Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors exhibition opens today. Revealing the historically overlooked experiences of Black seafarers, the exhibition and the book it is based on – Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships – reveal how Black sailors contended with the dangers and hazards of life at sea, and challenged inequality on board and ashore. The book’s author Liverpool historian Dr Ray Costello, blogs about some of the roles those sailors would have had.
“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 3% of all crewmen were Black, and a far higher percentage since. Both the exhibition and book highlight this overlooked group of servicemen by examining the work and experience of Black sailors in the British merchant and Royal Navy. These ranged from all over the Black Diaspora, from impressed slaves to free Africans, British West Indians, as well as African Americans who served on British ships 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.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, covering the Napoleonic Wars, Black seafarers 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!”
Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors runs until 2 September 2018.
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