Crispus Attucks is regarded as the first martyred hero of the American Revolution. He escaped from slavery in Framingham, Massachusetts, in 1750. He is traditionally said to have been a sailor on Nantucket vessels. In the late Colonial era, whaling offered greater opportunities for fair pay for people of color than could be found ashore. A capable African American could achieve advancement in a whaleship crew. Massachusetts was the center of deep-water whaling at the time, and the laws in the Commonwealth, beginning with favorable decisions from the bench as early as 1760, were unusually protective (for their time) of individual rights, even of slaves.
Historical accounts point to Attucks serving on whaling voyages in the 1750s and 60s, which would be consistent with the inclinations of a fugitive interested in keeping a low profile, favoring protracted periods away from the increasingly heavily patrolled waterfront. Un-fortunately, nothing specific is known about those voyages. Attucks, who may have gone by the pseudonym Michael Johnson, is supposed to have been in the crew on at least one merchant voyage to the Bahamas, returning to Boston by early 1770, presumably biding his time until he could return to the sea.
Attucks was shot and killed by British soldiers at the so-called Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. Paul Revere’s famous contemporary en-graving of the event, based on a work by fellow Boston artist Henry Pelham, names Attucks but fails to depict him as a Black man. Pelham and Revere sought to shape public opinion by depicting the hostile Colonial laborers and sailors who actually took part in the event as peaceful gentlemen. It may be that a Black victim did not serve their artistic ends. Not until an 1856 lithograph published by J. H. Bufford is Attucks, a Black man, shown at the center of the event.
In her book The Beginnings of the American Revolution, Ellen Chase notes that Attucks “… was on the eve of sailing for North Carolina on Captain Folger’s Nantucket whaler.” If this passage is accurate, then the voyage in question might have been one commanded by Abishai Folger in an unidentified vessel or one by Captain Elisha Folger in the sloop Friendship. Unfortunately the ships logs and crew lists of either voyage do not exist.
Boston Massacre, March 5th 1770 [graphic] / by W. Champney.
J.H. Bufford’s Lith.
Graphics-L Boston–Streets 39
Boston : Published by Henry Q. Smith : J.H. Bufford’s Lith., 1856.
Courtesy of The Massachusetts Historical Society.