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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.