For years, Charles Foy spent hours huddled in a library researching and writing about black mariners in the Atlantic World — even creating a database to document the thousands and thousands of mariners he discovered.
His research only allowed the associate professor of history at Eastern Illinois University to imagine the smell of the ocean or the hardships of sailing on the rough waters of the Atlantic.
But this summer, Foy will experience exactly what he has spent years researching. He will set sail on the oldest commercial whaling ship still afloat, the Charles W. Morgan, built in 1841, as part of Mystic Seaport’s “38th voyage” project sponsored by the National Endowment for Humanities.
The voyage is a public history project with 80 voyagers, from artists to scholars, bringing their expertise on board to raise awareness about the importance of America’s maritime history.
The Charles W. Morgan originally set sail in May from Mystic Seaport in Connecticut with plans for several scholars to spend a day or two on the ship throughout the journey till its return in August. The voyage will be the 38th trip the ship has sailed in open waters after five years of restorations and more than 80 years on land.
After a night sleeping in the whaling ship’s tight forecastle, Foy will set sail on Tuesday, July 15, from Provincetown to Boston, Mass. Throughout the voyage and after, he plans to blog about his experiences and his research interest of black mariners.
After spending years reading about men on whaling ships, Foy said the voyage will give him more perspective for his writing.
“I will live the experiences of the men who I write about,” Foy said. “I get to physically feel what they felt, which will energize my scholarship.”
Like the other voyagers, Foy wants to eliminate the “social amnesia,” which most Americans experience in regards to the role the sea played in American history. But, more specifically, Foy wants to emphasize the role black mariners played in the country. The “social amnesia” that occurs with remembering American’s connection with the sea also occurs with African Americans’ connection to the sea, Foy said.
After a decade of research, Foy created a Black Mariner Database, which contains records of more than 25,000 black mariners and black maritime fugitives. Foy will use the database and his whaling voyage to illustrate in his blog, as well as his scholarly publications, how the maritime sector offered opportunities for black seamen, free and enslaved, not possible on land.
“Many times African-Americans would have more freedom and rights on ships then on land during the Atlantic World,” Foy said.
In the maritime economy, slave seamen were valued and they could find permanent freedom at the sea often not possible on land. For example, ship captains needing to fill out their crews often hired fugitive slaves. Once at sea such maritime fugitives found their maritime skills mattered more than their skin color.
After his journey, Foy also plans to write a high school course plan that will use the lives of Rhode Island black whalers to emphasize the nature of African-Americans’ freedom in the 18th century.
Foy is an accomplished scholar who has written several articles on black seamen that have appeared in Early American Studies; Common-place; Slavery and Abolition; Journal for Maritime Research; the Proceedings of the 2007 Naval History Symposium, Seaport; and Gender, Race, Ethnicity and Power in Maritime America.
After the voyage, the ship will go back to the Mystic Museum Seaport as an exhibit. The seaport is planning an exhibit for the summer of 2016, which will highlight the experiences and research of the 38th voyagers.
For more information about the voyage and ship, go here.