The fascinating Charleston Mosquito Fleet is one of the many incredible stories that make up the history of the Holy City. Hardy sea men, these fearless sailors would leave from downtown each morning in small wooden boats and return in the afternoon with fresh seafood to sell to the people of Charleston.
The Mosquito Fleet was largely comprised of African America men and was a tradition that spanned from the early 1800s to the mid 20th century. Prior to the Civil War the men of the Mosquito Fleet were slaves and their daily journey offshore was a welcome escape from the grueling life of indentured servitude. After the Civil War, these men were freedmen in search of careers to provide for their families and fishing was the logical choice.
What made these daily trips all the more extraordinary is the men of the Mosquito Fleet did not have any navigation gear or high-tech fishing equipment. To make it to and from the fishing grounds each day the men of the Mosquito Fleet used dead reckoning, meaning they used only landmarks and their internal sense of direction to navigate. All of their nets and lines were hand crafted, no fancy reels or rods just long lines with 10-12 hooks attached and hand tied nets (a craft that has been lost with the Mosquito Fleet).
Legend has it that the fleet got its name from the daughter of General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. As she was spending time on the porch of her home on the Battery, she saw the wooden boats with their colorful patchwork sails out on the horizon coming in from a day of fishing. “Look father, a giant swarm of mosquitoes is coming up the river!” she exclaimed. And from that point on the men and their boats were known as the Mosquito Fleet.
From their inception, until World War II, the Mosquito Fleet was the primary source of fresh seafood in downtown Charleston. The men would sail small wooden boats 10-15 miles off the coast and use hand lines to bring in hundreds of pounds of fish like Black Sea Bass and Porgy.
Theirs was a different type of commercial fishing than is known today. A crew could range from two to seven men, depending on who showed up at the wharf in the morning. These men weren’t paid to work; they instead paid the captain the then-sizable sum of 10 to 20 cents for the right to fish. In return, each crewmember was allowed to keep and, more to the point, sell any fish he caught.
The Lowcountry Maritime Society is preserving the memory of these great sea men through the formation of the New Mosquito Fleet. For more info, visit their Facebook page, New Charleston Mosquito Fleet.
The information in this article and more about the Mosquito Fleet can be found at the following links: