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Custom House program focuses on New London seamen of color

New London — Historian Sandi Brewster-walker presented her research on seamen of color and their role in the city's rich whaling history during a Zoom event held Sunday afternoon by the New London Maritime Society and Custom House Maritime Museum and the Henry L. Ferguson Museum on Fishers Island.

Her discussion covered the seamen of color who sailed from 1640 to 1880 with a focus on New London and the whalers who set out from the city from 1790 to 1860. An author and historian from Long Island, she has used genealogy as well as old newspaper stories and historical records to track the lives of people of color in the whaling industry. 

“Sandi is unusual in her research because she combines the (ship) log research with really thorough genealogies and tracking the families down,” NLMS Executive Director Susan Tamulevich said during the event. “The information that she cross-references is really unmatched.” 

Brewster-walker said seamen’s protection certificates, which she scrutinized, were a way beginning in 1796 for individual seamen to show they were U.S. citizens to avoid impressment by the British Royal Navy. But for men of color, the seaman a protection certificate was even more important, as it identified them as free.

“Until slavery was abolished, seamen of color were always in danger of being enslaved at U.S. and international seaports,” Brewster-walker said. “The seamen’s protection certificates assisted in identifying them as free men of color while sailing the oceans of the world.” 

These certificates gave a seaman’s age, birthplace, current residence, physical description, height, hair and eye color, distinguishing marks and their “complexion.” 

“In most cases the seaman’s complexion was not his race,” Brewster-walker said. “They’d call people ‘yellow,’ ‘light brown,’ ‘dark brown,’ ‘black,’ ‘mulatto,’ ‘Indian,’ — so I had to keep checking. Every time a seaman went out they filled out a new protection certificate.” 

Brewster-walker traced a sailor a few years back who was listed as “dark.” She later found out he was Italian.

Her research has yielded 944 men of color who sailed out of New London in the 19th and late 18th centuries. On one level, some free men of color could make a living whaling. On another, though, some would “owe their souls to the company,” Brewster-walker said.

Despite their more transient jobs, seamen of color during the period often lived in New London.

“A number of them settled in New London,” she said. “They were all young men — 90% of them were young — and they probably met somebody in New London and got married.”

Brewster-walker provided specific examples of seamen of color in New London, such as John Bents, who was born in New York and listed as “mulatto” on his protection certificate. While living in New London, he sailed out of the city on the 338-ton ship Flora in 1829. The ship’s master was Lyman Allyn, and it was built in Mystic in 1811. Two other men of color — Russel R. Hewlitt of Stonington and Austar Freeman of New London — were also a part of the crew.

Brewster-walker told the story of Henry Payne of Long Island, who sailed on a ship called the Tuscarora. In 1860 the U.S. Census listed him as an Indian fisherman. Around this time, Payne set out on whaling voyages. These voyages usually lasted two or three years. Ships would round Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope and visit the Sandwich Islands. 

“While in the islands, they did ship repairs, and sometime shipped their cargo home,” Brewster-walker noted. “The date Henry stopped sailing as a wheelman on the world’s oceans is unknown.” 

Brothers Lewis and Jacob Carll, who were seamen of color, sailed on the Nathaniel P. Tallmadge out of New London in 1851. When they returned home in 1855, they brought with them 1,435 barrels of whale oil and 24,950 pounds of baleen.

Brewster-walker said thousands of seamen of color became captains, worked on commercial ships, transported passengers and prisoners and removed the blubber of the whales during the period. Many seamen of color were from New York and New England and sailed from as far north as Maine.

“I’m interested not only in the stories about the ships they went out on but the individual story, what they did before, what they did after, their experience as whale men,” she said. “There’s so many stories to tell.”

s.spinella@theday.com

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