Seeing Some Black in the Union Jack

Craig Spence uncovers records of black and Asian sailors in the pictorial archives of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

Over the last 300 years or so tens of thousands of black and Asian sailors have crewed British ships (Board of Trade figures for the period 1901-38, for example, indicate an annual ‘lascar’ population on British ships of between 37,000 and 56,000). Sailors from Africa, the Caribbean, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East have contributed to the life of such ships during times of peace and war. They were not only employed on merchant ships but also worked aboard Royal Navy vessels as specially recruited local crew or as enlisted men. Finding the hard evidence for such sailors within the records of the Admiralty, East India Company or any one of the numerous lesser British shipping concerns is not, however, a straightforward task.

Records exist from the Royal Navy, merchant navy, East India Company and other institutions in the form of crew registers/musters, logbooks and individual articles of employment; however, in many cases these documents provide little more than a name, which can only be linked to a country of origin or an ethnic identity through a form of linguistic guesswork. This is not a particularly reliable analytical process. Some shipping companies are known to have employed large numbers of Asian sailors or lascars during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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