Whalemen Promote Equality

Frederick Douglass, who worked as a skilled ship caulker in Baltimore and New Bedford, described ships as "freedom's swift-winged angels." While relatively few slaves escaped from slavery by boarding whaling vessels, some at least stowed away and felt they were not safe until they were on the other side of the world. Once in Hawaii, both free and runaway blacks found that they were accepted by Islanders without regard to skin color. Some of these seamen served as translators, acting as interpreters and business agents. Those black whalers who chose to return to the States had a greater sense of self-worth, feeling more like men and accustomed to limited equality.

All whalers were international travelers in an age when most people stayed close to home. They met and relied on men with vastly different backgrounds than their own. Even if they found much that was repugnant in fellow sailors and foreign ports, they developed grudging respect for those who collaborated in the difficult, dirty work of chasing whales. For all their differences, most whalemen agreed that their time at sea had somehow separated them from landsmen. A Hawaiian sailor who was stranded among Native Americans during an Arctic voyage despised some of their habits, but he explained that he and another man had "endured all of these execrable things" to avert starvation and "again breathe the crisp air of our birthland." Necessity required that this whaleman, like so many other 19th century whalers, negotiate relationships with others, including men of different races and nationalities.

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