling industry - had begun to get a reputation for being a "land of opportunity for Blacks", largely because of the massive amount of black sailors its fishery employed.  Although he never went to sea, Douglas worked for a shipyard in Baltimore and saw it first hand.  A life at sea was, literally, an escape from a life in chains.

This is not the first time the sea and its men would be ahead of their time - blacks were often employed on pirate ships as well, again often as equals.  Scott and I went to the Field Museum here in Chicago a while back and saw the "Pirates" exhibit about the slave ship turned pirate ship "The Whydah".
After the Whydah's human cargo was unloaded in the West Indies, the ship was captured by notorious pirate Sam Bellamy and his motley crew. Hailing from many nations, they included ordinary seamen, free black men, political dissidents, escaped slaves, indentured servants, Africans freed from slave ships taken at sea, Native Americans, and runaway plantation workers.
Compared to life on land, pirate ships were islands of freedom in a world of few options.  Life aboard a pirate ship, while still very violent and unruly, was *somewhat* of a democracy.  Pirates needed leadership - but the Captain was no sole dictator. A pirate captain was really only "first among equals."  Once a pirate had become a "citizen" of the ship, he had an equal vote, an equal share of the booty, and the chance to be elected an officer. These rights extended to everyone on board—black, white, and Indian.  These guys might have been ruthless, but they were fair!

The sea and 'freedom' are synonomous and rightfully so.  There is no place on Earth more vast, more romantic and more mysterious than the sea.  It holds endless possiblities for those who chose her.  This is precisely the reason why so many of us are inexplicably drawn to that endless horizon and have been since the dawn of man.  The spirit of the sailor - the desire to cast off and be free - remains the same all these centuries later and Scott and I cannot wait to join their ranks.  As E.E.Cummings wrote:  For whatever we lose (like a you or a me), It's always our self we find in the sea.

Brittany & Scott

*Please note - I am not a historian and I understand that not ALL whaling/pirate ships were friendly to other races - nor were their 'causes' humanitarian in nature.  However, I found the fact that they were ahead of their time in practicing equal rights interesting.  Also, I want to reiterate that I am NOT a proponent of whaling.  Though the industry is all but gone, some countries, like Japan, still hunt whale illegally and this is a travesty.  To learn more go here.


Creative Spirit said...

I just love learning so many xcool things on your blog. I totally agree with you about the freedom the seas create. You two are the perfect couple to take off into wit the forces that will take you around the world.

Mid-Life Cruising! said...

Interesting. We no longer have the History Channel, and we miss it.

sage said...

Nathaniel Philbrick's "In the Heart of the Sea" about the whaling ship Essex gives an interesting history of the whaling industry as well as a good story of the demise of the ship that inspired Moby Dick. As for Pirates and racial equality, I wonder if it also might have something to do with the fact that most Pirating along our coast and in the Carb. was before slavery became big business and before slave revolts in places like Haiti.

I came to your blog because I saw the name on another blogroll and liked the sound of it--I enjoyed reading about the work you're doing on your boat. You might be interested in a book review I posted earlier this week about a family sailing around the world.

Anonymous said...

woooow. i wish i had the skills to do that! i love the sea too, and id like to help keep it clean for the next generations (including sailors like you!). check our my blog and maybe youll find it interesting :)

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