For Black History month 2019, PortSide NewYork will run a digital program about African American Maritime Heritage (#AfAmMH ) sharing content from our resource webpage and information around the web. We will share info on our social media and update this blogpost over the month. We hope to make it a conversation; it’s called social media for a reason!
We are unable to run public physical programs this month because there are no interior spaces on our ship MARY A. WHALEN big enough, and it is too cold on deck. We are still waiting to hear about the possibility of building space alongside our ship.
If you have suggestions for #AfAmMH topics or links to share, please post them in the comments below. Please follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and share and comment on our posts. Thanks!
Download our AfAm Maritime MiniHistory on Robert Smalls. This prints 2 per 8 1/2 by 11” page. Print 6 double-sided pages to make 2 copies of a 12 page book. More about him on our African American Maritime Heritage webpage.
African American Maritime Heritage involves food! Here’s a rice story
Maritime activity changes food history, and slavery in the Americas had huge maritime elements (shipping captured people; shipping food stuffs as part of the trade; naval battles with alliances along race lines). Among the biologists, geneticists and historians who use food as a lens to study the African diaspora, rice is a particularly deep rabbit hole.” In the way that African Americans made and make huge contributions to music in the USA, they have a large impact on food heritage and contemporary dining. Some of our essential food staples were themselves brought from Africa, and the enslaved people doing the cooking brought their skills to bear on growing and cooking the product. Slavery created a situation where African American cooks were given European recipes and then gave them an African twist, you could call it the jazzifying of European food. Free blacks continued this culinary tradition. Here the story of one food staple, a rice once thought to be lost, now found. “It’s the most historically significant African diaspora grain in the Western Hemisphere,” See https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/13/dining/hill-rice-slave-history.html
This prompted some follow up research by us. See a list of books and videos below.
Mentioned in the article Michael Twitty, a culinary historian and the author of ”The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South” His webpage https://thecookinggene.com/
YouTube videos with Michael Twitty https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Michael+Twitty
Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine by Kelley Fanto Deetz
High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America by Jessica B. Harris
Culling from comments on the NYT article, we see the following books recommended in ways we found convincing so we are sharing them. We have not read them.
"Myth of the Negro Past” by Melville Herskowits. “Herskowits's argument is that slave owners couldn't and didn't beat the Africa out of Africans; on the contrary--they guarded their heritage despite the efforts to erase it.”
“Black Rice: The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas” by Judith A. Carney. “Almost totally overlooked in the history of rice in the US is the essential role of African women. They were targeted by slavers in West Africa for their knowledge in growing and processing rice. This history is documented by Judith A. Carney in her powerful book Black Rice:The African Origins of Rice Cultivation in the Americas. The rice economy and wealth of the pre-Civil War US South was largely built on the backs of enslaved women from West Africa”
“Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection” by Karen Hess
"God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man" By Cornelia Walker Bailey, autobiography about Geechee life on Sapelo Island
“The Mericans: Free Black American Settlers in Trinidad 1815-1816” by John McNish Weiss
“Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African American, 1650-1800” by Leland Ferguson
“The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772 – 1832” by Alan Taylor
Some of the comments on the NYT article we think are worth copying in full here:
Bill Myers, Elk Grove, CA,Feb. 14, 2018
This sounds exactly like the absolutely delectable indigenous hill rice I ate, helped raise, and greatly enjoyed as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Cuna Indian reserve of San Blas (now called Guna Yala) along the Caribbean coast of Panama in the 1960s. It was the daily staple, and grown and available all along the coast, with minor variations from place to place. I'll be it is still there. The Cuna culture was historically in close contact and much affected by African and Caribbean influences, and I actually knew old men who had worked as sailors along the U.S. east coast, including among the sea islands of South Carolina and down along the Florida coast, including helping build the breakwater for what became Miami. Clearly the was enormous interchange. There were also escaped slave settlements in the area back in the 18th and 19th Centuries, so the chances for plant exchange were legion. I'll be you could go down to that Panama coast area today and collect quite a sample of rice that is the same or quite similar to that described in this article. I'll bet is is the same stuff or a very close relative thereof. We called it "arroz rojo", red rice, and everybody seemed to know exactly what we were referring to. Very rich and nutty; never tasted better to this day. Most families who do any farming keep the seed. If would be wonderful to be able to buy it here.
Ed, Virginia Feb. 14, 2018
I'm actually more fascinated by the Georgia slaves that ended up in Trinidad. Is there a place where i can read more about them?
Kaleberg, Port Angeles, WAFeb. 14, 2018
Yes! Read Alan Taylor's The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772 -1832. Although the book covers a long historical span, its heart deals with the War of 1812 and the role the British played in helping escaped slaves from coastal Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. Some of these slaves would become the ancestors of the Merikins referenced in this article. The book is exhaustingly researched and documented, it's a magnificent work of history, and it tells a story we need to know.
Jan Jan, Trinidad, Feb. 15, 2018
There is a lovely documentary commissioned by the US embassy in Trinidad detailing the story and journey of the Merikins. You can find it on youtube. [We searched and found the link; see below.]
Brian, Oakland, CA, Feb. 14, 2018
This rice, or similar strains to it, is still widely grown in West Africa, especially Sierra Leone. I know because I worked with it, back in the 1990s, on its seed. The West African Rice Research Association devotes attention to upland red rice, to increase yields. Yes, it is delicious. Birds especially love it, which compels many boys to stand guard over fields with stones they can throw. It would be a twist if the rice becomes a foodie favorite, making it exportable.
Rufus W., Nashville ,Feb. 14, 2018
Great Article. This may be a good time to emphasize that colonial planters had basically no clue what they were doing in regards to rice cultivation. Rice cultivation technology was a West African technology that the slaves had working knowledge of. Their knowledge made rice a major component in the colonial South Carolina economy. Check out an old book: Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African American, 1650-1800 by Leland Ferguson - for more about this.
Kaleberg, Port Angeles, WA, Feb. 13, 2018
Wonderful story! I have been fascinated by the Merikins since I read Alan Taylor's magnificent book, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772 - 1832. I can't wait to cook with this rice, and when I do, my family will toast the Merikins and their successful fight for freedom.
Picking up on comments above, searching YouTube yields several videos about the “Merikans” of Trinidad & Tobago
45 minute video which starts with remarks, the documentary itself starts at 03:00 “The Merikins. America, Trinidad and Canada's forgotten history official documentary” https://youtu.be/BXg4me8GLdw
2 hours and 8 minute video “Merikins Celebrate 200th Anniversary in Trinidad - April 28, 2016”
1 ½ minute, pop mini-documentary about the same subject https://youtu.be/Ol5GP4NGgBU
Sandy Ground, Staten Island
Chesapeake watermen came to NYC in the early 1800s – pushed out by racism in the Chesapeake - and made history. Their resulting settlement on the south shore of Staten Island, first called Harrisville then Little Africa and finally Sandy Ground, is the oldest continuously-settled, free black community in the United States. In its honor, a new Staten Island ferry, now under construction, will be named "Sandy Ground," a tribute to a story of African American Maritime Heritage. The Sandy Ground Historical Society memorializes and interprets this history.
The first documented land purchase there by an African American, Captain John Jackson, dates to 1828, soon after the abolition of slavery in New York State. “Captain Jackson “operated the Lewis Columbia ferry between Rossville and New York. With their own private school and two churches, an 1860 census showed 60% of the community to be literate—an unusually high proportion for any community at the time.” Source
Oysters were seeded along the south shore of Staten Island by sailing them from the Chesapeake, according to this Flickr post citing the 2011 Landmarks Preservation Commission report: “Such tiny oysters were first brought for planting from the Chesapeake Bay in 1820. A schooner with a captain and four-man crew could travel from Prince’s Bay in Staten Island to the lower Chesapeake, load 2,500 to 3,500 bushels of seed oysters onto their boat and return in less than six days. Upon his return to Staten Island the captain would hire an additional 12 men to shovel the seed oysters overboard onto a specified area that was leased from the state for this purpose. Staten Island oystermen soon developed special wooden trays or “flats” for the oysters to adhere to while other locals developed the skill of making the wood splint baskets that became the standard unit of measure for the oyster trade. In this way, the oyster trade employed many people and by the 1830s was the most important economic activity on Staten Island.”
An oral history of Yvonne Taylor done by the New York Preservation Archive Project that digs into Sandy Ground’s story.
As of 2008, "Ten families who trace their roots to the original settlers still live in Sandy Ground. Ms. Lewis and her mother moved from Sandy Ground to the North Shore after a 1963 fire on the South Shore destroyed their home and 14 others in Sandy Ground." from the New York Times
Foodie angle! There is a Secret Sauce!
Sandy Ground is included in a 2013 study “Education on the Underground Railroad: A Case Study of Three Communities in New York State (1820-1870)”
Recent studies reveal their graveyard to be much larger than originally thought with 500 unmarked graves discovered. Note the African American burial practices of the 19th century .
Here is Councilwoman Debi Rose's petition that helped have the new Staten Island ferry be named Sandy Ground.
African Americans in the whaling industry
A conversation started on our Mary A. Whalen Facebook page. We shared links from the New Bedford Historical Society and Parting Ways Cemetery and historian and author Skip Finley chimed in providing many links to articles he as written as well as tips on where to follow up. Thanks to Skip’s tips, we now have a strong interest in finding more information about John Mashow, boat builder born 1805 to an enslaved woman and South Carolina rice planter father, he designed over 100 ships and supervised construction of over 60. About a third of these were whalers.
Links provided by Skip Finley to articles he wrote
2/2/19 2:30-4:30pm Here is the video link to Skip Finley's talk about his upcoming book “Whaling Captains of Color-America’s First Meritocracy.” https://www.facebook.com/lee.blake.7906/videos/10212860576174003/, an event at the New Bedford Historical Society (NBHS). Background in an article he wrote about the topic. Skip Finley is a media executive, author, historian and speaker. More about the NBHS here
Women’s History on the AMISTAD
Two AMISTAD stories where Women’s History Month and African American Maritime Heritage intersect. One of the four captured children on the AMISTAD headed towards slavery was Margru (sometimes spelled Margu) from Bendembu, Mandingo country about 100 miles from what is now Freetown Sierra Leone.
After the AMSTAD court case was resolved in favor of the Africans, she returned to Africa but later came back to the USA to go to Oberlin college, which had, as of 1835, "an official policy admitting African American students, both male and female—the first college in the country to do so.” (from Oberlin link with alot of Margru's story.)
We learned about Margru her thanks to the ever-informative content on the Facebook page of Parting Ways Cemetery and the Hartford Courant article that they shared explaining that Margu’s story is brought to life by historical actor Tammy Denease.
As we looked into Margru’s story we found a Wikipedia page that said that the file used by the captured Africans aboard the AMISTAD to break their shackles was brought aboard and hidden by a woman. So a woman had the tool that was used to physically liberate all the shackled Africans on the AMISTAD, an UNNAMED woman.
I have to point out that this is SO TYPICAL of what happens to women’s contributions: OVERLOOKED, UNNAMED, ERASED.
Does someone know the name of this woman or want to take on this research project?
Would people like to have Tammy Denease come to PortSide to depict Margru’s story? Her fees start at $1,000, so funds would have to be raised for this.
“On July 2, 1839, one of the Africans, Cinqué, freed himself and the other captives using a file that had been found and kept by a woman who, like them, had been on the Tecora” from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_v._The_Amistad