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The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. (Reviews).

The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina. By David S. Cecelski (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. xx plus 304 pp. 39.95 hb, 17.95pb).

Historians have understood the shaping impact of the maritime world on North American slavery for some time. Virtually every American history survey text includes maps showing the concentration of slaves along the oceans and inland waterways of antebellum America. From the earliest days of slavery until emancipation, slaves lived and worked in close proximity to water transportation.

Given the centrality of water commerce to the history of slavery, it is remarkable that historians have been slow to conceptualize the meaning of this water orientation for African Americans. In the voluminous literature on slavery no historian has fully addressed the basic question: how did the maritime world shape the experience of North American slaves and free blacks? David S. Cecelski's history of maritime North Carolina is the first full-scale study to address this important matter. His answers highlight slaves' remarkable opportunities for independent action in the maritime world. Without underplaying the harshness of the slave experience, he argues that slave and free black maritime workers provided the slave community with material subsistence and possibilities for liberty.

One of the key themes of the book is that the experience of maritime work varied. While a growing body of scholarship focuses on black sailors on the high seas, Cecelski's subjects work in a variety of jobs, most of which are closer to shore. In addition to revealing the lives of black schooner and lightermen, Cecelski discusses canal building, bateaux boating, rafting , levee work, and various kinds of fishing. Cecelski shows the difficulty of this work. His chapter on canal building makes the reader feel the horror of slavery. Wading in waist deep water in the swamps of coastal North Carolina, slaves were expected to clear trees, logs, and a jungle of vegetation, all the while evading insects and poisonous snakes. At the end of the day, slaves often slept unprotected in the mud. Even fishing was extremely arduous. While Cecelski illustrates the freeing mobility of fishermen and the significant impact of fish on the larger slave community's diet, he also shows the dangers of diving for oysters in the dead of winter. In the herring, rockfish, and shad fisheries, which flourished seasonally in the estuaries of the coast, slaves dove into murky waters to clear river bottoms of branches and stumps in order to create clear pathways for their nets. When manual methods failed, they used dangerous explosives.

Cecelski stresses the diversity of the African American maritime pursuits, but he shows that a culture of resistance connected them all. This resistant culture was shaped by a fluid network of contacts that connected the various sectors of the maritime world to each other and to shoreside slaves. Watermen were inherently worldly, even if they were just local fishermen. Ports such as Wilmington, New Bern and Camden provided a meeting place for slaves hungry for news and information. One of Cecelski's strongest chapters describes the importance of this maritime network to the success of slave escapes. Cecelski describes, with a precision absent in the literature, how slave escape networks connected plantations and coastal cities of Atlantic schooners. Black sailors helped runaways stow-away to freedom, risking imprisonment to challenge slavery.

Cecelski attempts to trace this culture of resistance into the eras of the Civil War and Reconstruction. His chapter on the war years brilliantly argues that slave waterman were important in bringing about Union victory and emancipation. By guiding federal vessels in occupied coastal North Carolina, serving in the Union navy, and spreading word of federal invasions inland, Cecelski shows the continued role of the maritime culture of resistance. Less successful is his description of Reconstruction. While the strength of this book is its attention to maritime work culture, Cecelski leaves this world during the Reconstruction era to tell the story of Abraham Galloway, a former slave who served in the North Carolina senate during Radical Reconstruction. Galloway was certainly an important leader of the black community during this pivotal period, but Cecelski does not concretely connect him to the maritime culture of resistance. His story seems a bit out of place.

The weakness of the Galloway chapter stems, in part, from a romanticization of maritime politics. Drawing on existing scholarship on eighteenth-century maritime culture, Celcelski defines these politics as "radical and Jacobinical" and suggests that there was a continuity from the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries in the democratic ideas that defined maritime life. But this continuity is more asserted than proved. Specifically, one wonders to what extent racism infected maritime culture as the nineteenth century progressed. Cecelski concludes his study with discussion of an interracial fishing community on the outer banks but this was probably a fabulously interesting remnant of a long lost egalitarianism. Was the maritime world really immune to the racism that increasingly divided America's working class in this period?

These minor criticisms do not detract from this remarkable achievement. This book links race and the environment in creative ways. His account revises static models of slavery and emphasizes the fluid, dynamic nature of the slave economy. At the same time, his love of coastal North Carolina makes this a compelling study of an early American environment. The sights, sounds, and smells of the land and water are evident on every page. Cecelski has written a classic study that will be read widely.
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Author:Buchanan, Thomas C.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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