Monday, October 3, 2016

Gone Fishing - American slaves & the Atlantic coast fishing industry

In North Carolina & other coastal colonies, many slaves served as commercial fishermen & fish processors for their owners. Usually males fished, & females prepared the catch for market or export.  

Between 1800 & the Civil War, African Americans composed approximately 45 percent of the total population in North Carolina's 19 tidewater counties. Slaves made up nearly 60 percent of the total population in its largest seaports. 

Along the Albemarle Sound, prodigious gangs of black fishermen wielded mile-and-a-half-long seines in what was the largest herring fishery in North America.  Slaves at Shell Castle Island, a shoal at Ocracoke Inlet, ranged up & down the Outer Banks with their nets in pursuit of jumping mullet & bottlenosed dolphins.  The shad & herring fishery along the Albemarle Sound had only one comparable cousin, off the Chesapeake Bay, and the commercial mullet fishery between Bear Inlet & Ocracoke Inlet was unique. 

Many slave fishermen brought their skills with them.  In West Africa, drugging fish was a common practice of catching fish.  Fishermen there would dam up a stream and then add plant juice to the water. Captured by hand, the intoxicated fish would rise from the water and still be edible. In 1726, the practice spread so widely in South Carolina that a law was passed to whip any slave convicted of the practice. However, the practice continued and also they brought their net fishing & dugout canoe knowledge to the colonies. Combining these techniques.  

The Outer Banks has numerous shallow water sounds and inlets. Shipbuilding was for the shipyards at deepwater ports in other states. North Carolina craftsmen built small boats for their own use. Fishermen needed boats that could carry bigger loads without sitting deeper in the water.  Slaves would stand out on dugout canoes, fling nets into the rivers, and took in large amounts of drugged fish. This practice supplied a heavy income for slaves and provided important trade source for South Carolina. 

In Charleston, South Carolina, a group called "fishing Negros" had emerged early in the 18C, replacing local Native Americans as masters of the plentiful waters there. South Carolina Gazette, November 5, 1737.  James Sutherland, who commanded Johnson's Fort overlooking Charleston harbor during the 1730s wrote, "I've known two Negroes take between 14 & 1500 Trouts above 3 feet long wch make an excellent dry fish." Slaves built the dugouts from which they fished and constructed & maintained the nets.  One runaway named Moses was described in a 1737 South Carolina Gazette as "well known in Charlestown, having been a Fisherman there for some time, & hath been often employed in knitting of Nets."

Slave fishing and boating were a deeply embedded and important part of slaves' lives throughout the southern seacoast.  During this period, the slave plantations of the West Indies became the largest market for American fish.

Sein Fishing in North Carolina, Harper's Weekly (Sept. 28, 1861), p. 620.

Night Fishing in North Carolina 1861. Harper's Weekly (Sept. 28, 1861), p. 621

Fish Processing in North Carolina 1861, Harper's Weekly (Sept. 28, 1861), p.621

See: David S. Cecelski.  The Waterman's Song: Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina.  University of North Carolina Press. 2001

Vickers, Daniel. Farmers and Fishermen: Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850. Chapel Hill and London: Published for the Institute of Early American history and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia by the University of North Carolina Press, 1994., compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.