On the waterfront of Kingston, three modest buildings compose the Hudson River Maritime Museum (HRMM). One of these is the museum’s Riverport Wooden Boat School, which hosted a full house on Saturday, Feb. 4 for a lecture entitled “Black Maritime Workers in Early America: Challenging Slavery and Shaping Freedom Then and Now.”
The lecturer, Dr. Craig Marin, is an assistant professor of Maritime Studies at the SEA Semester study abroad program in Woods Hole, MA. He educates students on early maritime labor and brings them out to sea to study sailing.
Marin grew up in Maine, where he and his family were very involved in sailing. In high school, he took a sailing trip down to the Caribbean. On this two-year trip, he said he started seeing things from a “port-eye view.”
“My understanding of these places is shaped by my experience as a sailor,” he said. “That experience led me down a long road to [studying history].”
Eventually, Marin was working on early American and Atlantic history, which he combined with studies in African American history. Most recently, his research has focused on runaways from maritime slave labor.
Saturday’s lecture was a glimpse into this vein of history which connects black maritime workers’ accomplishments to the larger Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
“We’re really happy to be a part of Black History Month,” said HRMM Public Relations Director Lana Chassman. “Our mission is to educate the patrons of the community and the preservation of history.”
While delivering his PowerPoint-aided lesson, he took questions and had an open conversation with his audience. He began by introducing the institution of slavery in the late 18th to early 19th century, in which a white man would supervise slave labor. As he went on, he debunked myths about slavery. Slaves did not solely work on plantations, but were also assigned skilled work such as hunting and fishing, making weapons and most important to Marin, sailing periauger ships to export goods from the plantations.
“In Georgetown, who’s moving the rice down to Charleston?” Marin asked. “That process of moving goods is most interesting to me and what propelled me into my research.”
Then, he posed another question: were supervisors present in this mobile occupation of sailing? The answer is no.
This key information springboarded Marin’s studies and, in turn, the lecture. He presented a book of runaway slave ads, which he analyzed in his research to find connections between maritime labor and those who escaped.
He went on to talk about three black maritime workers, Olaudah Equiano, Paul Cuffee and David Walker, who all became abolitionists and shaped the idea of freedom from slavery. Equiano, for example, was able to work enough to buy his way out of slavery. As a literate Christian, he was in a position to advocate against slavery. According to Marin, Equiano’s success in the resistance was shaped by his maritime experiences.
“All of these amazing people are passed over in our history,” Chassman said. “[Marin’s] research helps uncover their story.”