Monday, August 27, 2012

Crispus Attucks as a sailor: interview with Justin Desmangles for Pactifica (KDVS)

Crispus Attucks is celebrated as the first martyr – and first black man martyred – in the American Revolution (see the page from African-American History newsletter below). But he is also significant as a sailor and part of a movement of sailors against press-gangs. In addition, as Black Patriots and Loyalists emphasizes, he was part of a sweeping international movement of slave revolt. Crispus Attucks is also, and just as importantly, a symbol of the fight for emancipation (on the words "just as importantly": the revolution for independence was formally for freedom and initially extended the freedom mainly of whites; emancipation was for the freedom of all, and that revolution produced the gradual emancipation of blacks in the North).

Half black, half native American, Attucks escaped slavery and went to sea. Sailors had a rough life, but were “formally” free – if not impressed by the Crown - and could voyage far. Attucks effectively vanished from his “owner” in this way.

The essay below notes that the “riots” – more aptly, just popular rebellions - against press-gangs, in which revolutionaries fought British enslavement of sailors – “pressing” them into the navy – were an important feature of the period leading up to the Revolution. Plainly uprisings from below of the poor, artisans and sailors, they were as important as the Boston Tea Party and rebellions against the Stamp Act.

But as Black Patriots and Loyalists emphasizes, a revolution against bondage had already surged in the Caribbean. Between 1750 and 1770, some 20 slave uprisings occurred. Sailors who had been seized off the streets by press-gangs and told to climb the mast or die (and were often dispensable) identified, unsurprisingly, with slaves. Consider also the case of Crispus Attucks – he had been a slave and unlike the free who were seized, may have experienced being at sea as liberating. Nonetheless, he understood and fought the wrongs of bondage and impressment…

Sailors brought the word of the slave revolts to London where they met with J. Philmore who wrote Two Dialogues concerning the Man-Trade in 1760. In Boston, they met with James Otis, who wrote The Rights of the British Colonists Asserted and Proved (1764) which proclaimed “the natural rights of every man, black as well as white.” These ideas were widely discussed in the taverns frequented by the poor, and shaped every revolutionary crowd.

As I suggest to Justin Desmangles in the interview here, that idea has remained buried in American history – lost in official accounts - just as the point that most delegates at the Democratic Convention in 2004 opposed the Iraq aggression escaped the New York Times and other corporate media. Medea Benjamin, leader of Code Pink, unfurled a banner – US Out of Iraq - when Teresa Heinz Kerry was speaking. She was hauled out unceremoniously. The Times may have noticed this, but it didn’t effect its false, pro-Imperial war coverage.

Actually, most of the delegates probably agreed with her, and many had probably taken part in the huge protests before the War. Even Kerry probably knew better (he once testified to Congress against US crimes in Vietnam).

Similarly, the crowds in the American Revolution, often led by sailors like Crispus Attucks, were abolitionist. Along with the fact that there are significant anti-slavery leaders of the Revolution like John Laurens, Tom Paine, Alexander Hamilton and Ben Franklin and that gradual emancipation occurred in the North during and after the Revolution, the role of rank-and-file abolitionists in the Boston Tea Party and other revolutionary crowds has long been whited out. What Attucks did at the beginning was to strive, along with many others, to make the American Revolution consistently for freedom.

Justin is a fine interviewer (see here, here, and here for other striking interviews with Richard Marshall in London, Marc Steiner in Baltimore and Duncan Campell in Boulder). He was shocked at the newness of what the book reveals. This reaction is that of someone reading Black Patriots and Loyalists straightforwardly, not hampered by the nagging fear that there couldn’t have – couldn’t have been - blacks in the Revolution. And if there were, there must be just a few…

This prejudice is characteristic to this moment of the Times - see here and here - and it sways the previous historical literature. Even Gary Nash, a great historian, treats blacks as The Forgotten Fifth (the book is, however, far better than the title...)

But I don’t treat Crispus Attucks as the Lone Ranger (let alone, Tonto in the American racist idiom), although in the incident itself, Attucks took the lead as a fighter for freedom for all…

The ending of slavery is the issue of freedom in the American Revolution. The “second” revolution as I call it, the revolution for emancipation, viewed internationally, was the setting for the American Revolution and much of its later significance (on both sides) abroad. It is intertwined with and the deepest significance of the Revolution for self-determination (the freedom of some). Black Patriots and Loyalists reimagines the Revolution in a reasonable, fact-based, anti-racist frame.

But in the America of 2012, there is an election in which one candidate is very white and many people oppose a conservative, smart, mixed race President on the basis of heated fantasies – he is a National Socialist-Socialist-Commie- Kenyan anti-colonialist (Newt Gingrich), without a birth certificate (Romney has now pounced on this), etc. It will be Romney's theme song in the rest of the campaign (viz. his lying about welfare).

Worse yet, though Obama can be President, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written very well here, he could not, in the first term, deeply take on effects of racism (the plunging of a large part of black youth and all youth in the prison-industrial complex with its 2.3 million prisoners, 25% of the world’s prisoners; the phony war on drugs used to jail 8 times as many people as were in prison in the 1970s; the incredible rates of unemployment among blacks, Chicanos and poor whites - these levels resembled a depression before the collapse; on December 22, 2008, a New York Times editorial mentioned that 4% of poor black teenagers looking for work found it – an unemployment rate of 96%). Coates’s article is well worth reading.

Racism - and the interests of the .0001% - are also responsible for attacking the decent things Obama has done, notably the stimulus which lifted the US out of an even deeper depression and emphasized green energy. See Mike Grunwald here.

Black Patriots and Loyalists tells many stories of people who, like Attucks, fought back against the greatest odds and moved the mountain of bondage. It is possible, still, against great odds, to move mountains…


African-American History
was crispus attucks a sailor?

A Biography of Crispus Attucks
From Lisa Vox, former Guide

The first person to die in the Boston Massacre was an African-American sailor named Crispus Attucks. Not much is known about Crispus Attucks prior to his death in 1770, but his actions that day became a source of inspiration for both white and black Americans for years to come.

Attucks in Slavery

Attucks was born around 1723; his father was an African slave in Boston, and his mother was a Natick Indian. His life up until he was 27 years old is a mystery, but in 1750 Deacon William Brown of Framingham, Massachusetts, placed a notice in the Boston Gazette that his slave, Attucks, had run away. Brown offered a reward of 10 pounds as well as reimbursement for any incurred expenses to anyone who caught Attucks.

The Boston Massacre

No one caught Attucks, and by 1770 he was working as a sailor on a whaling ship. On March 5, he was having lunch near Boston Common along with other sailors from his ship, waiting for good weather so they could set sail. When he heard a commotion outside, Attucks went to investigate, discovering a crowd of Americans clustered near the British garrison.

The crowd had gathered after a barber's apprentice accused a British soldier of not paying for a haircut. The soldier struck the boy in anger, and a number of Bostonians, seeing the incident, gathered and shouted at the soldier. Other British soldiers joined their comrade, and they stood as the crowd grew larger.

Attucks joined the crowd. He took leadership of the group, and they followed him to the custom house. There, the American colonists began throwing snowballs at the soldiers guarding the custom house.

The accounts of what happened next differed. A witness for the defense testified at the trials of Captain Thomas Preston and eight other British soldiers that Attucks picked up a stick and swung it at the captain and then a second soldier.

The defense laid the blame for the actions of the crowd at Attucks's feet, painting him as a troublemaker who incited the mob. This was may have been an early form of race-baiting as other witnesses refuted this version of events.

However much they were provoked, the British soldiers opened fire on the crowd that had gathered, killing Attucks first and then four others. At the trial of Preston and other soldiers, witnesses differed on whether Preston had given the order to fire or whether a lone soldier had discharged his gun, prompting his fellow soldiers to open fire.

The Legacy of Attucks

Attucks became a hero to the colonials during the American Revolution; they saw him as gallantly standing up to abusive British soldiers. And, it is entirely possible that Attucks had decided to join the crowd as a stance against perceived British tyranny; as a sailor in the 1760s, he would have been aware of the British practice of impressing (or forcing) American colonial sailors into the service of the British navy. This practice, among others, exacerbated tensions between American colonists and the British.

Attucks also became a hero to African Americans. In the mid-nineteenth century, African-American Bostonians celebrated "Crispus Attucks Day" every year on March 5. They created the holiday to remind Americans of Attucks sacrifice after African-Americans were declared non-citizens in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) supreme court decision. In 1888, the city of Boston erected a memorial to Attucks in Boston Common. Attucks was seen as someone who had martyred himself for American independence, even as he himself had been born into the oppressive system of American slavery.


• Langguth, A. J. Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989.
• Lanning, Michael Lee. The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell. Seacus, NJ: Citadel Press, 2004.
Thomas, Richard W. Life for Us Is What We Make It: Building Black Community in Detroit, 1915-1945. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1992.

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