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 that 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 fourteen 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 Nelson.
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 navy is problematic. The principle source of data on crews is their ships’ muster books, 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 at least eleven of the hands would seem to have been black, and possibly several more. This compares with twenty-five listed as Welsh. Then there is also the evidence of contemporary illustrations showing black sailors, as well as when they are mentioned in diaries and other correspondence.
The origins of black sailors were various, but the majority were almost certainly 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 find his or her way to a place where such law held sway, they would become free. In the Caribbean, this meant the deck of a Royal Navy ship. And in an era when manning for the navy was such a problem, captains would be tempted to turn a blind eye to the origins of a useful looking, willing recruit.
Perhaps the most remarkable career of a black sailor in the Royal Navy is that of John Perkins who entered the service in 1775 as a sailor. By 1800 he had risen to the position of post captain, an impressive achievement for anyone starting on the lower deck. He commanded a number of ships, including the frigates Arab and Tartar, which had officers and crews who were predominately white. In a glittering career, he is said to have captured over three hundred enemy ships, and died a very wealthy man.
Philip K Allan is the author of the Alexander Clay series of historical novel. The first two novels in the series, The Captain’s Nephew and A sloop of War, are available worldwide as paperbacks or e-books from Amazon, Smashword and all good online vendors.