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Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass, December 24, 1852


Heads of the Colored People.—No. 5.


"Luff a lill." "Tarboard, T-a-r-b-o-r-d.["] "Tuart! if you dont gim me lilly perry I put you boat shore gedde?" Such was the exclamation of an old negro pilot, carrying a New York packet over Charleston bar, some thirty years ago, when Stewards were Stewards. Ornamented with splendid morning gown and red slippers, when in port, the Steward was de facto lord of the cabin, holding exclusive imperium in imperio therein which the Captain never dared infringe upon—he sailed the Ship, the Steward hosted her. And his duties (I mean the Steward's) required, and yet requires no little talent and experience.

In the first place he had to play the host in showing off cabin and state rooms to applicant passengers: the splendid brussels or turkey carpets, the gorgeous curtins, mirrors &c., (all to be taken away and replaced by sea worthy articles first day out,) the larder, the wines, &c., &c., Then first before sailing, he must provision the ship, take in just enough of the meat, poultry, flour, butter, wines &c, to last the trip, and no more. In this matter, our Stewards made use of much head-work, and occasionally kept memoranda. A celebrated Steward of a Liverpool liner, accidently dropped a memorandum of return voyage of which the following are item samples:

"Thirteen goose        trill
two ducks be        died
for chiken        drown &c., &c."

The same distinguished gent, when he stood up to be spliced, when told by the priest to "say after me," repeated "say after me."

From 1825 to 1845, the Steward of a Liverpool or London liner, was a man of no little importance; whatever [office] required to be performed, for which there was no proper functionary aboard, fell to the Steward's lot by general habit and [illegible]. If a very severe blow made pra[illegible] requisite, the Steward had to turn parson. If Father Neptune was about to receive a squalling votary from lady in the cabin, or wife in the steerage, the Steward was forced to "stand and deliver." If the "old man" took seriously to his cups the Steward had to mind him and the ship too. In fact "steward, steward, steward" was uttered constantly, in bass, treble, contralto, down to that very beetle pecked planit, "like a sick girl" with which poor Horace Greeley entreated, entreated in his outward trip to the World's Fair."


When the ship finally entered port, and got along-side the dock, the Steward assumed certain mysterious movements and functions. In the port of Liverpool for example, sundry men would board the ship, men of tall slim appearance, but with remarkably large limbs: on going ashore these same men would swell up to twice their original bulk: their hats seem lifted on three hairs: they have only had a little talk with the Steward in his office, and lo! the change. And as these men pass off the deck, it is further remarkable that the Customs officers, had just been invited down stairs to take a bite and sup. Occasionally things went wrong: the enlarged individual, in passing the gates had his hat knocked off, and out rolled a few hundred choice spanish segars: and then—why that night seven or eight hundred weight of tobacco would pop out of the cabin window—and the Steward would be shut all the while in port. But then, when the ship returns to New York! for a week after she arrives in port, certain romantic gentlemen take row boats with muffled oars and range under her stern, while dozens of rolls and boxes and bundles (not set down in the manifest) will tumble out of the cabin windows. And if you notice some day, a cart drives up for the swill, or refused vegetables &c., &c. The Steward officiously sees half a dozen barrels of such stuff safely in the cart, and then suddenly remembers an errand ashore.

The garbage is carted off two or three blocks, and then, is very snugly conveyed into a tradesman's store, and set one side—quite careless like; some how Mr. A., or B., or C., leading watch-dealers happens to be in the shop—and for mere past time—the filthy fellow! pokes among the garbage, and throws a layer or two on the floor; in comes the Steward and presto! the next layer is a large case containing four or five thousand dollars worth of watches (not put down in the manifest.)

In his private relations the steward is remarkable for style and show. His apartments are fitted up in the most elegant cabin style. His mantels are gorgeously ornamented with roses, golden clocks, or costly ornaments of or-molu. A very select library of handsomely bound books overlooks the splendidly appointed side-board. He burns Liverpool coal; two or three gold watches are ticking on his mantel. And such a nice, bouncing, fresh, tidy wife, rustles and bustles around in garments of French or English manufacture.


It has been remarked, that in all those parts of England where American vessels visit with any frequency, a very curious ethnographcal phenomena occurs. The children are frequently endowed with semi-woolly heads, brown, mulatto or quadroon complexions, throwing a shade rather than light on the vexed question, whether black children are bone of white parents or not. A very learned Dutchman records on case quoted by Prichard; but in these English parts aforesaid, many other cases may be seen. They are, of course, the product of white parents, because the natural antipathy between the races precludes any other origin for them. Perhaps the learned Professor Allen might elucidate this subject; it is decidedly too knotty for poor Communipaw.

I fear it must be admitted that the steward is occasionally such a home-body, that he will establish his laves and penates on each side of the Atlantic.

The stewards are not a long-lived race; what with fast-living, the excitement of their multiform engagements, and the occasional

"Thlipsen huder,"

their class looms up to my "minds eye" as a gay, gallent, set of noble fellows, cut off in their early prime, leaving widows and children to mourn over their want of forecast, steeped in poverty. There are a few old stewards, hard to kill, and a few rich stewards—but for a class with such golden opportunities, they have been too uniformly careless, wasteful and unthrifty of their own means, while religiously strict and careful of the trust placed in them by the ship owners.

But I could fill a book about the stewards. One or two anecdotes and then a finish.—There is now, within gun-shot of my elbow, a short, wiry, brown-complexioned steward, where history would seem romance. Leaving the port of Charleston (I believe) in the last voyage of the ill-fated Pulaski, he says "a gentleman placed a lady under my special charge, and I gave pledge to see her safe through; when the boilers exploded, (out at sea,) I was thrown from my berth, got up, took down my watch and money, pocketed them; then in reflections replaced them as they were; went on deck, found this lady, handed her into a boat, jumped overboard and swam to the same.


"The mate ordered me off and threatened violence, but I jumped in; and it turned out that he and I were the only oarsmen on board. On nearing the breakers, the mate insisted on going in head to the land: I told him he would be swamped; but in vain—he had his way and swamped we were; as the boat keeled over, I caught the lady of my charge, and we went down toegether; I would have saved her, but she caught me by the neck-cloth, it was a sharp struggle down there, I hated to do it, but I left her under the sea. On reaching the shore, I was nearly dead with fatigue; the other boat came in stern foremost and all were saved; we placed the women and children in the sand—covered them over; then I walked four miles, swam a river a mile wide, and found succor."

At another time, when steward of the—which blew up at the wharf in Baltimore; (where our hero lived;) he was talking to a man near the gang-plank when he felt himself hurled in the air, then dashed into the water; then he swam ashore, ran home, went to bed and sent for the doctor, to see what the d———l was the matter, any how. But I must hold on my steward's yarns to the next. A word about


and their "missions." About eighteen months ago, I visited the five point day school, and saw none but white children there.—About six months ago, I visited the Sunday School with [an] observation; and my heart sickened at the monstrous cruelty of this sort of religion. After reading his card of T. W. H., of Worcester, I think, in your paper, I went again to the Missions. On asking Mr. Luckey a question, which had reference to Mr. Pease's operations. I received a very surly answer: so surly that I wondered if he thought me to be Communipaw. I went to Mr. Luckey's church, the following Sunday, and found two colored children, one woman and man, among his congregation.—In Mr. Pease's day school, I found nine colored children, not perched up in a negro corner, but scattered among the white children - and - Mr. Editor - I shed tears of thankfulness to find, that the Religion of the five points are equal to the humanity of the five points in the nature of training children. And would to God, that our mitred prelates, and highly-salaried priests would stoop down to this manger of our christendom, this bethesda of our christianity, and drink of its Catholic out-pourings.


But, Mr. Editor. In the fullness of his heart Mr. Pease told me that "the concern over the way," strove by preaching and praying, very good things in their way; but he, Mr. Pease went farther, he helped the fallen sisterhood by giving them a way and the means to earn a livelihood: he had rooms up stairs in which there women could earn a living by sewing [ ] he had given out large quantities of work to the same class to be done at their now decent homes. I went through the sewing rooms with him: the proportion of really beautiful faces among them was very large and striking: they were quietly and industriously at work - each woman a touching and eventful history. But, Mr. Editor, there was not a colored face among them. They were all white women.—"How does this happen, Mr. Pease?" I inquired. "Because," said he, "Colored [families] do not apply for admission, they are not so bad nor degraded and helpless, as white women are; and—and—and."

Mr. Editor, I find on inquiring, that Mr. Pease has not given any work out for colored women to do. Mr. Editor, there are black women grovelling, drinking, rioting within a stone's throw of Mr. Pease's house of Industry. The black women are to all intents and purposes abandoned, and intermixed in their vileness with white woman. Had Mr. Pease's religion the same catholicity with the humanity of the five points, could he not have sought out and brought under the healing influences of his House of Industry, at least one poor forlorn, God-forgiven, and five point-religion, American religion-forsaking black women?




Smith, James McCune (1813–1865)




Communipaw (James McCune Smith) to Frederick Douglass. PLSr: Frederick Douglass' Paper, 24 December 1852. Describes career of ship steward.


This document was calendared in the published volume and has not been published in full before.


Frederick Douglass' Paper



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Frederick Douglass' Paper