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Home Work and Community
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Relationships and Religion *
Servants, Ayahs and Alternative Employment *
Fighting for the Empire *
On the High Seas *
The Black Poor *
The Wealthy Few *
Black Loyalists *
Indian boy *

On the High Seas

Black Seafarers

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).

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'United Service'
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William Brown 'a female African - opens new window
William Brown,
'a female African'

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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.

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Overseas Recruits

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 and Glossary - opens new windowEast 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.


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Building for the
Royal Navy

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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.

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Lascars (Indian Sailors)

Through trading with the East, British mercantile ships frequently employed Glossary - opens new windowLascars. 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 to India.

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 society.

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'The Parsee head builder'
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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, London, 2002

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