“May I see you a moment, sir?” The shabby naval officer opened his eyes wide in surprise at the young man who had called to him. One reason for his surprise was that the boy was tall and healthy—a rare sight aboard the prison ship Jersey. The Jersey, anchored off Long Island, was the terror of American seamen during the American Revolution.
Another reason for the officer’s surprise was that the young man was black. The British usually sold black prisoners-of-war as slaves in the West Indies rather than hold them prisoner.
“What can I do for you?” the officer asked curiously. “I’m due to get off this old hulk tomorrow morning. I’ve some arrangements to make.”
“That’s what I wanted to see you about,” James Forten replied. “Do you need help carrying your things to the American ship tomorrow? I’m one of the few able-bodied sailors left on this ship, and I’m willing to work.”
The officer smiled. “Yes, I could use some help. I’ve a heavy sea chest and some other things.” He paused. “But I have nothing to give you in return for your help.”
“Oh, but you do, sir.” The young man glanced cautiously around him. “I want to escape,” he whispered, “hidden in your sea chest.”
The officer stared. No one escaped from the Jersey unless he were wrapped in a shroud and buried at sea. “All right! You may use the sea chest. But you’re on your own. I can’t be caught helping anyone escape. I’d hang for it.”
“Leave it to me, sir,” the boy answered. The light in his eyes shone even brighter than before.
The officer turned to go below. Then he looked back. “Good luck to you,” he whispered.
Just then Commander Sproat appeared. “I’ll have no idle chatter aboard this craft!” he snarled at James. “Get below and check for bodies. Bring up any sick men you find.”
All the men hated David Sproat. Under his tyranny, more than eleven thousand men died during the three years the Jersey was used as a floating prison.
The tall black boy disappeared below deck. Sproat scowled. There was too much zest in the fellow’s stride for his liking.
James Forten had been fifteen years old when he enlisted on the privateer Royal Louis as a powder boy in 1781. His job was to fetch gunpowder for the cannons as they were fired in battle. After several successful raids on British ships, the privateer was captured by the British warship Amphyon. The British captain was so impressed with James’s intelligence and warm personality that he offered James a comfortable life in England for the duration of the war.
But James told him, “I cannot be a traitor to my country.”
James had then been placed on the Jersey. It was a fate preferable to slavery, James felt. At least on the Jersey he might have a chance of returning to his home in Philadelphia. Now the opportunity he had been waiting for had arisen.
James searched the hold of the wretched ship for men who had not survived the night. To his relief, there were none. Then, looking for sick men to help to the deck, he found his friend Daniel Brewton, former ship’s boy on the Royal Louis.
In the sunlight on deck, James saw that Daniel’s eyes were glazed. His body was covered with sores, and his sunken face was pale. With a horrible feeling, James realized that Daniel was dying. Unless …
James tried to thrust the thought from him. He’d made his plans. He would not spend another night on the Jersey!
“James,” Daniel whispered. “Would you get me some water?”
James scooped up a dipperful of the thick, almost-green water from its cask. Daniel choked down the liquid and lay down again with a shudder.
The next morning, Daniel Brewton escaped in the officer’s sea chest and returned to his home in Philadelphia to recover. James was finally released from the Jersey almost three months later. Although he was weak, he made his way on foot back to Philadelphia. He went to work for the sailmaker, Robert Bridges, who had employed James’s father for many years. Two years later, when he was only twenty-two, James was supervising twenty black and twenty white employees. He was known for his fairness and generosity to all. Later, Bridges sold his sail loft to James Forten, and he became one of the most successful and respected businessmen in Philadelphia.
Forten fought for equal job opportunities and equal citizenship for blacks in the United States. Even though he amassed a large fortune during his lifetime, at the time of his death, only a fraction of it remained. Most of it had been used for buying the freedom of many slaves and for the struggle for equal rights. He wrote eloquent pamphlets and made moving speeches against unfair laws and practices.
When James Forten died in 1842, he had earned his place in history for helping not just his country but all mankind.