Charleston’s Mosquito Fleet was a group of hardy and seemingly fearless African-American men who, for nearly two centuries, braved the winds, waves and weather to supply city residents daily with fresh fish and seafood. For more than a century, seeing them sail back into the harbor with a day’s catch was one of Charleston’s most beautiful and iconic sights. Folklore credits the daughter of Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, Revolutionary hero and delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787, with giving the fleet its name, noting that the boats looked like a swarm of mosquitos coming over the horizon.
Before refrigeration, Charlestonians depended heavily on the Fleet’s fresh fish for a major portion of their daily diet. Because of that and the important economic role they played in the city, the fishermen were held in high regard. Gen. Pinckney even donated waterfront property at the east end of Market Street for their boats to dock.
The Fleet’s work was hard and dangerous, testament to a strong work ethic and perseverance in the face of risk and adversity. In the first half of the 19th century, the fleet was made up mostly of enslaved fishermen; under South Carolina law, fishing boats were one of the few things a slave could legally own. After emancipation, freedmen continued fishing much as they always had, though now they were supporting themselves and their families through wages they made selling fish to the street vendors and shop keepers who crowded around the waterfront eagerly awaiting the catch which included whatever was biting that day: porgy, sea bass, whiting, trout, croaker, bluefish, snapper, grunt, shark, and on good days, jack fish.
The wooden boats were made from whatever was available – cypress, pine, oak – and their styles included various versions of canoes, dinghies, and flat-bottomed bateaus. They all had oars, for days when the wind was calm, and home-made sails often made of colorful quilting or scrap material left over from the women’s sewing. The men hand made their nets and tackle as well, using long lines with a dozen or so hooks tied to each.
Each boat generally held two to seven men and a captain. Crewmembers paid the captain about 15 cents per day for a seat. Believing there was safety in numbers out on the treacherous sea, the boats departed, fished and returned together. One of the most remarkable things about the Fleet, traveling as far as 15 to 20 miles off shore, is that the men used no navigational aids, maps or compasses, relying instead on their memory of landmarks and intuitive sense of direction.
The hurricanes of 1905 and 1915 took a toll on both the men and the boats of the Mosquito Fleet. A 1940 hurricane did as well, at a time when large, refrigerated commercial vessels had begun to outcompete traditional fishermen. Hurricane Gracie (1959) heavily damaged the dock and many boats that were rarely, if ever, insured. The Fleet fished on a much smaller scale through the 1970s, and by the 1980s only a handful of old fishermen continued the vocation they loved. Some, too old to go out, would fish off the dock and help make and mend nets for the others.
The lives of these fearless men were prominently featured in America's first native opera, Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin based on the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward. The play made its Broadway debut Oct. 7, 1935, and ran for 124 performances.
The end finally came with Hurricane Hugo in 1989, when the dock donated by Gen. Pinckney two centuries earlier was destroyed beyond repair and remnants of the last boats were found as far away as the Francis Marion Hotel at the corner of Calhoun and King streets. The dock’s site has since been the site of a popular restaurant aptly named “Fleet’s Landing.”