By John L. Godwin
Those who balk at an attempt to understand the history of slavery in America are missing out on an essential point. That so many have failed at this may help to account for the devaluation of citizenship and the decay of democracy in our time. But in terms that are much more deeply rooted culturally and historically, this lapse in comprehension of the modern economy has formed a central weakness in what has been called the Southern mind. Having failed to come to grips with the history of slavery, Americans, and especially the white South, have too often developed only a limited understanding of freedom.
This award winning study by David Cecelski offers a remedy for this longstanding defect.
Other books in recent times as well as older studies have taken on the subject of slavery in the Tarheel state. The Waterman’s Song, nevertheless, accomplishes something long missing in the narrative. This is carried out by weaving complex themes of social relations, economic life, and geography into the fabric of a relatively new social history. Cecelski joins the ranks of those contemporary writers who have looked at the experience of slavery from an African American perspective. The Waterman’s Song reminds us, as it should, that slavery was a cruel and exploitative institution that was racial in its character. Part of an Antebellum social system that defined servitude in racial terms, slavery gave rise to resistance and stimulated a Black hunger for freedom and social identity that remains with us today.
Although many generations of Southern whites have denied this, it is an insight that is well developed here. Black men as slaves were sent into the mosquito infested swamps of eastern North Carolina to work ten and twelve hour days, laboring in muck up to their wastes to build canals, establish landings, or develop fisheries, in a world where Black skin was a token of inferior status, and where resistance too often was met with punishment by torture or execution.
The Waterman’s Song builds on this foundation in a way that is original and fresh, involving a synthesis of perspectives derived from labor history and the social history of the plantation South, along with exploration of how geography and the maritime culture of work gave slavery a distinctive flavor. While geography was a crucial factor in shaping the lives of African Americans, the larger dynamics of Atlantic maritime culture brought to North Carolina a pattern of life and interaction that was somewhat at odds with plantation agriculture. Through myriad forms of work in the maritime world, Black sailors, fishermen, pilots, laborers and others enjoyed a degree of autonomy that enabled the communication of ideas and information as well as resistance.
The “broader experience of the maritime South,” says the author, helped to ensure that wherever plantation slavery rubbed shoulders with its maritime counterpart a “dynamic tension” was the result—one that improved the lives of African Americans and weakened slavery as an institution.
Apart from its most basic message, which still may be its most important point, The Waterman’s Song turns on two interpretive proclivities. First, the maritime culture of work gave slavery a distinctive character where slavery met the sea. Cecelski revels in this point, acknowledging the influence of contemporary labor studies that have emphasized “the culture of work,” while opening this new chapter in the understanding of North Carolina in a way that may have broad implications for future studies. If slavery shaped our understanding of freedom as much as we think, and slavery in the Tarheel state was so profoundly influenced by the state’s geography, then we have much to learn from this old song. But is it the song that we think that it is?
The second interpretive proclivity, that the state’s coastal geography compounded the maritime experience, serving to ensure that the watery world of North Carolina was distinctive by contrast to much of the South, moves in the direction of a much older approach to the interpretation of North Carolina history. The impact of geography here may well be the single oldest theme. And Ceceski may be overly cautious in making this point. While he dwells on what is described as an “African American maritime culture” (a questionable notion) it does not appear in fact that there is anything particularly distinctive about North Carolina, except insofar as the cumulative impact of a culture so prevalent on the Atlantic seaboard was comparatively greater here.
But Cecelski’s point seems larger than this. North Carolina historians in recent times have been far more reluctant to assert a heritage that has in the past been heralded with pride—that the Old North State has been somehow different by comparison to other Southern states in the area of its race relations. No book has done more to demonstrate the plausibility of this thesis than this one—yet it remains in effect a hidden dimension, one that lingers on the periphery, while a much bolder and more forceful statement of what is probably the book’s central theme unfolds. At the outset, Cecelski tells us that African American maritime culture asserted itself as forcefully in Charleston or Norfolk as in coastal North Carolina. But the implication is clear that North Carolina Blacks were more militant and more successful in the assertion of their identity. And does this book tell us fully why?
This book is divided into two parts. The first focuses on the culture of work in the maritime world, from Black sailors and fishermen who enjoyed the greatest degree of independence, to that of the riverboat pilots, and other skilled workers who plied the coastal waterways, sounds, and creeks. This was a world conditioned by economic and geographic circumstances peculiar to life in conjunction with the sea. A world fraught with many dangers, and with chronic shortages of skilled labor, where a Black man’s chances of survival and improved existence became an essential part of coastal slave culture. Skilled workers in this world were highly prized and much in demand, bringing considerable returns to the shrewd master. Working skills might command large sums both for slaves hired out, as well as special inducements to slaves themselves or to free Blacks.
The second part of the book moves on to the political realities of slave resistance. This portrait continues through the Civil War and Reconstruction, showing how a distinct culture fueled a tradition of radical self-assertion on the part of coastal slaves, contributing as much to the conduct of the war and the course of Reconstruction as to slavery itself. The same economic and geographic factors that gave slavery a distinctive character in years leading up to the Civil War contributed to slavery’s demise. This was a world in which small boats flourished, a realm linked by maritime commerce, through which Black sailors brought news of the outside world, connecting the rural harbors and byways to the larger free Black communities of Philadelphia, New York, and New England. Cecelski shows that Black watermen used their skills to aid fugitive slaves and with the arrival of the Civil War, to aid the passage of Union forces over treacherous waters. Cecelski concludes as a result that Black political culture in North Carolina as shaped by the maritime world “played a major role in infusing into American politics a powerful vision of a more just society.”
For readers who enjoy history and yearn for some connection to the physical and cultural circumstances of our region’s past, this book provides a threshold to a vanished world. So enthralled is the author with the amalgam of geography, the environment, and culture of the sea that one can find here the very foundation stone from which North Carolina was made. This was a world of tidewater creeks, sounds, estuaries, a vast labyrinth of channels and rivers between the densely forested mainland, the coastal islands, and the sea. Cecelski explores the culture that thrived on fishing and the operation of high volume fisheries for commercial exchange. Fishing for shad, herring, rockfish, “trash” fish, mullet, seine hauling, whaling, oystering, along with ferry boating, and piloting—these were all forms of work that required degrees of skill that varied. But the culture of the sea also extended into Carolina forests. And in eastern North Carolina, forest industries for the production of lumber, tar, pitch, turpentine and other naval stores, also involved Black workers in an economy that was distinctive.
Rich in detail and subtle in nuance, The Waterman’s Song is especially useful in its exploration of particular individuals in the Antebellum world of African Americans. The book includes treatment of obscure figures, such as the slave ferryman, Moses Grandy, the escaped slave, William Henry Singleton, and others like them, based on their personal narratives. But also the book illuminates important African American leaders such as William Robinson, William Still, David Walker and the fiery, Abraham Galloway, who served as an “intelligence agent” for the Union Army and a leading Republican of the Reconstruction regime in Wilmington.
The Waterman’s Song is an excellent resource for history teachers and museums, and has been widely used in college courses. But the book is not without its defects and limitations. The writing includes occasional non sequiturs, obtuse exaggerations, and wooden assertions, as for example, that even until after the Civil War, the character of fishing and boating on the coastal waters of North Carolina “did not differ significantly from the practices found among the tidewater Algonquians...”(11) One might conclude that the arrival of the steam engine had little or no impact on maritime North Carolina—a thesis that does not hold up along the Cape Fear. But perhaps more central to the book’s main argument, Cecelski does not seem to consider that The Waterman’s Song could also at times be a song of joyful contentment, within a world in which Black men at times found they could endure slavery and thrive, even as they carried on their struggle against slavery’s restrictions. And the book has little to say about the impact of Maritime culture on whites—a significant omission, given the wider thesis of the maritime dynamic and the influence of whites upon Blacks.
Any number of such questions should be raised about this book; yet none of these can diminish its value for readers everywhere.
John L. Godwin is the author of Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, (Lanham, MD.: University Press of America, 2000).
N.C. History in Review
The Waterman’s Song: Slavery and
Freedom in Maritime North Carolina
by David S. Cecelski, University of North Carolina Press, 2001
An Essay in Review
From Carolina Civic Voice, Summer 2005