History, Liverpool Interest

The contribution of Black seafarers to British maritime history – in conversation with Ray Costello

 The Black Salt exhibition at the Liverpool Maritime Museum is due to reveal the contribution Black seafarers to some of the most significant maritime events of the past 500 years. To celebrate its opening we spoke to Ray Costello, author of the accompanying book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships about the roles of and experiences of Black sailors in the British navy. 

Black Salt

The Black Salt exhibition opens at the Liverpool Maritime Museum 29th September. Could you tell us a bit about the exhibition?

This major exhibition the Merseyside Maritime Museum are putting on is derived from my LUP book, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships (2012). It will occupy most of the ground floor, beginning in the reception area, and is to be presented as –

BLACK SALT: “… in the shipboard company of ‘old salts’… the greatest ‘melange’ of different cultures, races and languages… an important ingredient were seafarers of African descent – Britain’s Black Salt.”

I had already approached LUP to publish Black Salt when Rachel Mulhearne, the former Head of Merseyside Maritime Museum, told me that she was very keen on the idea of staging an exhibition based on this topic. This seemed a good idea at the time, as the book would be a good companion, but it was unfortunately at a decidedly ‘iffy’ time insofar as funding was concerned. At the time, the exhibition did not happen but fortunately the book went ahead and was considerably more than a slim ‘companion book’, never to be forgotten by the Maritime Museum, thanks to Janet Dugdale, the Head of Waterfront and Rachel’s successor, who was adamant that this exhibition was going to happen one day. Through her determination, it has!

How does it emphasise the ways in which sailors of African descent contributed to Britain’s maritime identity?

Black seamen have served on British ships since at least the Tudor period, and by the end of the period of the British slave trade at least three per cent of all crewmen were black and a far higher percentage since. Both the new exhibition and the book, Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships, (Liverpool University Press 2012), help to highlight this overlooked group of servicemen by examining the work and experience of black sailors in the British merchant marine and Royal Navy. These ranged from all over the Black Diaspora, from impressed slaves to free Africans, British West Indians, and even remembering African Americans who served on British ships both before and after the independence of the American colonies.

One of the most important roles has also been in wartime, of course, spanning centuries. This includes not only actually fighting in the Royal Navy, but also the tremendous contribution made by black merchant seafarers. At the Battle of Trafalgar, one of Britain’s most important naval victories, sailors of African descent can be found in a variety of roles. The outcome of the battle would determine the command of the oceans for decades, of course, and when Nelson gave his famous signal, ‘England expects that every man will do his duty’, many of his ‘old salts’ had sailed and fought with him before, including Britain’s seamen of African descent.

How does the exhibition depict the challenges faced by sailors of African descent both at sea and ashore?

In the exhibition we show that the dangers faced by even free early black sailors during the slave trade era could range from being captured by enemy ships and sold in America and the West Indies to being sold by the captain of the ships on which they served.

Later in their history, black crew working below deck could sometimes be overcome by heat exhaustion, especially in the tropics, when the temperature could rise to anything between 120 and 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Black tartaric acid ointment was used to smear on burns, most men working in the stokehold wearing protective leather boots and an old pair of trousers. Trimmers in the bunkers sometimes wore little more than boots. This, then, became the norm well into the twentieth century and lasting until the decline of British shipping.

How did you come to focus your research on the topic of sailors of African descent in the British navy?

Over the past year I have enjoyed co-curating this exhibition, so I am naturally pleased. It had to be Liverpool, of all locations, as its old black community is largely derived from seafarers. As black seafarers have been an established part of both the Royal and Merchant Navies for centuries, it comes as a surprise to many that, although there been at least a publication in the United States about their own black sailors, there has been never a comprehensive exhibition or book on the topic in Great Britain. Any national memorial to seafarers of African descent is still lacking. The history of seafarers of African descent on British ships is very much a forgotten narrative, unknown to most people, and we have been happy to perhaps play a small part in rectifying this situation!

The book draws attention to the fact that the navy was possibly unique in that black and white could work alongside each other. Was this the case in any other industries? What was the impact of this?

You could say that black and white sailors simply had to have some sort of relationship, as, particularly in the Royal Navy, charged with protecting King and country, they were very much reliant upon one another. This did have its limitations, however, as there was always the possibility that as soon as they set foot on dry land their relationship could at least be altered as the cold reality of the societal norms of the day were re-established once more. Even aboard ship, there could be expressions of segregation, such as the ‘chequeboard’ system of a black crew keeping watch for so many hours, only to change with an all-white crew for the next watch. Few other forms of employment in shore jobs offered even a temporary relaxation, as men would be working together, or more likely segregated, in a very different ‘world’ from the strange little society of the ship at sea. In spite of these restrictions, we always find exceptions throughout the book, and in many different scenarios, an example being the officer who kept up a life-long friendship with a black able seaman, even leaving him something in his will. There was a good reason – this black seafarer had saved this officer’s life at the Battle of Trafalgar!

How did the experiences of black seamen or sailors differ to those of their white counterparts?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, covering the Napoleonic Wars, they were to be found in deck occupations such as gunners, deck-hands and ‘top men’. ‘Top men’ were very much respected by both crew and officers alike, as they had the responsibility of working at heights in the rigging, setting sail and looking out for enemy ships, etc.

There were far less favourable conditions in the age of steam than in the days of the old sailing ships, when a black seaman could occupy a far wider range of employment aboard ship in both the Royal and merchant marine. In the age of the steam-driven ironclad ships, there were changes in the employment of seafarers of African descent, who were more likely to be found below deck; as cooks, stewards and stokers from the West African coast, India and Madagascar, as they were thought to be better suited to the heat of the engine room. Steam ships required fewer sailors of the traditional type, schooled in the intricacies of rigging and sail, and a newer breed of seaman replaced them.

Larger passenger ships also meant more black seafarers occupying a life below deck, as they were not thought to be suitable for passenger-facing jobs. Compare this with the first black female captain Belinda Bennett shown in our exhibition as now being in in charge of a passenger vessel!

Was there much chance of mobility in terms of rank for black seamen and sailors?

Needless to say, during the early days, certainly the period of the slave trade, black seafarers served at a time when the status of black people in European society was possibly at its lowest ebb, regardless of their social rank in their home countries, but even during the eighteenth-century, examples of royal naval officers of African descent individuals can be found who rose above that situation, finding respect and recognition from their crew-mates. It was by no means easy, however. A very sad case was that of a Black British seamen, 25 ­year­ old Norfolk-­born Barlow Fielding, who was thought to be petty-officer material, possibly at least a boatswain, by his captain, John Colpoys of HMS Orpheus. It did not take long before Fielding asked to be demoted, as his white fellow seafarers took exception to his rank and were making life difficult. His captain tried his best to help by having him transferred to another ship, but failed, resulting in Fielding having something that we would probably now call a nervous breakdown and ending up in Hasler Hospital in Portsmouth.

The book draws upon the experiences of individuals during this time, ‘their experiences span the gamut of sorrow and tragedy, heroism, victory and triumph.’ How did you discover these experiences? Did the experience of any one individual particularly surprise or move you?

Apart from the usual secondary and primary documentary sources, contemporary narratives written or dictated by black seamen themselves were sought, alongside oral testimonies of living seamen. Oral histories are the most fascinating, as some of the sailors’ stories have never seen the light of day before, adding something new to the narrative.

Although not oral testimony, I think my favourite is probably the Jamaican-­born John Perkins, possibly the first British post captain of African descent in the Royal Navy. The rank of post captain is an obsolete alternative form of captain in the Royal Navy, extremely high-ranking, even more than an officer in charge of a ship who is usually called captain regardless of rank, or commanders, given the title of captain as a courtesy, even if they did not currently have a ship! A post captain could eventually become an admiral if he lived long enough. What is surprising is that John (nick-named affectionately by his men as ‘Jack Punch’) is that he was black and achieved that rank in 1797 when the slave trade was still in operation. Later in their history, it was less unusual to find officers of African descent on commercial vessels and smaller riverine craft, but the Royal Navy would have to wait until the late twentieth century for another black captain, along with the United States, who did not commission its first African American naval officers, a group known as the ‘Golden Thirteen’, until 1944.

There are others, such as William Hall, the first black Royal Navy recipient of the Victoria Cross, but that, as they say, is another story, also included in the Black Salt Exhibition.

How to you think the book and the exhibition pave the way for wider discussion and further research into black seafarers and their role in the British navy?

I think that there is endless scope for further research, as most people I have spoken to seem quite surprised that so little has been done in this area, as, particularly in ports such as Liverpool, black sailors are common-place. I have been delighted at the interest already shown in the book and look forward to seeing the public’s response to the exhibition. I am sure that my publishers, ever in the lead of promoting new research, are no doubt as interested as I am.

There are both individuals and groups out there whose stories, both oral and written, have hardly been looked into. My own hope is that other researchers will ‘take the bait’ and delve into what must surely be a vast area of untapped knowledge just waiting to be discovered and publicised in a way that shows just how diverse a country Great Britain really is and has been for a surprisingly long time. Both the Black Salt book and exhibition at Merseyside Maritime shows that the City of Liverpool, with its old black community descended from African seafarers, is an excellent place to start.

Ray Costello is an independent historian and writer and an honorary research fellow of the School of Sociology and Social Science, University of Liverpool.

Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors opens on 29th September at the Liverpool Maritime Museum. Click here for more information.

For more information on Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships please visit our website.

Follow us on twitter, and sign up to our mailing list for updates.