Capt. Colin A. Stevenson (1847-1904) | Gifford.
The story of the Cape’s African, Afro-Caribbean, and African-American mariners is worth its own book. Until it’s written, Captain Stevenson will be more obscure than he ought to be, though it is known that that he was a commanding figure in his day and that he and the crew of the whaling ship Carrie D. Knowles vanished in 1904, leaving one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in Provincetown history. Captain Stevenson (whose first name is sometimes rendered Collin, and whose last name is sometimes rendered Stephenson) lived at 4 Race Road for at least 15 years before his disappearance.
He was a native of the Lesser Antilles, though his birthplace is not entirely fixed. A contemporary account of his ship’s disappearance in The New York Times stated that he was from Dominica, but the historian Laurel Guadazno has determined that he was from the island of St. Vincent, about 140 miles south of Dominica. Stevenson was born in 1847, Amy Whorf McGuiggan states in Provincetown’s Historic Cemeteries and Memorials. He arrived in the United States in the 1850s or early ’60s, George Bryant told me in a 2009 interview. “He rose very quickly,” Bryant said. “He was a bright guy.”
Is it possible that in the supremely demanding environment of whaling, a man’s skill and capacity could overcome racial bias? When they were out under sail together thousands of miles at sea, in search of beasts that could topple their vessels in one fearsome moment, were all men regarded as brethren, more or less? Or might it have been the case that Captain Stevenson “passed” for white to placate the sensibilities of the era? Bryant told me that contemporaries did not regard him as dark skinned.
Whether race factored into the equation or not, the record amply demonstrates the faith placed in the captain by George Osborn Knowles, owner of Carrie D. Knowles. From 1895 to 1903, Captain Stevenson made nine voyages aboard this schooner — one lasting 11 months — and brought back back more than 3,200 barrels of sperm whale oil to Provincetown. Carrie D. Knowles departed one last time on 27 January 1904, bound for the Caribbean. Besides the captain, there was a complement of 12 men aboard, half of whom hailed from the West Indies. She was due to reach Dominica at the end of March. She did not. Nothing was heard from her again.
Well, not quite nothing. In 1909, a man claiming to have been a crew member turned up in Kingstown, St. Vincent, asserting that the vessel had sailed into a Venezuelan port in distress during a storm five years earlier, whereupon it was seized and its crew imprisoned. His story, gripping enough to have caught the attention of The New York Times, transfixed Provincetown, as some flicker of hope began to burn again for the safe return of Captain Stevenson; the first mate, H. A. Martin; and Martin’s son, Charles, who had shipped out with his father as a cabin boy. But the story-teller disappeared before he could be questioned again by the authorities, and the town was left with the conclusion that his account was both fabulous and cruel.
Stevenson owned a burial plot abutting the town’s Civil War memorial, fittingly enough. With each passing decade, however, it seems less and less likely that he will ever be interred here. [Lot No. 148.]
¶ Last updated on 10 March 2018.
Provincetown’s Historic Cemeteries and Memorials, Key G-46, Page 10.