Dates of Service: 12/17/1814 - 7/16/1815
Birth Date: 8/6/1806
David Debias was born in Boston on August 9, 1806. He lived with his parents on Belknap Street (now Joy Street) on the north slope of Beacon Hill—a predominantly African-American community.
While we don’t know the real story of David’s early life, we can guess that life was hard for a poor African-American family in early nineteenth-century Boston. His father may have worked as a laborer along the waterfront or in one of the many factories beginning to spring up around town. With few prospects, it is not surprising that David would go to sea.
On December 17, 1814, Debias’ father entered him on board Constitution. Scarcely eight years old, Debias was rated a boy and assigned as servant to Master’s Mate Nathaniel G. Leighton. He was discharged and paid off on July 16, 1815. His father collected his pay from the purser.
Boys were the lowest ranking sailors on a ship, employed at the ship’s most boring and dirty work. Many boys acted as officers’ servants, serving them at dinner and keeping their uniforms and cabins neat and shipshape. Older boys often carried powder to the guns in battle. When not engaged in those duties, boys were expected to learn all they could about seamanship and other shipboard tasks.
Battles and Engagements
Debias served on Constitution during the battle with HMS Cyane and HMS Levant on the night of February 20, 1815. After being placed on board Levant (along with Master’s Mate Leighton) as part of the prize crew, he was captured by a British squadron on the way back to the United States. He was imprisoned in Barbados until May, when he returned home and was finally reunited with his family.
In 1821, he joined the U.S. Navy again, sailing once more on Constitution to the Mediterranean Sea. He returned to the United States in 1824 and joined the merchant service.
In 1838, he left his ship in Mobile, Alabama, started walking north, and was picked up as a fugitive from slavery in Winchester, Mississippi. Debias’ plight caught the attention of a local lawyer named Thomas Falconer, who was convinced that Debias was a free man. Falconer wrote to the Secretary of the Navy seeking proof of Debais’ status. Falconer’s letter to the Secretary of the Navy pleads Debias’ case, describing his service to his country and requesting Debias’ naval records. The Secretary of the Navy complied with Falconer’s request and sent proof of Debias’ service, but we have no records of his fate.