An original 1843 Seaman's Protection Certificate from the District of New Bedford in Massachusetts, signed by Quaker Abolitionist and employer of Frederick Douglass, Rodney French. This is Protection Certificate number 1233 dated 14th November 1843. This is a printed document with sepia ink manuscript entries measuring just over 13" x 8" (33cm x 20.5cm). Rodney French was later Mayor of New Bedford (1853-1854). The document is decorated with an engraving of an American Eagle at the top and reads:
PROTECTION - No. - UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - State of Massachusetts....District of New-Bedford - I Collector of the District aforesaid, Do Hereby Certify, That an American Seaman, aged years, or thereabouts, of the height of feet, inches, complexion, hair, eyes, born at has this day produced to me proof in the manner directed in the Act entitled "An Act for the relief and protection of American Seaman," and pursuant to the said Act, I do hereby Certify, that the said is a CITIZEN OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA - In Witness Whereof, I have hereunto set my Hand and Seal of Office, this day of in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Forty - , Collector
BACKGROUND: These Protection Papers were essentially passports issued to American sailors to protect them from impressment into the Royal Navy of Great Britain. This particular Protection Paper is noteworthy since it was issued and signed by Rodney French who was a prominent Quaker Abolitionist who had employed Frederick Douglass. This Protection Paper may have some connection to the Whaling industry which was flourishing in New Bedford at the time this document was issued in 1843. This Protection Paper is original complete and fully intact. There is some staining on the document which you can see in the photos. French signed the document twice. The signature at the top of the page is clear but the signature at the bottom of the page next to "Collector" is almost entirely washed out. Only a partial trace of French's signature is visible at the bottom of the document.
In September 1838 Frederick Douglass escaped from slavery. In in that same year (1838), the Douglasses settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass found work as a caulker for whaling ships. It was at that time that he dropped the name "Bailey," in order to protect himself from slave catchers, and became known as Frederick Douglass. The following is an excerpt from Frederick Douglass's My Escape from Slavery describing his association with Rodney French in New Bedford:
The season was growing late and work was plenty. Ships were being fitted out for whaling, and much wood was used in storing them. The sawing this wood was considered a good job. With the help of old Friend Johnson (blessings on his memory) I got a saw and "buck," and went at it. When I went into a store to buy a cord with which to brace up my saw in the frame, I asked for a "fip's" worth of cord. The man behind the counter looked rather sharply at me, and said with equal sharpness, "You don't belong about here." I was alarmed, and thought I had betrayed myself. A fip in Maryland was six and a quarter cents, called fourpence in Massachusetts. But no harm came from the "fi'penny-bit" blunder, and I confidently and cheerfully went to work with my saw and buck. It was new business to me, but I never did better work, or more of it, in the same space of time on the plantation for Covey, the negro-breaker, than I did for myself in these earliest years of my freedom. Notwithstanding the just and humane sentiment of New Bedford three and forty years ago, the place was not entirely free from race and color prejudice. The good influence of the Roaches, Rodmans, Arnolds, Grinnells, and Robesons did not pervade all classes of its people.
The test of the real civilization of the community came when I applied for work at my trade, and then my repulse was emphatic and decisive. It so happened that Mr. Rodney French, a wealthy and enterprising citizen, distinguished as an anti-slavery man, was fitting out a vessel for a whaling voyage, upon which there was a heavy job of calking and coppering to be done. I had some skill in both branches, and applied to Mr. French for work. He, generous man that he was, told me he would employ me, and I might go at once to the vessel. I obeyed him, but upon reaching the float-stage, where others [sic] calkers were at work, I was told that every white man would leave the ship, in her unfinished condition, if I struck a blow at my trade upon her. This uncivil, inhuman, and selfish treatment was not so shocking and scandalous in my eyes at the time as it now appears to me. Slavery had inured me to hardships that made ordinary trouble sit lightly upon me. Could I have worked at my trade I could have earned two dollars a day, but as a common laborer I received but one dollar. The difference was of great importance to me, but if I could not get two dollars, I was glad to get one; and so I went to work for Mr. French as a common laborer.
The consciousness that I was free--no longer a slave--kept me cheerful under this, and many similar proscriptions, which I was destined to meet in New Bedford and elsewhere on the free soil of Massachusetts. For instance, though colored children attended the schools, and were treated kindly by their teachers, the New Bedford Lyceum refused, till several years after my residence in that city, to allow any colored person to attend the lectures delivered in its hall. Not until such men as Charles Sumner, Theodore Parker, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Horace Mann refused to lecture in their course while there was such a restriction, was it abandoned.
The following is additional information on Seaman's Protection Papers:
Seamen's Protection Certificates were usually printed documents, varying in size and style, that were carried by American seamen as proof of citizenship. The certificate was obtained by the individual through the customhouse, public notary, or U.S. Consul when required in a foreign port. It contained the person's name, birthplace, approximate age, height, skin color, eye and hair color, and other distinctive descriptive information, such as the location of scars or tattoos. "United States of America" was often printed prominently across the top, and the word "protection" might also appear. Small engravings of the American eagle often served to decorate and establish the nationality of the document. A serial number was included on every Customs Protection Certificate for record keeping purposes. The wording of the document was standardized, having been transcribed on many examples, verbatim from the Act of 1796. The Act of 28 May 1796, entitled "An Act for the Protection and Relief of American Seamen, provided certificates for the protection of American seamen from the threat of impressment by the Royal Navy. Prior to this act, a mariner could obtain a similar document from a public notary. An individual desiring protection was required to bring some authenticated proof of citizenship to the customs collector, who, for a service fee of 25 cents, would issue him a certificate. Most seamen of the day, however, were so transient that they were unable to produce the required proof, and so the condition was altered to allow him to bring a notarized affidavit, instead, in which the seamen and a witness swore to his citizenship. Because it was easy to abuse this system, the Royal Navy did not always honor the Protection Certificates as valid. Collectors were required to keep a record book of the names of individuals receiving protections and send quarterly lists to the State Department. As the threat to American freedom on the high seas began to disappear, Protection Certificates became more valuable as identification, and they were used as such until 1940, when the Seamen's Continuous Discharge Book replaced them. These documents are common items in maritime collections and are important research sources for an study of American seamen.