10 July 2018

The Role of Black Sailors in the Napoleonic Royal Navy by Philip K. Allen

My Tuesday Talk Guest
Philip K. Allan
In the heart of London is Trafalgar Square, where the figure of Nelson stands on top of his column and gazes out over the city’s traffic with his single good eye. The base of the column is decorated by four bronze reliefs which commemorate some of his victories. The one for the Battle of Trafalgar shows the admiral being carried from the quarterdeck of the Victory, moments after being shot by a French marksman. The scene has several people in it, including Nelson, one of whom is clearly a black sailor. He has been given a prominent role, standing with a musket held across his chest as he looks towards where the shot has come from, as if about to revenge the dying hero. 

The Death of Nelson at Trafalgar
the relief on the south face of the plinth
The relief was produced by the Irish artist John Edward Carew. In an era before notions of political correctness or ethnic balance could have influenced him, he chose to include a black sailor in his scene. A study of the work gives us some clues to Carew’s motivation. The relief shows a desire on his part to achieve a good level of historical accuracy. In which case, it may indicate that black sailors were a sufficiently common sight on board Royal Navy ships at Trafalgar to make the unknown sailor’s inclusion unremarkable.

Researching the prevalence of black sailors in the 18th century navy is problematic. The principle source of data on crews comes from ships’ muster books, many of which still survive. But black sailors almost always appear under their western ‘slave’ names, rather than their African ones. How are we to know which, if any, of three sailors called John Smith was black? But there is other evidence for their presence. For example, we have a letter that Captain Martin of the Implacable wrote to his brother in 1808 in which he listed the origins of his crew. From this letter it is clear that at least eleven of the hands were black, and possibly several more. This compares with twenty-five shown as Welsh.

Billy Waters 1820
Some black sailors are known to us because they became more visible after they left the service. Billy Waters was born in America during the War of Independence. He served in the Royal Navy for many years until an unfortunate accident while he was serving aboard the Ganymed. He was badly injured when he fell from the topsail yard and had to have his left leg amputated. After he was discharged he had a second career as a street entertainer in London, and was a sufficiently well know figure to have been featured in contemporary illustrations. Black sailors also appear in other contemporary cartoons and painting, as well as being mentioned in diaries and other correspondence.

Greenwich Pensioners 1854
Other black sailors lived long enough to appear in early photographs. Some veteran sailors who had particularly illustrious careers became Greenwich Pensioners and where housed in Wren’s fabulous Royal Navy hospital by the river Thames. Old sailors, often amputees, with their 18th century style frock coats and cocked hats, were a familiar site in the area. The picture above was taken in 1854, and shows some survivors of Trafalgar seated outside the hospital. The pensioner third from the left has been identified as Richard Baker, a black sailor born in Baltimore in 1770. He entered the Hospital in 1839, having served aboard HMS Leviathan during the battle. He is also thought to have started life as a slave.

Richard Baker’s case was almost certainly not unique. It is possible that the majority of black sailors in the navy were run slaves. In 1772 a landmark ruling in the case of Somerset vs Stuart, stated that slavery did not exist in English Common Law. This effectively meant that if a slave could escape from their plantation and find his or her way to a place where such law held sway, they would become free. For slaves on the sugar islands of the Caribbean, this meant the deck of a Royal Navy or British ship. In an era when manning for the navy was a problem, captains would not need much temptation to turn a blind eye to a useful looking recruit’s origins.

This was also an era where slavery was coming to an end, at least in the British Empire. The slave trade was banned in acts passed in 1807 and 1811, and progressively stronger measures were put in place until 1833, when slavery itself was finally abolished. When I was taught about the abolition of slavery at school, it was William Wilberforce and his fellow Evangelical Christians that were said to have been responsible. Later in life, I began to question the simplicity of this view. What role was played in all of this by the slaves? Did they do anything to liberate themselves, or did they wait patiently in the cane fields of Barbados for the machinations of the British Parliament to run their course? The drivers of abolition are complex, but what is beyond doubt is that many slaves did seek to liberate themselves. For some this took the form of organised slave revolts, as took place unsuccessfully in several of the British sugar islands; and happened successfully in French run Saint Dominique, later Haiti. But for most, resistance would have come in the form of an individual throwing off his chains and escaping. And to escape completely from an island, requires a ship.

It is interesting to speculate what effect all of these black sailors in the Royal Navy had on the abolitionist cause. Many naval officers, like the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, were prominent opponents of the slave trade. Long established practices often founder when they come to seem hopelessly anachronistic in an ever-changing world. The knowledge that large numbers of former slaves were bravely fighting in the armed services of the nation responsible for their enslavement must, at the very least, have given supporters of slavery pause for thought. No case would have made this clearer than the remarkable career of John Perkins, know by the nickname Jack Punch in the service.  

'Jack Punch'
His origins in Jamaica are obscure, but naval historian Nick Rodger believes that John Perkins was probably born as a slave. He joined the Royal Navy in 1775 as a local pilot, and his career progressed rapidly. His first command was the Punch, a schooner, and was a brilliant success. In 1782 he was commissioned as a lieutenant, and by 1800 he had risen to the position of post captain. He went on to command a number of ships, including the frigates Arab and Tartar, both of which had officers and crews who were predominately white. Over the whole of a glittering career, he is said to have captured over three hundred enemy ships, and died a very wealthy man in 1812.

© Philip K. Allan

About Philip 
Philip K Allan comes from Watford in the United Kingdom. He still lives in Hertfordshire with his wife and his two teenage daughters. He has spent most of his working life as a senior manager in the motor industry. It was only in the last few years that he has given that up to concentrate on his writing full time.
‘I well remember the evening around the dinner table when I first suggested that I should give up my job to try my hand as a novelist,’ says Philip.

Philip chose to set his first series of novels on board a Royal Navy frigate at the end of the 18th century. ‘It’s a period I know well,’ he says. ‘On the one hand you have the strange, claustrophobic setting of the ship and on the other the boundless freedom to move around the globe wherever the author chooses.’

 Philip has written his novels in spite of his dyslexia. ‘No one had heard of dyslexia when I was at school,’ he explains. ‘We were labelled as inattentive or lazy, and told that if only we made more effort we would surely get better. Well, I have read thousands of books and written millions of words, and guess what? I am still dyslexic!’

Book One
Amazon.co.uk
Amazon.com 
After a century of war, revolutions, and Imperial conquests, 1790s Europe is still embroiled in a battle for control of the sea and colonies. Tall ships navigate familiar and foreign waters, and ambitious young men without rank or status seek their futures in Naval commands. First Lieutenant Alexander Clay of HMS Agrius is self-made, clever, and ready for the new age. But the old world, dominated by patronage, retains a tight hold on advancement. Though Clay has proven himself many times over, Captain Percy Follett is determined to promote his own nephew.
Before Clay finds a way to receive due credit for his exploits, he’ll first need to survive them. Ill-conceived expeditions ashore, hunts for privateers in treacherous fog, and a desperate chase across the Atlantic are only some of the challenges he faces. He must endeavor to bring his ship and crew through a series of adventures stretching from the bleak coast of Flanders to the warm waters of the Caribbean. Only then might high society recognize his achievements—and allow him to ask for the hand of Lydia Browning, the woman who loves him regardless of his station.

"The author writes with admirable precision and fluency. His plot construction and narrative flow are tight and compelling, never losing momentum...Jeffrey K. Walker  Discovering Diamonds

Book Two
Amazon.co.uk

Amazon.com 
Alexander Clay brings the battered Agrius together with her captured French prize into Barbados. He is rewarded with promotion to master and commander and his first independent command, the sloop of war HMS Rush. He is sent to blockade the French sugar island of St Lucia, and helps in its capture. But dangers surround the newly promoted Clay. When a run slave joins his crew he finds his ship divided over the growing conflict between Caribbean slave owners and the abolitionist movement. Lieutenant Windham is determined to find out the truth behind the convenient death of his uncle, the Agrius’s former captain, while blundering around the Caribbean is the rogue Spanish ship of the line , the San Felipe. 

links



5 comments:

  1. Secret history, or simply something nobody thought worth writing about in school history books? Thank you for this post.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I would guess that it was 'conveniently' ignored and then forgotten.

      Delete
  2. Fascinating post - gives me pause for thought because it was a topic I had never considered before ...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. same here Richard. I knew black men were aboard pirate ships (most were escaped slaves) but never thought about the R.N. - daft really because it is obvious they served aboard!

      Delete
  3. Glad you enjoyed the article - It is certainly something I was not taught about at school, although these things are better handled today. As a postscript, Rodney tried to promote John Perkins in 1780, but was overruled by the Admiralty on a technicality. Had he done so, Jack Punch might have been an Admiral by the time of Trafalgar. Now there is a thought!

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for leaving a comment - it should appear soon, but Blogger sometimes chucks its teddies out of the cot and has a tantrum. My apologies if you leave a comment and I do not respond - blame it on Blogger Bloopers. If you are having problems, contact me on author AT helenhollick DOT net and I will post it for you. Sometimes a post will appear as anonymous instead of your name or avatar - I draw attention to this being another Blogger Blooper and NOT of MY doing... That said ...SPAMMERS or distasteful rudeness will be stamped on, squashed, composted and very possibly cursed - if you spam my blog, next time something nasty happens to you just remember that I DID warn you...

Helen