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From distant shores

Hero: former sailor and musician Billy Walters

ON DECEMBER 10, 1759, a 14-year old African sailor on HMS Namur found himself sailing up from Portsmouth to Deptford.

This free, battle-scarred young man who had witnessed his companions “dashed in pieces and launched into eternity” was looking forward to being reunited with friends in London when, in his own words:

“My master ordered the barge to be manned; and all in an instant, without having before given me the least reason to suspect anything of the matter, he forced me into the barge, saying, I was going to leave him, but he would take care I should not…I began, however to collect myself: and plucking up courage, told him I was free and he could not by law serve me so.

“But this only enraged him the more…for he was resolved to put me on board the first vessel that would receive me…just as we had got a little below Gravesend, we came alongside a ship which was going away the next tide for the West Indies…”

He would later be sold to a new master in Montserrat, where he worked on small boats around the island and larger ships sailing to North America.

The sailor would eventually return to London as a fully free man under his African name: Olaudah Equiano.

Equiano is better known as an abolitionist writer and a prominent representative of 18th century Britain’s black community, but like many free black labourers in this period, he spent most of his adult life as a sailor on a succession of merchant and naval vessels.

Although a large number of sailors volunteered for service, others, like George Ryan of Deptford, were captured by press gangs and forced to serve in the Royal Navy against their will.

George Ryan (whose place of birth is simply listed as Africa) would later serve on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar alongside nine West Indians and two Indians.

The shortage of skilled labour in the Caribbean and a constant need for manpower on British warships led to significant numbers of enslaved men working in all capacities, but particularly as pilots.

Pilots would guide ships through the local currents, channels and sandbanks into port. So many were active in this role that Governor Parry of Barbados wrote to the Colonial Office in 1786:

Festive: Christmas at the Coloured Mens Institute, Canning Town, London in 1926

“The numbers of Negro slaves employed in navigating the trading vessels in these seas seems to me to increase so much as to require the attention of the British Legislator, as it throws so many English seamen out of employment.”

One pilot who went onto greater things was John Perkins. We are unsure if he was free or enslaved when he was first made pilot of HMS Antelope in 1775, but the commander of the Jamaica station said his knowledge of West Indian ports was “seldom equalled, and never surpassed.”

Perkins was described as a mulatto (or mixed race). He rose from obscurity to be one of the most successful captains of his day. As well as capturing over 315 enemy ships, his colour allowed him to act as a spy during the Haitian revolution when he supplied the rebel army with weapons.

A letter of commendation told of how “by the gallant exertions of this officer some hundred vessels were taken, burnt, or destroyed, and above three thousand men added to the list of prisoners of war in favour of Britain; in short, the character and conduct of Captain Perkins were not less admired by his superior officers in Jamaica, than respected by those of the enemy.”

But most black maritime lives were nothing like this. For a large number of them a life at sea held little opportunity for advancement.

Royalty: A Greenwich naval pensioner, who was nicknamed King George

In 1848 the seventy-five years old Henry Sinclair was still sailing out from Poplar in East London to work as a ship’s cook. Henry had been born in Kingston, Jamaica on the April 3, 1770, and first went to sea at the age of six.

William Cumming from Guyana started his career aged four!

As British fleets came to rely increasingly on non-White labour, Britain’s port cities saw a growth in settled populations from Africa, the Caribbean, China and India. During the First World War 1,400 black seamen from Cardiff lost their lives. By the end of the war 3,000 black people were in Cardiff, another 3,500 were in Liverpool.

In 1919 these communities came under attack in Newport, South Shields, Glasgow, and Barry as well as in the major ports. Despite unrelenting violence and discrimination they remained a feature of British life throughout the early 20th century.

In 1937, conditions in these areas were described as “in bad repair…low and damp…Five or six families may share a six-roomed house…ventilation is rarely good and sometimes the walls are verminous.”

At the outbreak of World War 2 non-white seamen accounted for almost one third of the shipping industry's labour force.

Black seamen worked mostly as stewards, firemen and cooks. They were routinely paid one-fifth less than European crew and were sometimes ordered to surrender their passports and live in segregated hostels.

Pastor Daniels Ekarte of the African Churches Mission in Liverpool wrote:

“For the past 18 years I have been endeavouring to preach the Gospel of Christ to my countrymen in Liverpool. In face of this callous attitude of the Shipping Company the Gospel of Christ would sound sheer mockery to my countrymen.”

In August 1948, black sailors in Deptford and Liverpool were again the targets of racist violence, but by that time the SS Empire Windrush had landed at Tilbury with 492 Jamaicans amongst its passengers.

Seeking work in newer industries, these new arrivals settled away from the docks. Black seafaring traditions would soon be barely a memory.

Black Mariners Study Day at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich on October 31. For information call 020 8312 6608 or email

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