Nelson’s Black Sailors

Nelson’s Navy may now be seen as being as English as boiled beef, but the Victory roll call, recorded on the morning of the battle shows that the crew on board Nelson’s flag ship represented a seafaring United Nations:  64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Channel Islanders, one Manxman, 21 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 Norwegians, 3 Germans, 2 Swiss, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 2 Indians, 1 Russian, 1 Brazilian, 1 African, 9 West Indians, and three French volunteers.

The Death of Nelson- by: Daniel Maclise

Footnote: Admiralty Records 1. 585

“Many blacks, picked up in the West Indies or on the American coast ‘without hurting commerce’ were to be found on board our ships of war, where, when not incapacitated by climatic conditions, they made active, alert seamen and generally imagined themselves free”.

The 200th Anniversary of the naval victory off Cape Trafalgar on 21st October 2005 signalled an event that allowed Britain to rule the waves for over a Century.

The BBC digital station 1Xtra explored the forgotten story of Black Trafalgar, with a documentary, which reveals that over a hundred years before the Empire Windrush one in ten of the ordinary seamen at Trafalgar were non-whites.

Lord Nelson died in 1805 on the quarter deck of his ship, The Victory three hours after the battle in which the British navy defeated the French and Spanish. A musket fired from a sniper on board the French ship redoubtable delivered the fatal shot.

In the painting ‘The Death of Nelson’ by Daniel Maclise (above), this scenario can clearly be seen, which includes two important black characters; a seaman in the centre of the painting and a cook to the left. This is historical accuracy as The Victory’s master book of 1805 refers to a small number of foreigners amongst crew members and mentioned that “Two give Africa as their birthplace”. One of the figures plays an important role because he points to Lord Nelson’s assassin.

Many Black, Asian and Chinese sailors who fought, were wounded and died at Trafalgar, while Black and Asian dock labourers and shipwrights helped build and repair the Trafalgar ships in the dockyards of Britain and its Empire. Indian and Caribbean built frigates were a normal part of the British fleet in the Napoleonic wars, and many non-white subjects of the British Empire in India and the Caribbean contributed to this famous English victory – both in blood and treasure. Controversially, some argue that the British Navy in Nelson’s time was more ethnically diverse.

Of the 27 British ships which took part in the battle, many were crewed by black sailors, some of whom were press-ganged, forced into service, others were career Navy ratings or volunteers, many were wounded and died. They came from Africa, the Caribbean, China, the Philippines, Malaysia, America and India.

A Close up of the mural and the central black sailor on the quarter deck of Nelson’s ship. On the right hand side of the mural (not shown) there is a second black seaman (the ships cook). The original, is a large wall painting in the Houses of Parliament.