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Black Jacks

JEFF BOLSTER INTERVIEW (Continued) You took 10 years to research and write this book. You also spent 10 years as a mariner yourself. Were these overlapping time periods or two completely separate time periods?

Bolster: Little bit overlapping, mostly separate. I spent ten years as a mariner. I am a licensed merchant marine officer and I have a considerable amount of sea time. I sailed as a captain on a number of American ships including several of the research vessels and a lot of sailing school ships -- the kind of vessels that are [known] as "tall ships," so I have some "square rig" experience, I have a lot of experience commanding big schooners and I have a lot of sea time. I keep my license up but in the last ten or eleven years I haven't sailed much on it. A few trips in the Caribbean, Scandinavia and this and that, but for the most part I've been shifting careers, moving from being a mariner to being a historian.

When I began that shift, I went ashore and began a master's degree in history back in 1983 at Brown University. Looking around for a topic, I started going though Customs House records looking for something entirely different and I came across this shipping list for the port of Providence, Rhode Island from 1803 to 1804 and I began to go through it. I was amazed at the number of Black men and Native American men on those lists. So I did some counting, some tallying from 1803 to 1810, 1830 to 1840, and I began to realize exactly how many of the sailors on these American ships from Rhode Island were men of color.

Now earlier I'd been back in the West Indies myself sailing these different vessels. I'd been talking to these old black West Indian guys about sailing schooners [down there] and getting a sense of what they were about. I read some of these memoirs. The most famous memoir by a black seaman from late 1700s: Olaudah Equiano. I had read his account years before. A shipmate loaned it to me one night when I on the schooner Harvey that was rolling on to Cape Haitian and I read this account. What we had here was an African man, an Ebo man, who had been a slave -- was then a freeman who had sailed the same waters I was two hundred years before.

So what happened when I was in Rhode Island, looking at those federal shipping lists is that all this began to come together for me. I talked with these old West Indian schooner sailors, owner-operators who had considerable experience sailing around the West Indies. I read an account of a slave sailor 200 years before who I had then thought was sort of an anomaly. I'd been to all the maritime museums on the East Coast, some on the West Coast. I'd read a lot about seafaring labor and maritime history. I'd always been interested in it. And I had never really seen much about black men. And yet here I was in the federal shipping records from 1803 to 1810, the federal shipping records from 1830 to 1840 for a major American port -- and there were lots of black men.

So, in the words of a fledgling historian, this is a story that I felt was worth pursuing and I did. While I went back to sea for a couple of years as a professional mariner, I finished a master's degree. Kept sailing, but I decided I wanted to pursue this Ph.D. so I left the sea again for a second time and went to Baltimore to Johns Hopkins University to start a Ph.D. and picked up my research sort of on the trail of black mariners from there. Here we are.

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