Black Sailors and Legal History from the Bottom Up


Dr Michael A. Schoeppner, University of Maine, Farmington


Buried deep within the British National Archives sits a hefty red book with a commensurately hefty title: Correspondence relative to the Prohibition against the Admission of Free Persons of Colour into certain Ports of the United States, 1823– 1851. In 1853, an MP, furious over the decades-long imprisonment of black Britons by law-enforcement officials in the Southern states of America, requested that all Foreign Office materials pertaining to these arrests be compiled and printed. The resulting 200-plus pages contain British consular correspondence from American port cities, reprints of American newspaper articles, Anglo-American diplomatic notes, and copies of legal and legislative proceedings in the United States.

Southern statesmen, these documents make clear, were terrified of the “moral contagion” of liberty that supposedly infected free black sailors, a contagion that might cause a pandemic if it spread to local slaves. So they passed statutes that criminalized black seamen’s entry altogether. Black British sailors often bore the brunt of these statutes, as the letters in this thick volume in the National Archives so meticulously illustrate.

The consular reports have much for the social-legal historian, as they feature stories of the black maritime workforce’s interaction with their captains, local officials in port cities in America, and the British state itself. It offers tantalizing glimpses into the ways black seamen understood the political dynamics and legal world that shaped Anglo-American interactions during the middle of the nineteenth century. Among the most fascinating stories are those that describe the sailors’ understanding of citizenship and the rights attending to that status. This was law on the ground, or better yet, on the waves.

I was captivated by the story of John Jones, a black Barbadian steward who arrived in Charleston, South Carolina in November 1843. When his vessel docked, deputy sheriffs removed Jones and three of his black shipmates and escorted them to the city jail. The following day, the ship’s captain contacted the local British consul, who visited the men in jail the day after. The consul found Jones in solitary confinement, bruised and beaten. According to the consul’s report, the jailor had battered Jones “with a stick” and then sequestered him because the steward had refused to sweep the lower section of the jailhouse. Jones claimed that the jailor had no right to compel him to work, as he was British subject. Apparently, Jones also made a spectacle of his defiance, “haranguing three or four other negroes.” To keep the peace, the jailor argued, meant swift punishment.

I marveled as I read the consular report of Jones’s incarceration. Here was a Barbadian man, working on a transatlantic vessel and a subject of the British Empire, making a statement about what his legal status meant to a local official in the United States. He could be arrested and detained, but his labor was his alone, the fruits of which could not be lawfully taken from him. This encounter, gleaned from an otherwise formulaic set of consular reports, sheds light on one strand of legal culture in the Anglo-Atlantic. Race, regulation, and rights intertwined in the Charleston jailhouse, and we get a glimpse of how at least one person within the black maritime workforce understood himself – legally speaking – to exist as a British subject traversing the nineteenth-century Atlantic World.

Jones’s story is important for this reason, at least, and it resembles stories gleaned from local legal records in other locations throughout the British Empire and the U.S. South during this period. Local case studies on race and law often turn government documents inside out to uncover the lives and legal culture of everyday people like John Jones. Geographically oriented case studies have long dominated the literature on antebellum free people of color in America, from John Russell’s 1913 The Free Negro in Virginia to the late, great Ira Berlin’s magisterial Slaves without Masters. More recent studies – culminating in Kimberly Welch’s superb book on Natchez last year – have shown how citizenship and legal rights were sites of intense conflict at the local level, where people of color negotiated for legal recognition. Thanks to these works and their emphasis on the local, we see both the agency of free people of color and the localized political efforts of those who sought to circumscribe African-American rights claims. Far removed from the highest echelons of legal authority, these local venues nonetheless reveal what formal law often overlooked: how law operated in the lives of everyday people.

Almost accidentally, though, localized studies imply that formal, doctrinal law at the highest levels and the quotidian experience of law by free people of color did not overlap. Local legal culture is the socio-legal historian’s domain, and doctrinal developments are reserved for intellectual historians of the law, and never the two shall meet.

But I wonder if we are missing something important by conceding that these two arenas of study have little to say to one another. At last month’s annual meeting of the American Historical Association, historian Martha S. Jones, whose recent book on Baltimore is a must read, recently argued against this bifurcation of formal-legal and socio-legal history. I concur with her position. Separating the two undermines the degree to which legal change could, and did, occur as a result of pressure from below. The legal world of free people of color might have been distinctly local much of the time, but it was never cut off from larger legal culture. Their actions had consequences further “up,” and not simply through formal appellate channels by which lower court cases move “up” the ladder. In making rights claims, free people of color influenced the larger legal culture out of which formal changes eventually took root.

John Jones, other free black seamen, and their advocates both invited and demanded diplomats, lawmakers, and courts to consider and adjudicate on their legal status. Their claims to rights had ramifications at the highest levels of governance. Federal court judges, congressmen, state legislative assemblies, national party officials, MPs, Foreign Secretaries, the US State Department, etc. contemplated, debated, endorsed, and denied the citizenship claims and rights of free people of color as they pressed for recognition. The result was a legal culture out of which formal doctrine on citizenship eventually emerged. Citizenship’s legal history was not bestowed from the top down, nor was it only apparent at the bottom; rather it emerged from the bottom up.


Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America
is available from Cambridge University Press

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About the Author: Dr Michael A. Schoeppner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Maine, Farmington. His research explores how the lived experience of race intersected with and informed legal culture and constitutional change in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is the author of Moral Contagion: Black Atlantic Sailors, Citizenship, and Diplomacy in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2019), which was awarded the 2017 Hines Prize by the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World program at the College of Charleston.

2 responses to “Black Sailors and Legal History from the Bottom Up

    1. Thank you for the question. In the short run, yes. Despite the pleas of the British consul in Charleston, Jones remained in confinement until the third week of December, some seven to eight weeks after his run in with the jailor. At that point, his vessel was set to leave harbor. He was escorted aboard, and he departed back to Liverpool. He never filed suit for battery or any other offense, likely because “without friends, without funds, and without time, mariners cannot resort to suits at law,” as one sympathetic judge put it. In the longer run, however, I was not able to follow Jones after his return to Liverpool.

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