Joshua Cockburn: First Captain of The Black Star Line

Joshua Cockburn: First Captain of The Black Star Line

Captain Cockburn was a British Ship Master who had earned commendation from The British Navy during World War I in Africa. Before that he had piloted ships for The Elder Dempster Line which ran from Liverpool, England to West Africa.


February 21, 2013 · 9:11 pm

17 responses to “Joshua Cockburn: First Captain of The Black Star Line


    I would like to know more about Joshua Cockburn and his relationship with Marcus Garvey. I understand that they used the Black Star Line as a “Bannna Boat,” but I do not understand the falling out. If this is found then a great book can be made.

    • Based on my research, almost all we know about Captain Cockburn and The Black Star Line comes from The Marcus Garvey Papers. Cockburn went to see Garvey at his office dressed in his White Captain’s Uniform with Gold Braids during the summer of 1919. Garvey had just incorporated The Black Star Line and had just been audited by The New York District Attorney because he had been accused of selling stock in a company (The Black Star Line) that only existed on paper. Cockburn was a credentialed British ship’s master, which suddenly made The Black Star Line more of a reality. Cockburn was tasked with procuring a ship and the necessary maritime papers to sail it. He went out and bought an old “tramp” ship called The Yarmouth. This is the first instance of Cockburn taking advantage of his situation. He earned a commission form the seller and the old ship was purchased for much more than it was worth. In defense of Cockburn, he himself said that the important thing was that The Black Star Line now had a ship and the organization would give colored people hope throughout the world. Garvey and his associates appear to have agreed. The Black Star Line sold a lot of stock during Cockburn’s tenure as Captain. Why did he buy a tramp ship? Probably because he would have been very familiar with tramp ships from his years sailing for British companies. Although Garvey wanted the Black Star Line to be more of an Ocean Liner for passengers, Cockburn was experienced at hauling freight. Supposedly the Frederick Douglass (Yarmouth’s new name) was not seaworthy in January, 1920 when Garvey ordered Cockburn to take it out of N.Y. Harbor to Cuba. Cockburn had arranged to haul 900 tons of Whiskey for Green River Distillery. They paid him $2500 to load the ship in time to beat the new Prohibition Law set to take effect at Midnight January 16th. Again, the story gets hazy here. Just 100 miles out at sea the ship had mechanical problems and had to dump its cargo. Supposedly, someone sent an SOS that said “we’re drunk”. Cockburn maintained that the white first mate and white engineer purposely drove the ship on to a reef while he was asleep. Garvey would later accuse him of being “a drunk” when he confronted him in court. The engineer who got the ship running again testified at the same court hearing that he saw Cockburn unload 3 cases of whiskey onto a rowboat that had approached the ship. The ship was towed by the coast guard back to New York Harbor. After expensive repairs (Garvey claims Cockburn got another kickback for the repair) the ship went to Cuba and Cockburn and his crew were welcomed with excitement. COckburn sent a telegram to Garvey and said not to pay the repair bill because it was a rip off and the captain had just signed it to get The Frederick Douglass out of port. Cockburn worked for Garvey for the next 5 months. Garvey wanted him to sail to different U.S. Ports to help sell stock. Cockburn wanted to haul freight. Garvey accused Cockburn of being unaccountable and “reckless”. Cockburn accused Garvey of the same thing. He was being paid $400 a week by Garvey. Garvey stopped paying him and then ordered him fired. For the next two years there was great antipathy between the two men, who both lived in Harlem. The U.S. Government had been investigating Garvey for a long time. Their agents kept asking Cockburn to testify against him. Cockburn was willing to testify but refused to say that Garvey had violated the Mann Act. The Mann Act was often used against Black Men who traveled with white women across state lines. Garvey had a young light skinned secretary named Amy Jacques (who later became his second wife). I feel Joshua Cockburn would not testify against Garvey for something that he himself could have been accused of (Pauline Theresa Cockburn was a good deal younger than Joshua and light skinned). Garvey’s associates threatened Cockburn’s life. Cockburn testified at Garvey’s mail fraud trial in 1923, he just told about the cruises the ship took and the companies efforts to use the cruises to sell stock. Garvey acted as his own defense lawyer and questioned Cockburn for a long time. I find it interesting that Captain Cockburn became a very wealthy man during the 20’s and 30’s. He had a realty company named after his wife Pauline. Why was Cockburn’s first Black Star cruise such a disaster? The rest of his life he was a savvy operator, whether as a ship’s master or a real estate operator. During the rest of the decade, Wall Street would mimic what The Black Star operators had done, stock speculation went up and up and people put all of their money into it. Then in 1929 the market crashed.

      • Reggi

        Thank you very much. I am currently reading “Negro With the Hat; The Rise and Fall Of Marcus Garvey,” by Colin Grant. Myself I am just an “average Joe” that loves to read books, and my reward is the knowledge I am gaining from our history. Captain Cockburn’s crew must have been accustomed to working on those types of ships also, and I do understand what it takes to change from one type of craft to another. With Garvey’s mission moving at top speed, the last thing he needed to do was to get a new ship. In the Aviation Industry today it takes about one to two months to become aware of type of aircraft, and several years to become an expert on a certain system. So, I can empathize with Cockburn’s need to get a craft that he is an expert on. Also for the crew, I’ve been in the Navy for over 25 years and people’s work ethic changes over time. There are things I cannot say today that I used to say 20 years ago, and I could only imagine having to train Merchant Marines to become “civilized Stewards” on a ship that was once and partially still is at that time a freighter. If Garevy wanted an educated crew, this venture would’ve taken about six years at least. I do commend Garvey for excelling his own expectations. People believed in his ideas, but when they got close to the U.N.I.A’s inner workings… I could only imagine the shock. As for Cockburn and myself( I’ve worked for companies that I didn’t understand why they were still operating), when he realized that the Black Star Line might be a “fly by night company” Cockburn made sure that he would have an excellent “severance package.” I haven’t completed Colin Grant’s book yet, but I hope that what you just wrote is in it. Have a great day. Reggie.

  2. Mr. Quirk, I’d love to know more about the photograph of the Yarmouth, with the inset of Capt. Cockburn. I’m researching Hugh Mulzac, another African American, who I believe was a junior officer aboard the Yarmouth when it hauled whiskey to Cuba and coconuts back to New York via several stock-selling ports of call that caused the coconuts to spoil.

    • Reggie

      Donna, thank you for the name Junior Officer Hugh Mulzac. Have a great day. Reggie.

      • A Star to Steer By an as told to biography by Hugh Mulzac is a terrific book to read if you are interested in The Yarmouth and its voyages. You can also learn what it was like to be a West Indian/African-American sailor during a time of increasing racism. Mulzac also portrays Captain Cockburn as a qualified Ship’s Master who had to put up with an impossible business situation created by Garvey and his associates. Cockburn’s third and final voyage began on Feb.24th 1920 with Hugh Mulzac as his first mate. The ship went to Cuba (to a celebrated reception) then to Panama, Costa Rica, back to Cuba, then Jamaica, The Bahamas, Norfolk Virginia, Philadelphia Boston and New York. By this time Cockburn had The Yarmouth operating like a tramp ship, sailing from port to port to take on freight. Garvey still wanted the ship to be a show piece. He and Cockburn were at each other’s throats. The shipping rates Garvey’s associates were negotiating were too low to pay for anything more than the Yarmouth’s fuel costs. Shipping was “a highly rationalized” industry by 1920, The Black Star Line had no one who knew how to obtain the proper insurance, get reasonable rates for freight etc.. According to Hugh Mulzac this is why the Line failed.

  3. Reggie

    “A Star to Steer By,” I will put this on my list of books to read. Thank you very much. What I’ve noticed by reading Colin Grant’s book on Marcus Garvey is that everyone in his camp wanted their time in the spotlight. It was a very trying time then, and I am greatful to know that there are people that made an effort to move one or more steps above their station. Reggie.

  4. Anthony J

    I am black graduate of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. I received the Hugh Mulzac award (given annually by the Academy to a senior midshipman). I am embarrassed to admit that although I knew about Mr. Mulzac, I did not know he wrote a book. I Immediately set out to purchase it. A star to steer by is hard to come by. I purchased it on Ebay from a private seller. I’m about 1/4 through the book and am thoroughly enjoying it. Such an incredible story so far and his involvement with the Black Star Line makes for a great piece of American history. Mr. Mulzac does not implicate Mr. Cockburne (at least so far through my readings), and he does not even use Mr. Cockburne’s correct first name (he calls him Chalres). I wonder if, from a historical standpoint, Mulzac wanted to remain neutral or if he was simply unaware of Mr. Cockburne’s alleged depravity. In any event, it is great reading along with Franklin and Cronon’s Black Moses (a book about Garvey). I highly recommend both.

    • thanks for reading. I agree that Mulzac’s life was fascinating. Do you really find Joshua Cockburn depraved? I am now preparing a story on William Monroe Trotter, who was possibly the best known “radical civil rights” agitator during the nineteen teens. trotter stowed away on the Yarmouth before it was purchased by The Black Star Line. his purpose: get to Paris to seek support for black people at the Peace Conference in 1919. the U.S. Government refused all black civil rights activists passports. so Trotter learned to cook and took a job as an assistant steward on the Yarmouth, under an assumed name.The other assistant steward tried to warn Cockburn not to buy the Yarmouth after the ship returned to New York.

    • Reginald Spence

      Thank you very much for this info.


      Reggie Spence


  5. simira tobias

    I am interested in George Tobias, treasurer for Black Star Line. Can you recommend any sources?

    • I recommend The Marcus Garvey and U.N.I.A.A. Papers. It is a 13 volume set available in parts on google books and at many university libraries. Check the index in any of the volumes. You might start by going on google books and googling Tobias’s name. or finding the garvey papers and then looking up his name.

      • Reginald E Spence

        Thank you very much. I totally forgot that I even posted this message. Since then I’ve lived in Djibouti for one year, and Germany for 8 months. 30 years of Naval Service completed and now I thought that I would have completed my personal studies on Marcus Garvey and his associates. Marcus Garvey has done so much for our world. I was even glad to have worked with a distant relative of his that served with me in Africa. Even in Djibouti Africa people still talk about Garvey. Since I’ve traveled the world as a Sailor I would like to know more about Joshua Cockburn. One day I look up the British Ships Logs to get a vision of where he went. Where do I start since I’m still personally studying Charles Darwin, Captain FitzRoy, Sir Cavendish, Columbus, Bligh, Cook and who I personally believe that changed our society Sir John Harrison. Mr. Harrison invented he H2 Clock that finally Sailors were able to circumnavigate the world safely. That has also led me to Woodworking. I’m 52 now and still helping my children, grandchildren, family and home/work repairs. Your information and books are my time to relax and recharge. Thank you.

      • On my website, I have covered Joshua Cockburn’s life from his arrival in New York thru his death in 1942. He was born in Nassau in 1877. He sailed all around the world in the late 1890’s, perhaps out of New York. Then he was an officer on ships sailing out of Jamaica. Then he worked on dredging ships in Liverpool. Then he went to work for Lloyds Brazilian in Brazil. He returned to Liverpool, but it was hard to get ahead as a black man who wanted to be a ship’s captain. His big break came when he moved to the colony of Southern Nigeria during the early years of the 20th century. He started on a dredging ship, The Edgerton, which was working to get rid of a huge sandbar that made Lagos harbor inaccessible to large British trading ships. By 1911 he was a Ship Master, sailing ships for The Nigerian Marine, a British created outfit that was responsible for Nigerian waterways. When war broke out in 1914, Cockburn was put in charge of the S.S.Trojan, a British supply ship that took part in the Cameroon Campaign. He received notices in British newspapers for his services. In 1917 he took a position for The Elder Dempster Shipping Co. He says he sailed ships along the African coast , Garvey and other Garveyites accused him of being a colonial official who oversaw a large group of low paid African laborers. This was what most West Indians were employed as.

        I highly recommend Langston Hughes book The Big SEA, which has a chapter on his voyage to West
        Africa and what it was like at that time.

      • Reginald E Spence

        Thank you. I will read your recommendations. This is a wealth of positive information received these past two days and I hope that others will see this website conversation and improve on it.

      • simira tobias

        Thank you. I will definitely try that. Since my post, I have found that George Tobias, well-educated son of Wolcott Tobias and Lily Munroe, immigrated from the British West Indies in 1909, as a young man. It appears he worked as a property manager before assuming his treasurer duties to support his young wife, Pearl who he married in 1914 and who was also an immigrant from BWI. He is described as Treasurer for the Black Star Line in the 1922 NYC directory. He had two sons, William 1923-1964 and Lambert 1915-1986 (some refer to Lambert as his brother). Tobias died in 1949, age 61.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s