By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
The following article is based on portions of a public lecture that the author presented at Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’) church in Philadelphia on May 15, 2019.
People sometimes express surprise on learning that Philadelphia used to be the country’s major seaport and that a huge percentage of the city’s working inhabitants used to be engaged in maritime-related activities.
The neighborhood of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church) was fully connected to the waterfront until the end of the 1960s, when hundreds of houses and businesses were torn down for the construction of I-95 (then called the Delaware Expressway) and for other poorly conceived reasons. Many of the demolished houses had been lived in for over 200 years, and had been the residences of generations of people associated with the sea—chandlers, rope makers, sail makers, barrel makers, riggers, carvers, ship builders, stevedores, and shipping merchants — as well as the seamen themselves and their families.
Through most of the 18th century and up to about 1815, Philadelphia was the largest port in North America. In the late colonial period, it was probably busier than any British port except London and Liverpool. After the Revolution, in 1793, total exports from Philadelphia equaled a quarter of the tonnage for all of the United States, exceeding all of New York and New England put together. On any given day in that era, there were generally well over a hundred ships in port.
Philadelphia was also a major shipbuilding center, due in part to the fine old-growth forests that surrounded the city. One English parliamentarian told the House of Commons in 1784 that the most beautiful ships “are those built in Philadelphia, where this art has attained to the greatest perfection, equal, perhaps superior, to any part of the world.”
It might seem curious that Philadelphia became a major port, since the problems in getting here from the open ocean were considerable. For one thing, depending on the winds, it could take four days to a week, or even more, to go up or down the Delaware River to reach the ocean. Moreover, it was the only port south of Canada that was blocked by ice in the winter—sometimes for months on end. And then, ships had to contend with being grounded on the shifting shoals in the Bay and along the river. And finally, the Bay itself was open to storms from the ocean that could dash them onto the shore. There was no refuge at the mouth of the Delaware Bay until the breakwater was constructed in the 1820s.
But ships and shippers came here by preference because it had the largest concentration of people in English-speaking America, including many with wealth and sophisticated tastes. Therefore, merchants could get higher prices for finished goods than they could in New York.
The triangular trade
The nature of the trade coming in and out of the port during the colonial period, and even during the early republic, reflected what is typically seen in a colonial context. While Pennsylvania had to import almost all its finished goods from England, it exported raw materials. In the very early days of the city, the main exports were furs, skins, and lumber. Later, as the forests were cut down, the major export became wheat grain and milled flour.
There were three main routes for Philadelphia vessels. The first one was down the coast and to the West Indies, generally exporting flour to the islands in return for sugar, molasses, tropical fruits, coffee, and exotic woods. The second route was to Portugal and Spain, where the ships would pick up oranges, olive oil, cigars, and so on. And the third major route was to England. The route to England had far fewer ships than on the route to the West Indies, but they were the biggest and best vessels—with the most experienced captains—since the goods they carried from the mother country were by far the most valuable.
Unfortunately, Britain had tariffs in place to block the main product that Pennsylvania had to offer—wheat flour. And so, merchants had to resort to a triangular trade. They would ship flour to the West Indies or to Portugal in exchange for gold or silver or bills of exchange, which they could then spend in England to purchase finished goods and textiles to carry back to Pennsylvania.
Of course, the more infamous triangular route belonged to the slave trade—flour and other goods to Africa, slaves to the West Indies, and sugar to the North American colonies. However, slaves were never a major commodity in Pennsylvania, since the colony lacked the huge plantations that made slavery highly profitable in the South. People who are in lifetime bondage do not tend to work very efficiently or live very long, so the slaveholders generally required large single-crop plantations worked by many slaves to furnish the profits and lavish lifestyles that they were accustomed to.
The slave trade briefly flourished in the Philadelphia area in the 1760s. That was because the war between Britain and France had produced a shortage of labor when white indentured servants were mustered into the King’s army and immigration from Europe tailed off. For the first issue of Founders magazine, for example, I wrote an article about Joseph Blewer, an important patriot in the American Revolution but a slave trader in the 1760s. In July 1765, Blewer carried 70 people from Africa to be sold in Philadelphia on behalf of Willing, Morris & Company, and appears to have transported many others to Barbados for hard labor on the sugar plantations.
When slave auctions were held in Philadelphia, such as the ones in front of the London Coffee House at Front and Market Streets, buyers came from many miles around—including from the large tobacco plantations in Maryland and southern Delaware. Slave merchants like Willing, Morris & Company even transported likely buyers from Wilmington, Del., free of charge to the auctions.
Low pay, poor working conditions
In the late 18th century, mariners were the largest occupational class in Philadelphia—perhaps 20 percent of working men in the city. It is estimated that over 1200 seafarers made Philadelphia their home in the early 1770s, although the exact number is hard to come by since many mariners were too poor to be included on tax rolls, and many were transients, going from port to port to find work.
Research shows that the greater portion of mariners in Philadelphia were not born in this city but came from urban areas in the North American colonies or in Britain or other European countries. They generally came from families on the lower end of the economic spectrum and were not in a good position to take up a trade or, much less, to turn to farming. So they usually went to sea, and braved its dangers, out of sheer economic necessity.
One study analyzed the men who were portrayed on Seamen’s Protective Certificates around the year 1800. These certificates were carried by seamen who were U.S. citizens to try to protect them from being kidnapped and impressed into the Royal Navy on the pretence that they could not prove that they were not British subjects. The study found that the subjects remained mariners for only around seven years on average. Many remained at sea just until they could obtain a job on land, where they were not exposed to such extreme dangers and were able to spend more time with their families.
And yet, the pay for an ordinary seaman was fairly low, among the lowest paying occupations. Thus, the trade tended to attract many men who were relatively unstable, and who, for reasons such as alcoholism, found it difficult to obtain higher paying jobs.
A British sea captain, writing in 1790, wrote of the difficulty of recruiting crew members in America. They were, he complained, “generally half-drunk, they do not care what trouble they give, and may be justly compared for obstinacy to the wild ass of the wilderness.” The captain went on to say, speaking of conditions in Philadelphia, “The houses they board at and the brothels they frequent here have scarcely any furniture, and are the most filthy places of this description I have ever met with in any country. The sailors’ chests are placed around the room and serve both for seats and beds, and in the summer are the residence of innumerable hosts of flies, which creep into their punch glasses, being attracted by the sugar.”
It was very rare for an ordinary seaman to rise to become a mate or captain. The educational background of most seamen—many could not read or write—did not enable them to master the navigational and business skills that captains needed to possess. Those who did become captains often came from families in which their fathers or uncles were captains, and so they could learn the trade through apprenticeship.
Many captains preferred to sail with Black or mainly Black crews. They understood that free Black seamen were often more stable, sober, and harder working than whites were. While seafaring was one of the lowest paying jobs for white men, it was more of an upper-income job for Blacks. Since free Black men had much fewer economic and social opportunities on land than the whites did, they tended to stay on the job longer than whites, and worked harder in order to strive to keep their jobs. Many Blacks were given leading positions on ships as able-bodied seamen, but they could only rise so far. The chances that a Black seaman would attain the position of mate or captain was almost non-existent.
Beginning in the late 18th century, and until the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction, large numbers of Black men went to sea—about 20 percent of the workforce. Although the great majority of Black seafarers were free men, slavemasters would not infrequently rent out their human chattel to serve on ships. And sometimes white captains or even ordinary seamen would have their slaves accompany them on board ship, which would give them the ability to pocket their wages.
Moreover, it was not unknown for unscrupulous sea captains to sell free Black crew members into slavery when they visited Southern ports. Also, beginning in South Carolina in 1822, Black seamen were subject to what was called the Negro Seamen’s Acts, which provided for the incarceration of Black mariners in city jails until such time as their ship left port. The law was passed principally because the slaveholders feared that their slaves would be stirred to rebellion by seeing free Black seamen walking the streets. As a consequence, an estimated 10,000 Black seamen were imprisoned under the Negro Seamen’s Acts, until the laws were abolished with the Civil War.
Discipline for seamen of all colors was tight, and sometimes brutal. As one manual, the “Shipmaster’s Assistant and Commercial Digest,” pointed out in 1846, “The contract of a sailor is somewhat military in character. The master is entitled to prompt obedience. To ensure this, strict discipline must be observed, and if his crew fail in their duty, he may resort to force. Any resistance to him, except for the preservation of limb or life, may expose the sailor to the charge of revolt and mutiny. These offenses are punished by a fine not exceeding $2000, and imprisonment, with hard labour, not exceeding ten years.”
Further, in regard to punishments: “Chastisement must not be a blow with a fist or a stick. The seaman ought to be flogged with a rope, before the crew, who should be at the same time apprised of the offense.”
Of course, bad as flogging and other punishments might have been, an ocean voyage held much greater perils for mariners. Inscriptions on several gravestones at Gloria Dei hint at the tragic fate of some of them, with the words “lost at sea.”