© Mystic Seaport Museum, 1991.119.1.
© Mystic Seaport Museum,
G.W. Blunt White Library, Log 933.
By Laura Natusch
Antone DeSant was born in Cabo Verde, formerly known as Cape Verde, c. 1815. Located off the coast of Senegal, the Cabo Verde islands were uninhabited when the Portuguese colonized them in the mid-fifteenth century. They had no year-round rivers or lakes. Droughts were frequent and severe. The sugar and cotton plantations established by the Portuguese were not particularly successful.
The islands were perfectly situated, however, to become a center of the transatlantic slave trade. Tens of thousands of enslaved Africans were held in Cabo Verde before being transported to plantations in the Americas. Others remained enslaved in Cabo Verde.
By the time DeSant was born, the transatlantic slave trade was slowing down, and free multi-racial Blacks in Cabo Verde outnumbered the enslaved. Whaling vessels from New England stopped frequently in the islands, selling merchandise, purchasing supplies, and hiring crew.
From 1830 to 1833, a particularly severe drought gripped Cabo Verde. The ensuing famine killed over 30,000 people, a third of the population. The Portuguese did little to feed its colonists. However, New England port cities raised funds to help the Cabo Verdeans and the United States Congress sent eleven ships full of provisions.
In the midst of this drought, a teenaged DeSant joined the crew of an American whaling vessel. He arrived in New London in 1831 at the beginning of a whaling boom. By 1845, New London was homeport to over eighty whaling vessels employing several thousand men.
Whaling was a difficult, dangerous profession, but it provided Black men with opportunities that weren’t available to them in other professions. Whalers were paid according to their job, not their skin color. Black men were twice as likely as white men to sail on whaling vessels, and whalers of color composed at least 10% of New London’s nineteenth-century whaling crews.
DeSant went on at least seven whaling voyages. Although there is no documentation that he became a captain, in 1850 he served as an officer aboard the cargo vessel Portland when it sailed to San Francisco during the gold rush.