January 18, 2022

‘Seaward’ explores slavery of old South Novel’s hero seeks freedom’s meaning

SEAWARD BORN, by Lea Wait, Simon & Schuster, New York, 2003, 156 pages, $16.95.

“Sometimes a man has to risk everything to do what is right. Doing that is what makes him a man.”

Michael, hero of Edgecomb author Lea Wait’s “Seaward Born,” has lost his parents in the hurricane of 1804. When the 13-year-old slave is summoned to his mistress’s parlor, he knows that his life is about to change drastically. Maybe he’ll be sent to labor in the rice fields of her son’s plantation.

Fortunately, Mrs. Lautrec, out of fondness for Michael’s deceased mother, has decided to keep the boy close to home. She plans to hire him out so he can support himself and gain a marketable skill. And she could not have chosen a better vocation for him.

“Mrs. Lautrec could have sent him to a plantation. Or to be a gardener or a tanner or a barber or an ironsmith, or to learn any of the hundreds of jobs for black men in Charleston [South Carolina]. But she was sending him to the very place where he longed to be – the waterfront.”

Michael’s willingness to work hard, ability to learn and good judgement, put him in good stead with his boss. He is considered seaward born. Even when his mistress dies, her son, who has inherited him, agrees to hire him out to Captain Linforth for another year.

One night Michael is confronted with the most difficult decision of his life. His friend, Jim, has lost his beloved Annie, who was sold by their master. Crushed by his inability to protect her, he wants Michael to flee to freedom with him.

While alive, Michael’s parents had given him strongly conflicting advice. His slave mother had carefully schooled him in survival as a black in a white man’s world. His mariner father had urged him to become his own boss. “A fish you pull in as a free man tastes ten times sweeter than a fish you catch for a master.”

As comfortable as he is in his current job, Michael knows that his future is in the hands of a man who could sell him like any other piece of property. “Stealing yourself meant danger. Maybe death. But staying – maybe that was another way of dying. Dying in small pieces, one at a time.”

The haunting cover illustration shows a young boy gazing over city rooftops to the ocean. His muscled forearms indicate that he is no stranger to hard work. But his intense gaze is one of hope.

This antique print inspired Wait to write “Seaward Born.” But it was not a simple matter of telling the youth’s story. Finding out what life was like for slaves in early 19th century Charleston required a great deal of research.

Wait consulted hundreds of primary and secondary sources. She spent time in Charleston. She even was able to climb the steeple of St. Michael’s Church and look out to the sea as her protagonist had.

Wait’s research negated her belief that slavery was always horrific. Gambian slaves on South Carolina rice plantations were valued because they had skills their masters lacked. They were able to cultivate their own garden plots or make baskets or pottery and sell the fruits of their own labor. They could even earn money and sometimes buy their freedom.

Wait also discovered the importance of blacks in the maritime commerce of northern states. “They were cooks, sailors, and mariners. Some of them even owned ships.”

This riveting work of historical fiction is perfect for Black History Month. Readers who want to learn more, locate book signings, or contact Wait can log on at www.leawait.com.

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