4: The Triumph of Captain William A. Martin

“Farewell to thee for a time
Days lingering sun is over
this heart will never awaken it
to one bright moment more the hope
… cherished here within
day by day through life’s flow.””

- From the Journal and Log Book of the Europa, kept by William A. Martin, First Mate, 1853

The story I tell begins with the brutality of enslavement and ends with the triumph of an African-American man sailing as Master of Whaling Ships out of Edgartown and New Bedford. The name of this man was William A. Martin, and he was the only African-American Whaling Captain from Martha’s Vineyard. He was the great-grand child of a woman from Africa enslaved on Martha’s Vineyard. His grandmother, born into enslavement, ended her life as a woman feared for her supernatural powers in the maritime community of Edgartown.

Portrait of William Martin by John Belain

Portrait of William Martin by John Belain

William A. Martin, who began his life in a situation of dire poverty, achieved the distinction of becoming the only African-American Master of Whaling Ships on Martha’s Vineyard. Born only one generation away from enslavement he became a respected member of a sea faring community.

He was born in Edgartown in 1829. His mother’s name was Rebecca and she was twenty years old at the time of his birth. He lived with his mother and his grandmother, Nancy, in Edgartown and became involved in the maritime trade. He married Sarah Brown, a Native American woman from the Chappaquiddick Plantation. The census of 1850 carried out in Edgartown shows Sarah Brown, then aged 18, living as a maid in the Morse family home in Edgartown. In 1857, following the voyage of the Whaler Europa on which he sailed as keeper of the log, William Martin married Sarah Brown at the Baptist Church on Martha’s Vineyard. They made their home with her family on the Chappaquiddick Plantation.

Captain Martin and his wife, Sarah, lived in the Chappaquiddick Plantation which was the area of Chappaquiddick Island regarded as Indian land. A Report to the Governor and Council by John Milton Earle of 1861 indicates that although this was a Native American community, people of other ethnicities lived there. Attached to the report to the Governor is a list which describes the ethnicity of each person living in the community. It shows:

Abraham Brown (Sarah’s father) listed as “mixed for’ner”;

James W. Curtis “colored for’ner” a mariner of Edgartown;

John Ross “colored for’ner” mariner and farmer;

William Johnson “colored for’ner” state pauper;

William A. Martin “colored for’ner” mariner;

William H. Matthews “colored for’ner -Light Boat Keeper – away supposed dead”;

John E. West “colored for’ner” barber of New Bedford.

All other persons listed are defined by their Native American ethnicity.

A Native American community existed on Chappaquiddick Island until this century though now only one Native American family still lives there. Life in that community could be quite difficult. A Report to the Governor on the Condition of the Indians of the Commonwealth dated 1861 shows how land was held in severalty, and a Guardian appointed to direct the affairs of the community. The report recommended continuing the guardianship though it expressed some sympathy for the Indian community. Reference is made to the role of the guardian. Members of the community could not “sue or be sued without the consent of the guardian, could not receive wages for any voyage if payment be forbidden by the guardian, may be sent to sea as Ôhabitual drunkards, vagabonds and idlers’ and their wages withheld by the guardian, and cannot under any circumstances alienate their lands or any portion of them.”

The author of the report made the point that such restrictions “may mostly be necessary; still in the hands of a guardian disposed to abuse such powers they might become insupportably oppressive to the Indians.” Concern is expressed about the extremely high death rate of the community on Chappaquid-dick and reference is made to a Commissioners’ Report of 1849 which found the location to be healthy. The report of 1861 states that “without any fatal epidemic having been among them, they dwindle away and disappear. The sea faring life, which nearly all the men follow, to a greater or less extent is, unquestionably, unfavorable to the increase of the population, but it is not sufficient to account for the diminution that has occurred.” The author of the Report offers three “satisfactory” reasons for this mortality.

1. The comparatively sudden change from the habits and modes of living of barbarous life to those of civilization, without waiting for the progressive physical and mental development which takes place when the process is more gradual, and which would adapt them to the change.

2. The habits of intemperance and licentiousness which always for a time, follow the contact of civilized and barbarous races, which not only carry off their victims prematurely, but so far impair the constitutions of their immediate descendants, as to make them more vulnerable to the ravages of disease.

3. The destitution, want and suffering, resulting from poverty which operate so powerfully to increase mortality in all the lower walks of life.”

- Report to the Governor and Council, John Milton Earle, 1861

The official attitude of racism toward Native American people at this time would obviously color the perceptions of those gathering the information, but it is clear enough that life on Chappaquiddick Plantation during the early years of William and Sarah Martin’s marriage was extremely difficult.

Despite their poverty, the seafaring community of Chappaquiddick did have some advantages uncommon among seamen of color. The most significant of these was the fact that they owned land which meant that they could live in a somewhat settled and supportive community. Sailing was the only way that the Native Americans and other people of color could make a living because of the constant loss of land as a result of their white neighbors expansionism. In 1805, the “Indian natives and colour’d people inhabiting the Indian lands” on Chappaquiddick complained that “they consider (themselves) injured and oppress’d by many of the White inhabitants of Said Island.” (Bolster, page 164).

Mr. Milton Jeffers, an oral historian and surviving member of the Chappaquiddick community, also makes reference to the high mortality rate that prevailed within that community. He concedes the point about the dangers of the sea faring life and the ravages of extreme poverty, but adds another dimension to the discussion. He recalls his mother mentioning “that people would become sick and start to cough, and then become too weak to leave the house and shortly after they would die.” His belief, and that of his community, was that they were extremely vulnerable to “white” diseases such as tuberculosis which had a decimating effect on them. (Interview, Milton Jeffers 1991).

The insight into the difficulties of the life of the Native American community on Chappaquiddick offered by this report coupled with the documented experiences of three generations of his family, give us some understanding of the remarkable achievements of Captain William A. Martin. In October, 1853 when the Europa sailed from Edgartown, The master was John H. Pease and the keeper of the log, William A. Martin. The voyage ended on June 24, 1857.

A drawing of the house in which Sarah and Captain Martin made their home can be found in the Journal and Log Book kept by him on the voyage of the Europa in 1853 when he was First Mate and Keeper of the Log. He obviously had artistic talent not only because of the remarkable accuracy of the drawing but throughout the log there are many wonderfully elaborate drawings of whales, sometimes as many as six or seven on a page. It seems likely that the house was Sarah Brown’s family home before the marriage. Above the drawing, William Martin wrote:

Farewell to thee for a time

Days lingering sun is over

this heart will never awaken it

to one bright moment more the hope

……… cherished here within

day by day through life’s flow.”

Some of the words are impossible to decipher on the microfilm, but clearly William Martin was sad to be leaving the island of Martha’s Vineyard, and the home of Sarah Brown. Whaling voyages were long, and conditions were very poor so it is very likely that the young man was feeling both lonely and apprehensive as he began his voyage. William Martin wrote with a very fine hand, and obviously enjoyed writing. On the title page, he experimented with several styles and decorated the lettering.

He is listed as Joint Master and keeper of the log book with Thomas E. Fordham of the Eunice H. Adams on a voyage to the North Atlantic from October 16, 1867 to March 18, 1870 (Whaling Logbooks and journals).

He captained the Emma Jane, an eighty-six ton schooner on her voyage to the Atlantic Whaling grounds. The voyage began on October 9, 1883 and he returned on March 27, 1884 with 140 tons of sperm oil (Starbucks). He captained the Golden City out of New Bedford in 1878, and in 1887 the Eunice H. Adams out of Edgartown. His was a long and successful career spanning more than thirty years.

On July 2, 1907, Captain Martin and his wife Sarah celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, which event was recorded in the Vineyard Gazette of July 11, 1907. The tribute to Captain and Mrs. Martin is cordially worded and it appears that they were held in high regard by the Edgartown community.

The article praises Captain Martin’s whaling skills and refers to his early voyages on the Almira and Europa of Edgartown. He sailed for the agents Samuel Osborne, Jr. and Son, as First Officer of the bark Clarice and Master of the Emma Jane. It appears that his last voyage was in command of the Eunice H. Adams. The article makes reference to the fact that “Captain Martin has been a paralytic for the past seven years and is now practically helpless.” The tribute poignantly concludes: “To all those who remember Captain Martin as he appeared some twenty five years ago, and recall his quick, alert movements and crisp decisive speech, qualities which went far to make a successful whale man, it is difficult to realize his utter helplessness at the present time and he has the deep sympathy of all in the community.” (Vineyard Gazette, July 11, 1907.

It is clear that Captain Martin was enormously successful in the maritime community of Martha’s Vineyard. His skills as a “whale man” were deeply appreciated in a community that held such skills in very high regard. It is difficult across the gulf of time to make a judgment on how delicate a line William Martin stepped. He did not live in Edgartown among the grandiose homes of the other Whaling Captains, but in a modest house on a Native American plantation on Chappaquid-dick. His success did not challenge the social organization of an island where, despite some apparent racial harmony, restrictive covenants relating to race and religion were placed on many property deeds. (Research, Registry of Deeds, Edgartown).

He is buried in a Chappaquiddick graveyard where his gravestone, though an expensive one, is facing the opposite way from the rest of the stones in the graveyard.

During the years of their marriage, his wife worked as a housekeeper for the Pease family of Edgartown where she was praised for the quality of soap that she made. (interview, Penny Williams, descendant of Sarah Brown). The Pease family seem to have played a significant role in the lives of William Martin and Sarah Brown. It is from the diaries of Jeremiah Pease that I have found valuable information about William Martin’s mother and grandmother, and Martin sailed as Keeper of the Log on the vessel Europa under John H. Pease as Master. Other members of the Pease family were involved in the surveying of the Chappaquiddick Plantation where William Martin and Sarah Brown made their home.

(c) 2016 Martha's Vineyard African-American Heritage Trail. All Rights Reserved