Sailors from Africa, the West Indies and India have contributed
to the life on board British ships during times of both peace
and war. In times of conflict such as the Napoleonic Wars
(1799-1815) and of large-scale international trade, large
numbers of men were required to fight and work on board Royal
Navy ships and on commercial carriers.
As early as 1595 Black men took to the sea, defending the
coast of England as well as taking part in the various expeditions
against France, Holland and Spain, including famous battles
such as Trafalgar (1805).
'a female African'
Sailors sometimes doubled as soldiers, depending on the location
of the war. As with White sailors, Africans, West Indians
and Asians could be recruited in Britain for an 'unlimited'
period - that is, permanent service - and thus become professionals
or regulars. Others were recruited for a specific campaign
and then discharged.
Voyages were long and arduous and conditions for all sailors,
both Black and White, were often very bad. Thousands died,
not so much in battle but from diseases such as cholera and
yellow fever. In order to replace them, the British recruited
many sailors in the colonies.
Military leaders realised that in order to protect forts
and castles in overseas territories, it was necessary to recruit
much of their crew on the West African coast and in the West
Indies. Military recruiters were keen to employ sailors
in the colonies, as they had vital knowledge of the terrain.
Both enslaved and free men were paid for serving the British
king and protecting the 'welfare and possessions of Great
Britain'. Colonial governments were generally required to
pay the men and provide suitable clothing.
Building for the
Records show that hundreds of sailors ran away - not surprisingly,
as they did not always join up voluntarily. From as early
as Saxon times, all kinds of men were impressed into service
against their will. By 1744 the practice had become standard,
and press gangs would literally pluck men from their families
or snatch them on their way to work. Convicts, vagrants and
the unemployed were regularly picked up in pubs. Boys as young
as 12 and men as old as 55 could suffer impressment. Farmhands
were generally exempt, as they were needed for essential work.
Black men, both free and enslaved, shared the same fate as
White Englishmen. They were also liable to be picked up on
the coast of the Americas or West Africa and pressed into
service on Royal Navy ships.
Through trading with the East, British mercantile ships frequently
According to the Navigation Acts of 1660, 75% of a registered
ship's crew had to be British, but this soon changed as demand
for labour grew.
In 1730 the East India Company, with its sizeable commercial
fleet, began signing agreements with Lascar crewmen. They
received a monthly wage of 15 rupees for the voyage from Calcutta
to London, and a weekly retainer pending their return journey
Some of these men, however, were left stranded in Britain
and became part of the unemployed Black population. Historian
Rozina Visram records destitute Lascars begging in Westminster.
In the mid-19th century, the Strangers' Home for Asiatics,
Africans and South Sea Islanders, based in Limehouse in East
London, gave shelter to unemployed Lascars.
British ships needed Asian seamen for the same reasons they
needed Black soldiers - the death rate among sailors was high.
An estimated 2,500 Lascars visited England every year. Myers'
study of Black people in Britain, shows that between 1821
and 1823 Lascars represented 84.8% of the crews on board seven
ships sailing from the East.
It is not difficult to see how, over time, Black and Asian
sailors serving on board British military and merchant vessels
and calling at British ports gradually became part of British
'The Parsee head builder'
References and Further Reading
India Office Records, British Library, l/MAR/C/902, vol.
2 (papers relating to Lascars, 1795-1878)
Myers, N., Reconstructing the Black Past: Blacks in Britain
1780-1830, London, 1996
Spence, C., 'Seeing Some Black in the Union Jack', History
Today, October 2002
Visram, R., Asians in Britain: 400 Years of History,