4 Race Road

Carrie D. Knowles. King Hiram's Lodge, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons. 
24 Race Road, Provincetown (2010), by David W. Dunlap.4 Race Road Condominium

The story of the Cape’s African, Afro-Caribbean and African-American mariners is worth its own book. Until it’s written, Capt. Collin Stephenson 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 Stephenson (whose first name is sometimes rendered Colin, and whose last name is sometimes rendered Stevenson) lived here for at least 15 years before his disappearance. In other words, for anyone who says, “Let’s talk about race in Provincetown,” Race is a good place to start.

Captain Stephenson came from 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 a native of Dominica, but Laurel Guadazno has determined that he was from the island of St. Vincent, about 140 miles south of Dominica. (Laurel Guadazno, “The Mystery of the Carrie D. Knowles,” The Provincetown Banner, 24 February 2000.)

Stephenson was born in the late 1840s. He came to 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.” What I cannot determine — without more help from historians — is the extent of color-blindness in the fishery. 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 Stephenson “passed” for white to placate the sensibilities of the era? Bryant told me that contemporaries did not regard him as dark skinned.

The New York Times, 6 May 1909. Copyright © The New York Times.Whether race factored into the equation or not, the record amply demonstrates the faith placed in the captain by George Osborn Knowles, owner of the Carrie D. Knowles. From 1895 to 1903, Stephenson 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.

The Carrie D. Knowles departed one last time on 27 January 1904, bound for the Caribbean. Besides Captain Stephenson, 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. In 1909, a man claiming to have been a crew member of the Carrie D. Knowles 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 Stephenson; 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.

Capt. Peter Santos owned the property after Captain Stephenson. It is now a three-unit condo. • MapAssessor’s Online Database PDF, Unit 1 • Assessor’s Online Database PDF, Unit 2 • Assessor’s Online Database PDF, Unit 3 ¶ Posted 2013-08-10

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