Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships
Liverpool University Press 246pp £65
Since the Tudor period generations of black seamen have been serving on British ships and some of those who travelled to our seaports, including London, Liverpool and Cardiff, made the ‘Mother Country’ their home. Britain’s black population has largely been overlooked by historians. With the exception of the Crimean ‘doctress’ Mary Seacole, black Britons from history are absent in the school curriculum. In today’s culturally diverse Britain this is an appalling situation and it needs to change. A radical shift in thinking must happen if we are to present our young, especially those from African and Caribbean backgrounds, with the true history of our nation. Ray Costello’s informative books Black Liverpool (2001) and Liverpool’s Black Pioneers (2007) have done much to shed light on the subject but he goes considerably further with his latest publication, Black Salt, which acknowledges in rich detail the experiences of Britain’s black seafarers.
Some of the stories will be familiar to those who have knowledge of black Britons from the past: for example, the life of Olaudah Equiano, arguably the most famous 18th-century African, who was involved in the British campaign for the abolition of slavery. However there are many surprises in store for all readers, for Costello has enriched his book with a variety of previously ‘hidden’ stories. For example, in July 1547 a slave described as a ‘Guinea diver’ helped to salvage the wreck of Henry VIII’s famous warship, Mary Rose. Costello documents the roles played by black sailors at the famous Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He says that by this time seafarers of African descent were an ‘expected presence on board British ships’. Unfamiliar characters introduced by Costello into the narrative include the Jamaican-born John Perkins, who in the 1700s rose from obscurity to become possibly the first British captain of African descent in the Royal Navy and William Hall, one of the most highly decorated sailors of the Victorian era was, in fact, one of the first to receive the Victoria Cross.
During the age of slavery some children of African kings were sent to England to be educated, but few of them made it to these shores. They suffered the fate of many Africans who ‘disappeared’. Some of them ended up working on the ships they were meant to be travelling on or were sold into slavery.
The focus of Costello’s book is primarily Liverpool and this is hardly surprising considering Costello’s family background and his strong connection to the city, the home of one of Britain’s oldest black communities. Perhaps the author could have given more attention to stories from some of the other seaports of Britain, but this is a minor criticism of a book which has been painstakingly researched. Written with enthusiasm and a joy to read, Costello enlightens the reader with numerous fascinating stories and anecdotes as well as previously unpublished first-hand testimonies of black seafarers and their adventures at sea and on land, some positive, others tragic.
Stephen Bourne is the author of The Motherland Calls: Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women, 1939-45 (The History Press, 2012).