The biography of James Forten is one of my favorites. Forten was an amazing man who defies stereotyping. His unusual, but wonderful story should be better known.
Few People know that the largest loss of life in the American Revolution was not in battle. It was in the prisons of New York city where between ten thousand to eleven thousand American patriots lost their lives. The British could have set up prison camps in Brooklyn. Instead they chose to bring over ships that were no longer seaworthy and use them as floating prisons.
The worst of these prison ships was the H.M.S. Jersey.Like the other prison ships she was moored off shore in Wallabout Bay, which would later become the home of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
A dozen British ships were used as floating prisons. Meserole was on the most notorious ship, the Jersey, an old unseaworthy ship originally brought to America as a hospital ship, but was subsequently used as a prison and quickly became infamous for the harsh conditions on board, with thousands of men crammed below decks where there was no natural light, little fresh air and few provisions for the sick and hungry. Conditions were ideal for the spread of contagious disease and eight prisoners died each day on average, with the numbers becoming higher in winter when the prisoners were exposed to the extreme cold weather. It is estimated some 11,000 prisoners died aboard the prison ships over the course of the war, many from disease or malnutrition, but no one knows the exact number. The Jersey earned the nickname “Hell” for its inhumane conditions and the obscenely high death rate of its prisoners. Far fewer patriots would have died had the British built their jails on land. There was ample land right next to the ships, but the ships were harder to escape from, so thousands perished needlessly. The imprisonment of the Americans was considered a British war crime and two American Loyalists who commanded the prison ships were hanged in retribution after the revolution.
One of the prisoners described the conditions he first encountered on the Jersey.” Men, who, shrunken and decayed as they stood around him, had been, but a short time before, as strong, as healthful and as vigorous as himself. Men, who had breathed the pure breezes of the ocean, or danced lightly in the flower-scented air of the meadow and the hill; and had from thence been hurried into the pent-up air of a crowded prison-ship, pregnant with putrid fever, foul with deadly contagion; here to linger out the tedious and weary day, the disturbed and anxious night; to count over the days and weeks and months of a wearying and degrading captivity, unvaried but by new scenes of painful suffering, and new inflictions of remorseless cruelty: their brightest hope and their daily prayer, that death would not long delay to release them from their torments.”
One of the prisoners on the ship was an extraordinary African-American teenager James Forten. James Forten was born free in 1766 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, one of two children of Thomas and Margaret Forten (or Fortune). Thomas Forten was the grandson of a slave who had “freed himself.” After his father died young, James Forten started working at age seven to help out his mother and sister, first as a chimney sweep and then as a grocery-store clerk. He also attended the African School, run by Quaker abolitionist Anthony Benezet, which was founded to educate for free black children. His mother insisted that he continue in school. By age nine, Forten left school to work full-time. His early years of work became a measure for progress in his life and career.
At the age of 14, during the Revolutionary War, Forten served on the privateer Royal Louis, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr. The ship was captured by British forces and he was at risk of being enslaved. As Captain John Beazley, who had taken the privateer, was impressed with the boy, he secured his being treated as a regular prisoner of war. Beazley offered to send Forten to England to be educated provided that he swear loyalty to the Crown. Forten amazingly refused. ( If I were a teenage African-American I do not know if I would pass up such an offer) Forten told the captain that he was a loyal American.
Forten was fortunate as he was exchanged after seven months’ imprisonment, and released on parole and his promise not to fight in the war. He walked from Brooklyn to Philadelphia to return to his mother and sister. He signed up on a merchant ship, which sailed to England. He lived and worked there for more than a year in a London shipyard.
When James Forten returned to Philadelphia in 1786, he became apprenticed to sail-maker Robert Bridges, his father’s former employer and a family friend. Forten learned quickly in the sail loft. This was where the large ship sails were cut and sewn. Before long, the young man was promoted to foreman. At Bridges’ retirement in 1798, Forten bought the loft. By developing a tool to help maneuver the large sails, by 1810 Forten had built up one of the most successful sail lofts in Philadelphia. He created the conditions he worked for in society, employing both black and white workers. Because of his business acumen, Forten became one of the wealthiest Philadelphians in the city, black or white.
Having become well established, in his 40s Forten devoted both time and money to working for the national abolition of slavery and gaining civil rights for blacks. They were severely discriminated against in Pennsylvania and the North, and generally could not vote or serve on juries. He felt a sense of obligation to work on these issues of his community. “…in 1801, he was among the signers of a petition to the U.S. Congress calling for the abolition of the slave trade and the modification of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1793.”
In 1813 he wrote a pamphlet called “Letters From A Man of Colour,” published anonymously. He denounced a bill under consideration in the Pennsylvania legislature that required all black emigrants to Pennsylvania to be registered with the state, and protested treating free blacks any differently than whites. Some legislators worried about the number of free blacks who migrated into the state, competing with white laborers. In addition, they knew fugitive slaves often used Pennsylvania as a destination or byway to other free areas, as it was bordered by slave states to the south.
Forten believed the bill was a step backward for black Pennsylvanians. In his “Letters,” Forten argued that the bill would violate the rights of any free blacks entering the state and set the people apart as somehow not equal to whites. Forten wanted the many respectable citizens of the black community to be recognized and valued. In the end, the bill was not passed, and James Forten became known for his succinct and passionate pamphlet
Forten had supported Paul Cuffee, a Boston shipbuilder, who in 1815 transported 38 free blacks to Sierra Leone, with the idea they could make a better life where not impeded by white racism. He was well aware of continuing problems due to harsh discrimination against blacks in the United States.
To address community concerns and discuss the potential for colonization, James Forten worked with Bishop Richard Allen of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination in the United States; Absalom Jones, and James Gloucester to organize a meeting on Resettlement in Philadelphia. The meeting in January 1817 a drew 3,000 attendees from Philadelphia. Hearing the strong views of this public forced a dramatic turning point for these leaders. By this time, most free blacks and slaves had been born in the United States and claimed it as their own.
At the meeting, Forten called for a vote, asking who favored colonization. Not one man said yes. When he asked who was against it, the crowd resounded with “No!” that made the hall ring with cheers. All claimed the US as their own, and wanted to gain their full civil rights there as citizens. After that meeting, Forten and the ministers strongly opposed the African colonization and Forten later converted William Lloyd Garrison, a younger white abolitionist from Boston, against the colonization schemes. Following the January meeting, Forten helped draft a Resolution of the sense of the public, which he and other leaders sent to the Pennsylvania congressional delegation. In August they published a longer “Address to the Inhabitants of the City and County of Philadelphia,” which attacked colonization.
He absorbed his community’s arguments and noted that most American blacks had been in the United States for many generations and had claim to it as their land. Although the ACS advertised Liberia as a place of opportunity for free blacks, the colony struggled to survive and many colonists died of disease. There were risks of re-enslavement by illegal slave traders and relations with native Africans were hostile. Forten helped William Lloyd Garrison start up his newspaper, The Liberator, in 1831, supporting it financially. He frequently published letters in it, as “A Colored Man of Philadelphia.” Garrison also wrote articles against colonization, describing the poor living conditions in Liberia.