The bravery of the 1st African-American captain to sail a whaleship with all-Black crew in 1822

Mildred Europa Taylor December 19, 2022
Absalom Boston. Public domain image

In the years of the early Republic when Black people experienced racial discrimination in their jobs, many of them turned their focus to the sea. Despite how risky it was to be on a vessel, Black people were not perturbed as it gave them a decent income to take care of their families.

The occupation was also one of the only few that did not discriminate and permitted Blacks to rise above the ranks. It is documented that 18 percent of American seamen in the early 1800s were men of color, and most of them were free. A lot of Black seamen worked as cooks or stewards on merchant vessels but historians say that those who worked on whaleships had better pay and were likely to be promoted than those on merchant vessels. 

In the mid-1800s, some 700 Black men worked on American whaleships as officers or harpooners. Only a few sailed as captains. Absalom Boston was one of them. Born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, to an ex-slave father and a Wampanoag Indian mother, he started working at sea by the age of 15. In his 20s, he made enough money to buy his first parcel of land in Nantucket and later opened a public inn.

Nantucket was at the time the capital of the early whaling industry. Voyages usually lasted for two or three years. Vessels mostly returned with whale oil or ambergis that was used to make perfume. Crewmen would share the profit. Many worked on a whaleship only once.

When Boston became the first African-American captain to sail a whaleship, with an all-Black crew in 1822, he returned safely with his crew on the whaleship called Industry. They returned after their six-month journey with 70 barrels of whale oil. According to, captains were not really liked but Boston’s leadership skills attracted him to his crew. They even memorialized him in a ballad. 

After his 1822 voyage, Boston retired from the sea. He went on to open a store and become a respected leader of the island’s Black community. He served as a trustee of the African Baptist Church and threw his weight behind the campaign to integrate Nantucket’s public schools. He even filed a successful lawsuit to have his daughter admitted to high school.

Despite helping to integrate the island’s public schools, Boston was buried in a segregated cemetery when he died in 1855. His estate included his home, two other houses, two lots, and a store.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: December 19, 2022


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