William Martin's 1887 Whaling Voyage

William Martin

The following biography of Martin provided by Skip Finley

Early Family History

Acknowledging that the genealogy of America’s enslaved is notoriously fraught with difficulty it is believed one Sharper Michael was born in 1742 in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard at the home of Zaccheus Matthew to his African slave “Rose”. Along with becoming known as the first Vineyard person killed in the Revolutionary war in September 1777 by a musket ball to his head from the British privateer Cerberus he is believed to have been William A. Martin’s Great Grandfather resulting from his relationship with a woman known as Rebecca or “Beck” Howosswee*.

Believed to have been born in Guinea in West Africa she was the property of Cornelius Bassett of Chilmark and was likely to have once also been married to a man named Elisha Amos. Rebecca had two sons, Pero and Cato, and a daughter, Nancy who came by the last name of Martin and was Martin’s Grandmother who raised him**.

Her daughter, William’s unwed mother Rebecca Ann lived a troubled life coupling poverty with alcohol that led to periodic incarceration, at times caused by her mother Nancy. Nancy Martin who was born in 1772, died in late 1856. “Black Nance,” according to the Vineyard Gazette was fond of children and attentive to their wants--and “few among us . . . at some time have not been indebted to her.” Black Nance was thought to be a witch, and many believed that her incantations provided “good or bad luck to those bound on long voyages.” The article added that “her strange power and influence over many continued till the day of her death.” Although she never saw her grandson become captain one could speculate that her powers contributed to Martin’s success. He was well known through the activities of his mother and grandmother, and his education at the Edgartown School no doubt helped him get chosen as log keeper on several early trips to sea. Black people who could read and write almost twenty years before the Civil War were rare***.

William A. Martin, Whaling Master

Beginning his whaling career in his teens as a Greenhand aboard the Benjamin Tucker in 1846, William A. Martin participated in 14 whaling trips, four of which he captained that produced approximately $1.2 million in revenue from capturing about 22 whales and from which he may have earned as much as $120,000 or, over his 44 year career in whaling, about $2,727.27 annually. This compares with the average weekly wage in the years 1860-1890 that for a laborer was $5.88 ($305.76 annually) and $24.60 for a carpenter ($1,279.20 annually). This was of course all the more impressive for a Black man to have earned in those times.

In the 1880s, as the nation enjoyed an enduring time of peace after a costly civil war ended some 20 years before, Martin established himself as one of just a few whaling captains of color in America. Martin's tale is one of early poverty and unlikely success. It also illustrates the hardships of a whaling industry that could mangle men or kill them, but also offered opportunities to Black men not found in other occupations of the time.

On July 2, 1857 after a three-plus year voyage on the Europa, he married Sarah G. Brown (1830 or 1832 to 4/25/1911) of Chappaquiddick. Between voyages, Martin lived with Sarah and her on land designated for native people called the Chappaquiddick Plantation. Sarah was mostly black but part Wampanoag. Her father, Abraham Brown, the son of a former slave, married Lucy Wamp [or Wayman], who was “half Indian, one fourth negro, one fourth white”. She was a live-in servant of Martha’s Vineyard’s John O. Morse in 1850 at age 18 and John R. Norton in 1855 at age 25****. At some point around 1880 William and Sarah briefly moved to Providence, Rhode Island.
Martin’s last voyage as master of the Eunice H. Adams, leaving New Bedford for the North Atlantic on October 16, 1887, was difficult and ended badly.

There is plenty of evidence that Captain William A. Martin was a competent master, but despite a note in the May-June 1999 Footsteps: African American History, it seems unlikely that Martin had “amassed a considerable fortune.” Martin’s home was modest in scale, design, and location compared with those of white captains of the time, almost all of whom had homes with water views in Edgartown. Of course, any Black man owning a home in those days was unique. William and Sarah’s house still stands on Chappaquiddick, an island across the harbor from those gleaming captains’ homes in Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard. Captain Martin and Sarah are buried nearby. Little else remains of this man’s legacy.

For more information:

Finley, Last Voyage
Finley, Whaling Captains of Color

This page has paths:

Contents of this path:

Contents of this tag:

This page references: