African American Naval Officers: Gaining Recognition through Art

By Rowan, Gwendolyn | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1998 | Go to article overview

African American Naval Officers: Gaining Recognition through Art


Rowan, Gwendolyn, Negro History Bulletin


In the interpretive painting Watson and the Shark by John Singleton Copley (173 8-1815) the black sailor represents the millions of black men who worked their entire lives alongside white sailors, but who were still perceived as slaves. Copley tells a story inside a story through his graphic depiction. The painting itself shows a small boat just offshore. One of the seamen has fallen overboard and is being attacked by sharks, while the others attempt to come to his rescue. However, there is another story with just as much importance told in the painting; it is the story about the lives of so many African American sailors that has until now been told mostly by way of mouth.

In 1738 John Singleton Copley was born into a lower-middle class family in the American colonies. Though his family could not provide him with a formal education, Copley developed an early love for art. He taught himself how to paint, which was always his main interest. As he grew older, he would spend entire days working in his studio.(1)

The artist left America in 1775 and moved to London. This move marked a change in his paintings. He began to produce large, historical paintings. Copley always worked directly on canvas. It was not until middle age that he began to use preliminary drawings. John Singleton Copley is noted for his stunning figures and vibrant use of colors.(2) He often developed a main character that was intended to receive the most attention from the viewer; all other characters led supporting roles.

Approached and asked to paint this scene, because it was believed that as an American he would add emotion, Copley painted Watson and the Shark in 1778, just three years after his move to London.(3) This painting depicts a true occurrence in the life of a white sailor, Brooke Watson. Called upon by the British to act as Commissary General to the army in America, Watson grew up well to-do in London, and had a passion for the sea.

In the canvassed scene, Watson has fallen overboard. He has been stripped of his clothes by two attacking sharks. Some of his fellow crew members reach out to save him, while one member, a black man who appears to be of equal stature to the white seamen, attempts to come to his aid as well.

Watson used newly acquired techniques in putting together this painting. He placed great emphasis on single features and exaggerated the movements. He proved his critics right. He was successful in adding extra flavor to his gruesome depiction of the shark attack.

Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, many African American men served in the American navy. The navy appealed to them because it protected them from kidnappers and slavemasters.(4) Ships provided a workplace where race was less of a determinant in the duties associated with their everyday life. The modest pay combined with the protection, was enough to entice black men into joining the United States Navy as well as other armed forces. However, their roles aboard ships were not at all desirable. During the eighteenth century, blacks served as cooks, officers, servants, and musicians aboard ships. In these roles, they were kept separate from the white seamen.

Many African American sailors used their travels to gain knowledge that other blacks were not able to obtain at the time. Sailors became for blacks in the Atlantic world what newspapers and mail service were for the white elite: a mode of communication integrating local communities into the larger community of color.(5) They were able to educate fellow African Americans through their foreign and domestic travels. Many sailors became multilingual as a result of their travels.

The navies of the Chesapeake Bay states, Maryland and Virginia used to their advantage, the fact that they had skilled and experienced blacks that had long been operating small craft in bay waters.(6) Joseph Ranger, a free man of color who enlisted in Virginia's navy in 1776, served on four ships during the American Revolution. …

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