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.

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