Black men in early America strived for masculine recognition in their society which did not provide many opportunities for Black men to publicly present themselves as men. In 2007, through The William and Mary Quarterly, maritime historian W. Jeffrey Bolster published “Letters by African American Sailors, 1799-1814,” which is useful in examining how Black men performed masculinity to not only provide for themselves and their families, but also to provide opportunities to be recognized as men. In my first post for The Junto, I decided to focus on the life of one of the Black sailors involved in the letters named Jacob Israel Potter. As an early nineteenth century impressed, or captured, Black sailor from Lewes, Delaware by the British Royal Navy, conceptually speaking, the parameters of freedom were far different for him as a person of African descent than someone white. Generally, Black freedom was always in tension with Black mobility. Scholars like Elizabeth Pryor examine this tension in the lives of Black antebellum activists from the late 1820s until just before the Civil War, but this post, in part, examines this tension with the added caveats of how Black masculinity and Black patriotism coincided with this tension as well.
After the American Revolution, the British Empire continually grew. The British Royal Navy in particular, was still the strongest in the world, and their naval preeminence was a major issue for the young United States of America. What the war also belied, was a push by the British towards anti-slavery. By 1807, the British not only ended their participation in the African Slave Trade, but they used their naval fleet of almost 100,000 seamen to curtail American, Spanish, Portuguese, and French use of the trade as well. Though the Americans would end their use of the trade the following year, the British Royal Navy now was in position to enforce their naval supremacy. Ironically, this supremacy was, at least partially, expressed by apprehending American sailors and others Atlantic seafarers for service in the British Royal Navy. Pressing American sailors forced the United States Congress to pass a May 1796 law entitled “An Act for the Protection and Relief of American Seamen” which provided Seamen Protection Certificates to seafarers regardless of color. For Black sailors though, the certificates did more than certify their citizenship, they also certified their identities as American citizens too.
This post does not claim that all Black sailors performed patriotism in their roles as maritime workers, but through this thirteen letter sample size, we can see that there were Black sailors who centered their identities as men on the fact that they were American sailors willing to face British persecution. Out of the thirteen letters, the person whose resolve was tested the longest was Jacob Israel Potter.
Potter’s captivity was a test of mental and physical endurance. Based on his letter, postmarked November 11, 1811, he had been held on the H.M.S. Antelope Spithead since 1804. Seven years passed with unfulfilled pleas for freedom from British bondage. He did not want to succumb to his British captures’ push to be a member of British Royal Navy because he “was an American and likewise I was a Citizen.” Adding to Potter’s rationale, was his wife and family being left behind. Jacob’s protection certificate was supposed to secure his citizenship. What he wanted was for his consul to certify his authenticity through “the Coulard [sic] Men at large, They will certify that I am an American” who was “born in Lewis town in the State of Delaware.” Unfortunately, Potter’s situation did not become better. He is the only impressed sailor from Bolster’s compilation with two letters. Potter postmarked this letter July 2, 1813 and he showed how the British government were “determined to detain us untile [sic] the Arrival of Such Proofs from the United States.” This letter provides rich information as to when he received his seamen protection certificate, when his kidnapped ship left the United States, and when it was actually abducted. His last protection was “granted at New York in 1803 by J.G. Bagget—Esqr. Notary Public on the affidavit of Lewis Johnstone of N. York.” March 10, 1803 was when he left “on board the Ship [illegible] of N York and was presed [sic] in London May 1804.” Worse of all for Jacob, on that date his protection was “destroyed by the British.” One can only surmise how his “wife and family at No. 45 Cliff Street New York” felt at this point about the predicament facing Jacob. By this time he was gone for over ten years. Jacob Israel Potter’s maritime experience was emblematic of not only the dangers on the high seas, but how clinging to beliefs that your supposed government had a duty to protect you could make your safety even more precarious.
Although Jacob was not enslaved as many of his brethren and sistren were in the United States, Black freedom was always precarious, even when they were moving up the social and economic ladder. Even as Potter wrote as a “Prisoner of war on board HM Ship Sampson” after ten years, he still concluded his letter with “I Remain Sir, Your Most Obed Hum Servt Jacob Potter.” What did he feel in that moment as his fingers authored those final words? Anger, sadness, longing, betrayal, hate? There is not a record as to the fate of the then thirty-year-old Jacob Israel Potter, but through his story, readers can unpack that he was a Black man who yearned to be back home where he felt he belonged. He saw himself as an American, whose seamen protection papers should have protected him from British forced labor. For Black men like Potter, citizenship was as easily attainable as a sailor as through any other profession because of their certificates. Unfortunately, just because one had access to such opportunities, did not mean they could fully express themselves without potential dangers to what manhood really meant in the early nineteenth century: duty to one’s family and opportunities to provide for them. Since Black men had less opportunities on land to express their manhood through employability, the high seas provided not only professional experiences to develop their manhood in front of whites, but also to financially take care of their families too. While being taken away from his family for ten years, Potter was disbarred from such expressions of masculinity, coincidentally as he expressed in his letters why he was an American citizen whose patriotic sacrifices were unfortunately unrequited.
Jacob Israel Potter’s story echoes how and why some African Americans historically longed to belong to the greater American society. Although ship-based employment took Black men for long times away from their families, paradoxically, as previously mentioned, the high seas provided high amounts of money relative to being on land. Danger always lurked around the corner for all sailors to be sure, but the specific dangers facing Black sailors were much more. During this early nineteenth century period, slavery was still a major economic driver, and the Atlantic Slave Trade had not fully collapsed. Opportunities to send Black sailors to other lands as enslaved people was always a possibility. This reality notwithstanding, Black sailors like Potter were willing to face such dangers because at the heart of his resolve, as interpreted by me, was a sense that his life, freedom, and manhood were important enough for the United States to protect.
Elizabeth Stordeur Pryor, Colored Travelers: Mobility and the Fight for Citizenship before the Civil War (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
Alan Taylor, The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832 (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013), 123.
W. Jeffrey Bolster, “Letters by African American Sailors,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1, (Jan. 2007), 177-178.
Ibid, 169, 177-178, 180-181.