Pyrrhus Concer was born a slave in Southampton in 1814, but he lived a free man from the age of 21 until his death at age 83 in 1897.
During those 83 years, Concer saw more of the world than most people at that time could have even dreamed of.
Concer, whose mother was a slave, was born to the Captain Nathan Cooper family of Southampton at a time when slavery was still legal in New York State. When he was 5, he was sold to the Charles Pelletreau family for $25. From then until the time he was 18, he worked on the Pelletreau farm.
As a young man, though still a slave, Concer began whaling, sailing out of Sag Harbor with some of the most prolific whaling captains of the time. At the age of 21, his owner, Charles Pelletreau, freed him; slavery had been outlawed in the state eight years earlier, but those who were indentured at the time were still technically slaves until they reached the age of 26.
Concer continued whaling. At that time, whaling was an industry where different races and creeds came together to do a very dangerous job, sometimes living together for years on the water, depending on each other for survival.
In November 1843, Concer signed on to the whaler Manhattan and left the port of Sag Harbor for whaling grounds—not knowing that the ship would be involved in a historic voyage. Ironically, the Manhattan was captained by Mercator Cooper—the son of Concer’s first owner.
According to Harry D. Sleight’s book “The Whale Fishery On Long Island,” Captain Cooper was “proceeding to the whaling regions of the northern ocean” when his ship passed close to the Bonin Islands. Cooper decided he would make a stop, explore the shore and possibly find turtle for his crew to dine on that night.
During his walk, he discovered makeshift structures and 11 men clad in rags. The men were startled and ran off. He found them later, huddled in a hut. After some back and forth, Cooper determined that the men were Japanese sailors who had been shipwrecked on the uninhabited island many months earlier.
Cooper assured the men that he and his men meant them no harm and welcomed them aboard the Manhattan, offering to take them back home. It was no small feat in 1845—for centuries, Japan had a strict policy forbidding foreigners in the kingdom. One or two Dutch ships a year were allowed to dock to trade, but that was the extent that the outside world was allowed into Japan.
Cooper set sail for Japan’s capital city, Edo, now known as Tokyo, on the way picking up 11 more Japanese sailors whose boat was sinking. Just north of the capital, the ship made two stops, dropping off one of the rescued Japanese seaman each time as messengers to the emperor to let him know what the Manhattan’s intentions were.
The Manhattan was allowed to anchor offshore of Edo. Neither captain nor crew was allowed to leave the vessel, which was guarded around the clock by soldiers on board and in boats surrounding the ship.
The Manhattan anchored off Japan for four days. During that time, the ship had many curious visitors, but nothing seemed to fascinate them more than Pyyhrus Concer and the eight other African-Americans on board—they were the first black men the Japanese people had ever seen. The Spring 1912 issue of “The Southampton Magazine” recounts events as told by Concer and Gad Williams, an African-American shipmate and fellow Southamptonite: “They used to tell with much amusement how the Japanese would gather around them and stare at them with wide open eyes and look them over from side to side and feel of their skin to see if the color would rub off.”
Pyrrhus Concer returned to Southampton in 1847 after his adventure on the Manhattan and married Rachel Williams. Home and family would have to wait, though, because in 1849, Concer headed west to California, on the Sabina out of Sag Harbor. The nation was in the throes of the “Gold Rush,” with news filtering back east of those who went west with nothing and struck it rich. At the same time, the whaling industry was in a lull, and whale boats were sailing out of Sag Harbor loaded with lumber, which was selling at a premium in the west, and supplies for the boomtowns.
There is no account of what happened to Pyrrhus Concer in the West, but the Sabina’s fate was chronicled: “The old ship’s bones now lie under the city of San Francisco,” states Mr. Sleight’s book. Apparently, men eager to head for mines abandoned the ships after docking. Many vessels were left where they landed, because it was impossible to find men to crew them home. The ships were stripped, used for storage and eventually sank; streets and wharves were extended over the remains.
Concer returned to Southampton. He and his wife, Rachel, had two sons, Charles and James, although both preceded their parents in death. Concer acquired land and prospered, beginning a business ferrying passengers across Lake Agawam at 10 cents a ride.
Rachel died in 1890, and, seven years later, her husband followed her. His estate was liquidated, and the proceeds were distributed to charitable organizations, including the First Presbyterian Church of Southampton, of which he was a member.
Concer’s obituary from the August 28, 1897, edition of The Southampton Press states: “Mr. Concer was one of the most respected residents of the village … He was one of the links that bind Southampton to the past.”