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Black Sailors in the Royal Navy c.1810

Posted by Marika Sherwood, on April 10th, 2014


The African sailor who appears next to the dying Nelson in some portraits was not the only non-English seaman on HMS Victory. Among the crew, which also included many from Europe, were two Indians and nine West Indians. There were also twenty-two Americans and one Brazilian, whose ethnicity is unknown.

Unfortunately, no research has been carried out on the numbers of ‘non-Brits’ serving in the Royal Navy. Given that this was the era of the ‘nefarious trade’ in enslaved Africans, and then colonialism, it would be important to know how ‘Black’ men were recruited and if they were treated equally with their ‘White’ colleagues.  What about the ‘King’s Negroes’ who were men bought on the slave markets in the Caribbean? Did the Navy declare them to be free?

There is some evidence that Africans could rise in the ranks until the early/mid 19th century. There are some indications that the recruitment of Africans diminished then. However, presumably some continued to be recruited, as the Director of Naval Recruitment stated in 1940 that ‘black men are automatically barred from the RN’. This followed on from the Government’s announcement in 1939 that ‘only British subjects of European descent’ could be enlisted in the armed forces.

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