Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica.

Gerald Horne. Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica. New York: New York University Press, 2005. xv + 359 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-3668-5.

Reviewed by Peter Cole (Department of History, Western Illinois University)
Published on H-Caribbean (June, 2007)

Red Seas explores numerous important topics involving the struggles of working peoples to gain a larger share of the wealth that they create, of people of African descent to gain equal social and political rights in North America and the Caribbean, and of leftist political movements’ centrality to the two other aforementioned themes. But first, a somewhat in-depth knowledge of Smith is needed.Born in 1893 in rural Jamaica, there was a bit of European blood in his veins, so he would have been considered “light skinned” on an island where most descended directly from African slaves and Marcus Garvey had learned much about the charged meanings of color and race. As Smith’s father was a teacher, Ferdinand was educated in a desperately poor land where, as late as the 1940s, fewer than 3 percent of the people started secondary school p. 3. As Jamaica still suffered economically and politically from centuries of British colonialism, like many others he left his home–living in Panama and Cuba before moving to the States. Along this familiar migratory route, he witnessed the seething labor, racial, and political struggles of the World War I era. Like many of his fellow West Indians, he found his way to Harlem, where he proudly lived for almost thirty years. But what radicalized Smith was his work aboard ocean-going vessels, crossing the Atlantic and entire world.Smith became a prominent Communist, leading one of the most powerful labor unions in the United States. For the better part of twenty years, Smith worked as a steward in the highly segregated world of maritime work. African Americans and other men of African descent who worked aboard ships were systematically denied most jobs, including on deck as able-bodied sailors and below decks in the engine rooms. “Naturally,” they could not get work as officers, which left work as cooks, stewards, and porters on passenger vessels. A steward at sea was much like a Pullman porter on an American railroad; that is, stewards served white customers. In this maritime world, Smith–like so many of his fellow salts–became highly educated, well-traveled, cosmopolitan, and class conscious. Smith also became a union activist. No surprise as sailors worked collectively, were fiercely disciplined by ships’ officers, lived as well as labored in close quarters with their fellow workers, and “sailed the seven seas”–thereby witnessing how the world worked in many societies. Alas, it seems that far more has been written about sailors in the early modern world and black sailors in the nineteenth century, and thus twentieth-century maritime labor has been far less studied.[1] Even a large and powerful union like the NMU still awaits a scholar to examine it in the detail it deserves.

via H-Net Reviews.


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