Author: Justin Pariseau

associate professor of history at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Illinois.

Enslaved Fishermen and Mariners in Virginia

Enslaved African Americans fished and worked on the waters of Virginia from the time of the arrival of the first Africans in the colony in 1619 until the abolition of slavery in 1865. Enslaved mariners piloted vessels of all sizes, enslaved crews worked on cargo boats on Virginia’s waterways, and enslaved fishermen worked along the shores hauling nets, while enslaved watermen harvested crabs and tonged for oysters. Enslaved mariners served in the Virginia navy during the Revolutionary War (1775–1783) and a number were granted their freedom in return for their service. The relative freedom given to enslaved mariners, fishermen, and watermen provoked concern about self-emancipation and fomenting unrest among enslaved populations, and after the Revolution, steps were taken to limit the work of the enslaved on the water. Nonetheless, enslaved workers continued to figure prominently as pilots, navigators, fishermen, and crews of vessels in Virginia until the American Civil War (1861-1865), when skilled mariners joined the U.S. Navy to fight on behalf of the Union.