Sunday, 9 October 2011

Black Seafarers in British History

The National Maritime Museum is to be congratulated on organising a one day study day on Monday 31 October (10.30am-3pm) to commemorate the role of sailors of African origin in Britain's naval and merchant fleets. From the enslaved cabin-boy Olaudah Equiano to the frigate captain John Perkins, Black seafarers served in Britain's naval and merchant fleets for over 300 years. You can see some of those at Trafalgar depicted on Nelson’s statue.  

Steve Martin, a historian of British Black History known to many people on my networks, has been Learning Officer at the Museum for some time. He outlines the following as some of the questions to be looked at during the study day:

·         How did enslaved labour affect British expansion in the Atlantic world?

·         What opportunities were available to free Black sailors in the age of sail?

·         How did responses to Black communities settled in Britain's port cities inform later discourse on race and nationality?

One of those who settled in Liverpool was Richard Archer, a ship’s steward from Barbados, whose son John went on to be Mayor of Battersea in 1913/14 and a major figure in that Borough’s Labour Party politics from 1918 to his death in 1932. John may have spent some time in his late teens and early twenties as a seaman.

By introducing the latest research trends, the day aims to challenge popular perceptions of the topic by bringing together academics and researchers to examine the opportunities and mobility offered by naval and merchant fleets as well their reliance on enslaved labour and how these factors influenced British expansion overseas and minority populations at home.

Speakers include:

Dr Ray Costello is a research associate of National Museums Liverpool and a board member of the Centre for the Study of International Slavery. Ray has been involved with many media programmes on Black British history, his latest book being Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships, which examines the contribution of seamen of African origin especially their part in the battle of Trafalgar. He was a former Race Equality Adviser for Liverpool Education Authority Inspection Department. In that capacity I worked with him on the primary school book about John Archer back in 1994. Ray’s sketch on John Archer can be seen on the University of Liverpool’s Black Atlantic Resource website: Ray is speaking on “Black Salt: Early Black Sailors and Nelson’s navy. A talk on the experience of seamen of African descent in Nelson’s Royal navy” at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool on Friday 21 October.

Dr Caroline Bressey graduated from the University of Cambridge with BA Honours in Geography. In 1998 she joined the UCL Geography department as postgraduate student and was awarded her PhD Forgotten Geographies: Historical Geographies of Black Women in Victorian and Edwardian London in 2003. Between 2003 and 2007 Caroline continued to research the Black Presence in Victorian Britain and the role of the anti-racist community as an ESRC postdoctoral student and research fellow. In 2007 she became a lecturer in human geography and founded the Equiano Centre to support research into the Black Presence in Britain. In 2009 she was awarded a Philip Leverhulme Prize. Caz has been active in Black & Asian Studies Association for many years.

Although not scheduled as a speaker mention must be made of Herman Ross from the United States. He is the inspiration behind the Mariner Griot Programme to promote the history of African involvement in navigation. He has particular interests in 18th/early 19thC mariners like Paul Cuffe. The Programme includes setting up a project to enable young people to experience sailing and giving them information to make sailing relative to their lives and the past; to expose what adults do not seem to see as important, that the method by which Great Britain became reliant on enslaved and free African Diaspora mariners. It is hoped that this part of the programme will be called the Endeavour Project, named after the vessel on which Britain's first Royal Navy Black officer(1800), Captain John Perkins, was given a posted commission.

Herman has been particularly keen to increase knowledge and understanding about Paul Cuffe. Details of the recent recognition of Cuffe in the United States was drawn to my attention by Herman and included in the first issue of the Black British History digest I have started producing. Paul Cuffe was born in Massachusetts in 1759 in British Colonial America. He became a successful seaman and trader and a Quaker abolitionist. He pioneered the emigration of free African Americans to Africa. He visited Britain and its Sierra Leone colony. He died in 1817. You can find out more about Herman on

Study Day Venue: Queen’s House, Greenwich

Cost: £30/£20 Lunch is included.

To book: 020 8312 6608;

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