For Some Enslaved Africans, Water Was a Savior

Posted on Tue., Feb. 7, 2023 by Kevin Dawson
Kevin Dawson looking at a book.

Kevin Dawson—associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced, and the recipient of the 2022–23 Kemble Fellowship in Maritime History at The Huntington—conducts research in The Huntington’s Ahmanson Reading Room. Photo by Linnea Stephan. | The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Currently on fellowship at The Huntington, I have been using my time to conduct research for my second book about how enslaved Africans in the Americas re-created and re-imagined African maritime traditions, including swimming, diving, surfing, boat-making, canoeing, and fishing. Some of my most recent research has focused on how enslaved women used African fishing techniques to capture seafood during their spare time, an activity that provided them with a remarkable degree of autonomy and mobility. Using African-style dugout canoes crafted by husbands and sons, they transported seafood to weekend markets—the equivalent of today’s farmers markets—to sell their fresh seafood and produce principally to white residents.

Expand image A group of people in a marketplace.

Marketplace, Mompox, Colombia, 1826 (figure 2, facing page 59) in Voyage pittoresque dans les deux Ameriques. This image shows captives selling goods from their beached dugout canoes, which were used to quickly transport perishables, including fresh fish, meat, poultry, fruits, and vegetables. One captive is selling live turtles, which were a delicacy. A husband and wife apparently crewed the canoe in the foreground, allowing them to extend the precious little time they had together while earning money by selling goods produced during their free time. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

The mind’s eye may conjure up images of Africans residing in landlocked places, far inland in steamy rainforests, tree-scattered grasslands, or arid deserts. But many Africans, in fact, lived (and live today) near navigable waterways, both saltwater and freshwater. Atlantic Africa, extending from Senegal in the north to Angola in the south, possesses thousands of miles of coastlines, numerous lakes, and rivers. Africans seamlessly merged land and water into vast waterscapes infused with cultural, social, and spiritual meaning. Many Africans were fishing farmers and farming fishermen: They fished one season, farmed another, and used dugout canoes to transport goods to market.

Expand image A man sits on a rock on a beach and looks up at a woman.

Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1802–1858, Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil, 1835 (Paris), plate 8. This detailed study illustrates the retention of African material culture and seafood marketing. The man is selling fish, and his hat and shorts are evocative of those worn in Western Africa. The woman’s headscarf and beads are seemingly rooted in African spiritual and cultural meaning, and the red and white beads on her necklace and bracelet might be coral. The ritual scarification on her cheek suggests that she is a member of the Yoruba ethnic group from what is now Benin and Nigeria. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

In slaveholding societies from Virginia to Brazil, African-descended people typically comprised the majority of a population, and most plantations were constructed along navigable waterways to facilitate the shipment to seaports of slave-produced cash crops—tobacco, indigo, sugar, rice, cotton, chocolate, and coffee. By layering the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of Atlantic Africa onto foreign waterscapes, captives re-created African aquatic traditions—infusing their lives with a sense of meaning, purpose, and belonging—while maintaining cultural bonds with African home-waters and homelands.

Expand image People gathered in a marketplace in front of ships.

Johann Moritz Rugendas, 18021858, Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil, 1835 (Paris), plate 13. This image illustrates the mobility that enslaved marketers enjoyed. On the right, a man sells fish from a basket on his head, while in the fore- and middle-ground, women sell fruits and vegetables as well as craft items, including hats. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Volumes of travel accounts at The Huntington document this cultural process. For instance, when white people from the American north and Europe sailed into slave-holding regions, many were surprised—even overwhelmed—by the degree to which life among enslaved Africans was steeped in maritime activity. Fleets of enslaved fishermen in African-style dugouts parted to make way for ships entering seaports, sailing past enslaved boys and girls swimming, as one observer described it, like “Tritons and Mermaids in the water.” Enslaved women in canoes paddled alongside ships to sell fresh produce, seafood, and tropical curiosities like parrots, alligators, and monkeys. Enslaved men in canoes, performing call-and-response songs in African and European languages, provided a steady cadence for paddling as they transported white newcomers ashore and loaded and off-loaded cargo. Along wharves, captives conversed in African languages. The aroma of African-influenced seafood dishes prepared by female vendors along the waterfront wafted over the scene, tempting whites to indulge in African flavors. Such settings caused many white people to imagine themselves in Africa, with one Englishman concluding that Rio de Janeiro’s sensory experience was equal “to anything on the Niger” River, and Rio’s waterfront was dubbed the “Coast of Africa.” Likewise, an early 18th-century Swiss transplant to South Carolina felt it “looks more like an African country than like a country settled by white people.”

Expand image A man and woman with baskets of food on their heads and two young children in tow.

John Gabriel Stedman, Narrative, of a Five Years’ Expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam … from the year 1772, to 1777, 1796 (London), vol. 2, facing page 280. This image shows an enslaved family from Luanda, Angola, re-creating African marketing traditions in Surinam. The father and husband bears ritual scarification on his chest, along with the branded initials “JGS” for John Gabriel Stedman, the man who owned him. He carries a fishing net and a basket of small fish on his head as well as a large fish in his right hand. The multitasking mother and wife, who is pregnant, is head-porting fruits and vegetables, spinning cotton thread, carrying one son on her back, minding another in tow, and calmly smoking a pipe. (People at the time were unaware of the negative effects of smoking while pregnant.) The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

While living under the cruel institution of slavery, captives understood that during their free time, African aquatics could provide them with benefits and material comfort. Huntington sources illustrate these benefits in print and images. Swimming allowed the enslaved to find cathartic pleasure in their exploited bodies. In the evening, women and men slipped into the water to cool off, relax, and wash away the filth of plantation slavery. By the waterside, fathers and sons made canoes that male and female family members used for fishing. To augment the meager rations provided by enslavers, captives used their dugout canoes to harvest shellfish, finned fish, and an array of other creatures that were deemed seafood, including sea turtles, manatees, alligators, and crocodiles.

Expand image A group of people on a beach, with a few canoes just offshore.

Johann Moritz Rugendas, 1802–1858, Voyage pittoresque dans le Brésil, 1835 (Paris), plate 12. Captives engaged in marketing goods often experienced a surprisingly high degree of mobility, as illustrated in this image. Enslaved canoe men are offering to take women and their children to market. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Women—whose race and legal status as slaves made them the most relegated people in New World colonies and, later, in the United States—were able to use their fishing and marketing expertise to monopolize urban food markets, as they challenged the conditions of enslavement by breathing humanity into their lives and those of their loved ones. Legal codes defined the enslaved as property incapable of owning property, while laws and enslavers regularly prohibited the ownership and use of dugouts (which could be employed to escape) and the marketing of goods. Regardless, colonies’ social and economic stability—indeed white people’s sustenance—largely depended on enslaved women’s ability to own canoes and produce and sell foodstuffs. On weekends, mothers and daughters gathered seafood, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, into family canoes and paddled to markets. Women also cooked and sold such African-influenced seafood dishes as gumbo, pepper pot, and jambalaya.

Expand image Fishing canoes with two to three people each.

Awnsham Churchill and John Churchill, Collection of Voyages, 1732 (London), vol. 5, plate 9, page 156. This image captures the fleet of 500 to 600 canoes used by Fante fishermen to harvest seafood near the ports of Cape Coast and Elmina, Ghana. The illustration depicts the use of fishing nets, harpoons, and fishing lines with one or multiple hooks. Fishermen often looped fishing lines to their heads so that they could detect when fish nibbled the bait and still keep their hands free. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens.

Even as slavery sought to restrain captives’ movements, market voyages provided women with surprising mobility and economic power, as they paddled up to 15 miles each way, spending most of the day away from enslavers’ estates. During river and coastal trips, women and, to a lesser extent, men from numerous plantations formed fleets of canoes. These streams of humanity enabled women to converse, laugh, and reconnect with loved ones and friends who had been sold away to neighboring plantations. Importantly, such trips afforded the privacy necessary to manipulate markets through price fixing, enabling women to gain favorable prices for their goods, even as slavery required them to perform up to 80 hours per week of unpaid labor for their owners. Mothers and daughters returned from markets with cash that was used to purchase necessities and other goods, making their lives and those of their family members bearable and even enjoyable. For instance, an English traveler to a Georgia plantation, taken on a pleasure cruise by enslaved canoe men along the Altamaha River in 1846, wrote that he “met a great number of slaves paddling their canoes on their way back from Darien, for it was Saturday, when they are generally allowed half holiday, and they had gone to sell on their own account their poultry, eggs, and fish, and were bringing back tobacco, clothes, and other articles.”

Expand image View of Kevin Dawson looking at Collection of Voyages.

Kevin Dawson examines Awnsham Churchill and John Churchill’s Collection of Voyages, 1732, in The Huntington’s Ahmanson Reading Room. Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Several images from The Huntington’s collections capture these market scenes. Through them, we can see how enslaved women and men regained control of a portion of their lives, providing themselves with a sense of dignity, worth, and humanity.

Kevin Dawson is associate professor of history at the University of California, Merced, and the recipient of the 2022–23 Kemble Fellowship in Maritime History at The Huntington. He is the author of Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018), which won the 2019 Harriet Tubman Prize from the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.