Maine's 19th-century sea captains and ship builders were active in the slave trade

Apr. 22—Mainers often are justifiably proud of the state's maritime heritage — but that heritage is more complicated and shadowy than many people realize. Sea captains and shipowners from the Pine Tree State were active participants in the slave economy.

That's one of the takeaways from "Cotton Town: Maine's Economic Connections to Slavery," an exhibit at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath that uses primary sources and objects from the museum's collection to shine a light on the past.

"Definitely it's a pretty surprising part of history," Luke Gates-Milardo, the education and community engagement specialist at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, said Thursday. "It is going to be outside some people's comfort zones."

Gates-Milardo will be giving an online presentation about the exhibit next week through the Camden Public Library.

"Cotton Town" came into being after a researcher working in the Raymond H. Fogler Library's Special Collections stumbled upon a document from October 1850 that generated a lot of questions. It was a bill of lading for the shipment of 93 enslaved people from Baltimore to New Orleans on the Bath-built ship John C. Calhoun.

The document includes the names of the enslaved people, their ages and their price.

The Calhoun was a Maine ship through and through. It was part of the Clark & Sewall Co.'s merchant fleet, owned by William D. Sewall and Freeman Clark of Bath, and its captain was John C. Lowell, also of Bath.

"Everyone in Bath knows the Sewalls ... they've done a lot of really amazing things for the community, historically," Gates-Milardo said. "This is just acknowledging where that wealth came from, some of it. These same captains who were transporting cotton were also transporting enslaved people more often than was thought."

The bill of lading is part of the museum's exhibit. So, too, are letters that Lowell wrote to Clark and Sewall, in which the captain expressed concern about making a profitable voyage. On Oct. 11, 1850, he wrote from Baltimore to let them know that he had "engaged this morning 80 negroes at $12 p[er] head & think the prospect good for 40 or 50 more at the same rate."

But that wasn't something Lowell wanted to advertise around Bath.

"Please say nothing about my taking negroes," he wrote.

At the time, slavery was legal in the southern United States, though had been outlawed in Maine for 30 years.

Today, people are more likely to know about Maine's abolitionist history, including the fact that Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in Brunswick when she wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which galvanized many to protest slavery after its 1852 publication. Before the Civil War, anti-slavery societies flourished in many parts of the state, and Maine was a stop on the Underground Railroad for African-Americans who came north in search of freedom.

Maine also sent more men to fight in the Civil War than any other state, on a per capita basis.

But history can be murky.

"It's never cut-and-dry, never simple," Gates-Milardo said. "The coastal communities were pretty divided. There were a lot of people who were really against the abolitionist movement. They tended to be really influential shipyard owners and captains whose income was really dependent on slavery."

Back then, as now, communities could be politically divided and Lowell's letters show he was aware of the tensions.

"You can tell he's pretty anxious about the business ordeals and the social implications of what he was doing," Gates-Milardo said.

"Cotton Town," which opened in December and was originally slated to run through May 8, will be adapted to the museum's permanent collection. It was created collaboratively with Tess Chakkalakal, the chair of the Bowdoin College Africana Studies Department, and her Africana Studies students.

"It was a really cool opportunity to learn from the students and contextualize the more local history," Gates-Milardo said.

The Bowdoin students helped choose objects from the museum's collection to include in the exhibit, Gates-Milardo said. Among those are 18th century letters detailing slavery in Maine and a sugar bowl and rum jug that help illustrate the so-called "triangular trade" routes of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Speedy merchant ships built in Maine and owned by Mainers were part of that route, which brought raw materials such as sugar, tobacco and cotton from the Americas to Europe, textiles, rum and manufactured goods from Europe to Africa and enslaved peoples from Africa to the Americas.

The aim of both the exhibit and Gates-Milardo's upcoming lecture is to show a more complete view of the past — not just a sanitized one.

"It's valuable to accept and acknowledge a complete history," he said. "And it's harmful to do the opposite."

To register and get a Zoom link for the Camden Public Library's online presentation at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 28, visit the events calendar on the library's website or use this registration link.