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Slavery has left an indelible mark upon American history and its effects are still felt today. Many are familiar with the Underground Railroad which crisscrossed the lands of America taking enslaved people to freedom, but there is an additional lesser known, but still important route for enslaved African Americans to freedom, the Maritime Underground Railroad. 

The Maritime Underground Railroad was a route which used ships and other vessels to bring enslaved peoples from the south to freedom in the north. There were many advantages for enslaved people in escaping through ships as many lived near either rivers or the coast and it was a faster and safer method to escape than the Underground Railroad on land. Additionally, escaping by ship was a much easier method of travel than the swamps, bogs, and bays of the southeastern United States. Depending on the location in America the Maritime Underground Railroad took different forms which reflected the unique character of the local area.

Many enslaved people had a direct connection to the water. “Slaves were commonly employed in diverse maritime industries, such as: estuary and near-coastal fishing or oystering, tidal river boatmen and ferrymen, coastwise cargo shipping crews, shipyard artisans, or stevedores and longshoremen” according to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. Their employment in water-based industries meant that they had many advantages in plotting their escape including a knowledge of boating and geography, a familiarity with shipping workers from areas in the north, and an ability to use a vessel to join northern boats in the area. 

Some northern free African Americans themselves worked in the maritime industries and they were particularly alarming to the southerners. They were sure that the African American mariners would assist slaves in escaping and established Negro Seamans Acts which limited the freedom of movement of African Americans in southern ports, but many African Americans remained active in maritime activities. 

Proximity to bodies of water was not the only benefit for enslaved peoples in their escape efforts. As the African American experience of northeast North Carolina informs us, many African Americans served as stewards and cooks, but many were highly skilled in the art of sailing and had high crew positions. 

Reporter David Cecelski wrote in the Wilmington Journal in 1849 that “it is almost an everyday occurrence for our negro slaves to take passage [aboard a ship] and go North.” The National Park service corroborates this view saying “Many enslaved individuals, especially those coming from states along the coast, utilized ships bound for northern ports to gain their freedom on the Maritime Underground Railroad.”

There were several methods that an enslaved person could use to escape by ship. There were times that ship captains were either abolitionists or sympathetic to the slaves’ plight and would offer them safe passage. Captains who were caught with escaped slaves onboard could be punished either socially or physically and it was a noble, yet risky endeavor. One town, New Bedford, Massachusetts, began posting escape notices for known “stowaway slaves” and claimed that once they had become aware that it would have been much too difficult to repatriate them. Other enslaved people, however, needed to stowaway for freedom upon the ship in small, dark, seldom traveled locations and hope to avoid the dogged pursuit of their former enslavers. 

The Maritime Underground Railroad particularly helped slaves who were located in locations that were too inhospitable for the terrestrial Underground Railroad. The majority of slaves who escaped overland were from slave states that were adjacent to free states as challenges including a lack of terrain knowledge, substandard shoes, and miles of travels evading slave patrols put land based escapes from the deep south almost out of reach. 

The primary goal of leaving slavery was to head to any location offering freedom, but for those slaves stuck in the deep south Spanish Florida was especially appealing. Spanish policy was designed to undermine Great Britain by encouraging all of their slaves to escape and bring their labors to Spanish Florida. Any formerly escaped person who made it to Florida could earn their freedom after four years of military service and a religious conversion to Roman Catholicism. Former slaves who escaped into Florida and the Bahamas followed a route called the Saltwater Underground Railroad and their efforts led to the first approved free African American community in what would eventually become the United States, Fort Mose. 

The Maritime Underground Railroad struck an important blow to the system of slavery as it further helped to free former slaves from their bondage, to destroy the wealth of slaveholders through defection, and to show the evils of slavery to all those who heard their stories in their newly freed existence. If slaves had to simply rely on the Underground Railroad alone many slaves in the deep south and costal America would have never earned their freedom and the curse of slavery may have stained our nation for even longer. 

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