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Black SaltSeafarers of African Descent on British Ships$

Ray Costello

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9781846318184

Published to Liverpool Scholarship Online: June 2013

DOI: 10.5949/UPO9781846317675

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A Tar's Life

A Tar's Life

(p.32) Chapter Three A Tar's Life
Black Salt
Liverpool University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the role of British tar. It also considers the black seafarers in the Royal Navy during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries. Black sailors continued to be enrolled into the Royal Navy during time of need and sometimes in unconventional circumstances. The work of crimps was equally as repulsive as that of the impressments agencies and lasted far longer. The crimps could replace crewmen. There were also some women who would have willingly taken the place of black sailors. Many of the hazards that sailors dealt with made no distinction of race, and chief among these was one that threatened life and limb directly — war.

Keywords:   black seafarers, British tar, Royal Navy, black sailors, crimps, crewmen, British workers

The British Slave Trade

Towards the end of the period of the British slave trade, at least 3 per cent of all crewmen were black mariners from Africa, the Atlantic Islands, the West Indies or America, including possibly a number from Portugal.1 The shortage of experienced mariners caused the merchants of the major ports great difficulty in planning slaving ventures, which were notorious for the high mortality and desertion rates of seamen. Men who had worked the African coast were something of a shrinking pool, as usually less than half of a ship's crew on any particular voyage returned to port and some of those who did subsequently chose safer employment.2 Many young men lacking immunity to tropical diseases met their end within eight months of departing England, with as many as one in five crewmen being lost on the West African coast. The Bristol ship's surgeon turned abolitionist, Alexander Falconbridge, remarked, ‘frequently there happens such a mortality among the crew, as not to leave a sufficient number of hands to navigate the ships to the West Indies'.3 This demonstrates the necessity of employing local African crewmen to fill the gaps left in ships’ crews. An examination of the records of just one slave ship, the Essex, offers a clear picture of the (p.33) true horror of the Triangular Trade. During one voyage under Captain Peter Potter, from the ship's complement of 37 some ten seamen died between 29 October 1783 and 6 August 1784, including two of the officers, the second and third mates. A further five seamen were also listed as ‘runaways’ between 1 December 1783 and 20 June 1784, the overall loss more than two-fifths of the total crew.4

Behrendt's figure of at least 3 per cent of British seamen being black, mentioned above, was the national statistic based on merchantmen trading out of Liverpool and Bristol, the principal ports outside London.5 Ships trading directly on the West African coast and in the West Indies, however, often had a far larger percentage of seafarers of African descent. An example in 1781 was Captain John Small's Hawk from Liverpool, which had seven black sailors out of a crew of 26. Two of these crewmen had retained their African names, ‘Cudjoe’ and ‘Ackway’ (or ‘Aqua’), while four others had names suggestive of slave status: ‘Liverpool’, ‘Lancelots Hey’ (a street still in present-day Liverpool), ‘Joe Dick’ and ‘Quashey’, a nickname restricted to black West Indians. Their slave status should not be accepted too readily, however, as all six (even Quashey) are recorded in the Hawk wagebook as being ‘Fantye men’, members of the Fante tribe of the Gold Coast (modern Ghana), and most slave owners or dealers had little interest in a slave's tribal origin following their sale. More telling, perhaps, is the fact that the wagebook showed them to have been hired on the African coast, rather than in the West Indies or Britain.6 The remaining black sailor, John Williams, was definitely of bondsman status. The Hawk wagebook records:

John Williams Black boy Dr

To Cash advanced your master in Liverpool


To 1 Clasp knife



To 1 blue jacket 13/1 knife



To cash advanced you on the voyage



To hospital money



To ballance is due to your master






Rec'd Oct. 10 1781 from Mr. William Davenport the full Ballance of Wages and Prize Money for John Williams Serv.t to Capt. Smale by Virtue of a Power of Att.y7

(p.34) Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-century Black Seafarers in the Roya Navy

In British and American possessions during the period of transatlantic slavery there does not appear to have been a shortage of either slaves or free black people who chose the sea as an occupation. Another Cudjoe, an American slave acting as a ‘patroon’ (an inland waterways vessel captain who often acted as a pilot to ocean-going ships), stated that he preferred maritime work over agricultural labour because of its status in terms of travel, skill, trade and identity as a seaman.8

Within the Royal Navy, the practice of making good the shortfall in crew numbers by using sailors of African descent caused Admiral George Young to issue orders in 1777 limiting the numbers of black recruits on vessels in the Caribbean to only four per warship. Particularly in wartime the desperation for manpower had led to the Navy's being accused of harbouring escaped slaves, and captains and commanders were now told not to receive any blacks without authentic documentation of their freedom.9 It is likely that Young's order of 1777 was the source of the later discrepancy between the numbers of black sailors in the Royal Navy and those in the merchant service, a situation that, perhaps surprisingly, continued well into the twentieth century, one of many examples of attitudes to black people lasting long after their original purpose during the period of the slave trade.

The 1807 Abolition Act offered bounties or ‘head money’ for each African liberated, and a Royal Navy Anti-slave Trade Squadron was employed to intercept ships of other countries still involved in the trade. In West Africa, the Anti-slave Trade Squadron used local seamen, especially the Kru of present-day Liberia, to help navigate the coast and rivers. What is interesting is that even as late as the 1840s, (p.35) such African seamen were only temporary members of the Royal Navy and were usually discharged upon arrival in the UK. This may indicate that Admiral Young's restrictions on the numbers of black sailors serving on Royal Navy ships were still in force, perhaps at a subliminal level, long after slavery ceased to be in operation in British domains. The historian Marika Sherwood makes the point that merchant vessels also employed local seamen, but on a more permanent and widespread basis, also returning to Britain with them as part of the crew.10

Between 1784 and 1812 a survey of 4,500 Royal Navy personnel in the Leeward Islands showed only 15 to be African, although some of the 300 recorded as born in the colonies or the United States may have also been black. The historian Philip D. Morgan estimated that not more than 2 per cent of seamen in the Royal Navy during the period following Admiral Young's restrictions could have been of African descent.11 During the Revolutionary Wars with the French in 1794, the British government reimposed the requirement originating in the Navigation Acts of 1664 that officers and three-quarters of the crew of all British ships engaged in foreign trade should be British subjects, and that all seamen involved in the home trade should be British. This seemed to bring the merchant service (a term never really used until more than a century later) into line with the Admiral's restriction order of 1777 for the Royal Navy, but such was the demand for manpower at this time that the new Act redefined as British those seamen covered by ‘birth, naturalization, denization, conquest or service’, including blacks resident in Britain's West Indian colonies as well as African Americans serving with the British navy since the American Revolutionary War. Clause 8 of the Act explicitly extended the definition to include slaves, stating that ‘any Negroes belonging to any person or persons being or having become His Majesty's subjects’ and seamen employed in American and West Indian waters ‘may be employed as British Sailors, Seamen or Mariners, in manner heretofore practiced.’12

Black sailors continued to be recruited into the Royal Navy in time of need and sometimes in unconventional circumstances. All ranks of (p.36) the Royal Navy Anti-slave Trade Squadron received a share of the net proceeds of their efforts, from officers down to ordinary seamen. This could be a lucrative posting, senior officers such as the commander of HMS Waterwitch receiving £2,629 between 1829 and 1843.13 Africans liberated as a result of the actions of the Anti-slave Trade Squadron, however, often died in appalling conditions while they were being taken to safety, some even dying on board ship while in port awaiting a court's decision. As many as 25 per cent of slaves were estimated to have died before they were allowed off the vessels.14 Some former slaves were recruited into the Royal Navy after receiving the support of the British government for a year, while others were ‘apprenticed’

2. Anti-Slave Trade Squadron. A newly freed young slave clings to the leg of a sailor who may well have been a recaptive slave himself (reproduced by permission of Leslie Braine-Ikomi)

(p.37) to local farmers and traders or found their way into the military (the West India Regiment and the West Africa Corps), and 35,850 were ‘recruited’ as ‘apprentices’ in the West Indies. This led to accusations from other European powers that the whole purpose of the exercise was the provision of labour for the British West Indian colonies following the abolition of the British slave trade (though several European and Middle Eastern countries continued the trade long after 1807).15 Many were re-enslaved, but some were lucky enough to be returned to their homelands, though even this could be a mixed blessing. On an American ship visiting Monrovia in Liberia in 1848, Captain William Parker commented in his memoirs:

When slaves are actually on board a vessel it is hard to say whether their condition is ameliorated by being recaptured or not. If they are recaptured they cannot be restored to their homes; for they are taken from the interior, and if landed, the coast tribes make them prisoner again: so some other disposition must be made for them […] if they are not slaves their condition is so near it that I was unable to perceive the difference.16


There were other ways of recruiting sailors of all races. The work of the so-called ‘crimps’ was every bit as repugnant as that of the impressment agencies and lasted far longer. Joseph Havelock Wilson (1858?–1929) was an early trade union leader, Liberal Party politician and campaigner for the rights of merchant seamen.17 He experienced crimping at first hand in San Francisco when his ship anchored in the port in the 1870s. Wilson described crimps as lodging-house keepers who swarmed aboard ships coming into British and American ports, some carrying ladders and hooks in their boats to climb over the ship's rail. The runners climbed up the rigging after the crew with bottles of whisky in their pockets to endear themselves, while helping them to stow the sails. Wilson noted that they were particularly ingenious (p.38) and well organized. One section of the gang would be in the forecastle packing the men's bags, taking no great care as to which clothing and goods went into which bag. He felt that sometimes they mixed up the clothes deliberately and then passed the bags over the side into the waiting boats.

The crew chosen as victims would be given lodging on credit, whores and drink. When he signed up for another voyage, the seaman received an advance note against a month's or more of his wages, which was promptly taken by the crimp, in some cases by forging his signature. Only a few days after coming ashore, the seaman might be knocked unconscious with drugs or drink to get him aboard a ship.

Owing to crew shortages, ships' masters accepted this system, however despicable crimping might be, in spite of the fact that seamen could be induced to desert their ship mid-journey upon putting into a port. They would lose any wages due, of course, which might have ameliorated any loss to the shipowner.18 Also, other crewmen could be found to replace them by the crimps.

Women Sailors

It is ironic that, however unpleasant men found the sailors' lot and the work of the press gangs and crimps, there were some women who would have willingly taken their place if allowed. Although not officially considered seafarers at the time, there were undoubtedly women present on British ships at the Battle of Trafalgar. On 19 October 2005, two days before the bicentenary, a limited edition rum commissioned by the Royal Society of Chemistry was uncorked in London's Isle of Dogs to commemorate the role that women played in the horrific conditions of the battle, and to mark the contribution that chemistry has made towards the development of medicines since 1805. The image featured on the cylinders containing the bottles of Jefferson rum is based upon the painting by Daniel Maclise in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, a copy of which also resides in the (p.39) Palace of Westminster. This painting depicts three women nursing injured seamen on board HMS Victory alongside a similar cameo of kneeling officers caring for a mortally wounded Nelson.

During the Napoleonic period, an intriguing story of an African woman serving as a sailor was reported in The Times of 2 September 1815. She was said to be a crew member of HMS Queen Charlotte and had ostensibly served in the Royal Navy for more than eleven years, having been an able seaman on several ships under the name of William Brown. According to the story, she had even been ‘captain of the foretop’, fulfilling her role exceedingly well. ‘William’ was described as about 26 years of age, possessed of considerable strength and great activity and with a smart well-formed figure, about 5 feet 4 inches tall. The Times seemed surprised to note that her features were ‘rather handsome for a black’ and that she exhibited ‘all the traits of a British tar’, taking ‘her grog with her late messmates with the greatest gaiety’. A story was woven around this black female mariner which claimed that she had disagreed with her husband over prize-money owed and wanted to re-enter the service as a volunteer. Although much embellished, there is a core of truth to the tale of William Brown. A 21-year-old black woman from Grenada did, in fact, register on 23 May 1815 at Chatham, giving the name of William Brown. She lasted less than a month before being discharged on 19 June for ‘being a female’. She was not an able seaman and certainly not a captain of the foretop, but was entered as a ‘landsman’, a novice. There was another William Brown, a 32-year-old experienced Scottish sailor who served on the Queen Charlotte for a time, and who was fated to become popularly remembered as being a black woman.19

Eighteenth-Century Black Seafarer's Wages

In spite of the tremendous profits made by merchants during the late eighteenth century, the wages of ordinary seamen were stable and in peacetime rarely rose above 25 shillings a month on ships out of (p.40) the capital city. On average, seamen earned approximately one-fifth of their captain's monthly pay. On a voyage from Liverpool to the Windward and Gold Coasts in 1768, the Sally's master, Captain David Tuohy, received £5 per month, with a sliding scale for other officers and ranks, while the common seamen were paid £1 15s. Commission and the gift of privilege slaves widened the gap, however, but this was usually limited to senior officers, although there were sometimes exceptions.20 Between 1789 and 1794, Bristol muster roll copies give a similar figure for captains' salaries, with chief mates, surgeons and carpenters earning £4 a month, second mates £3 10s, coopers £3 6s and third mates £3. Able seamen out of Bristol might receive 30s a month,21 while in wartime wages rose in all Atlantic trades. During the American Revolutionary War, seamen were paid the high rate of £4 a month on the London–Jamaica ship Landovery.22 There were other grades of seamanship; ‘boys’, ‘pressed men’ and volunteer ‘landsmen’, who may have started as pressed men who had negotiated with the press officers when escape from impressment had become impossible. The Admiralty disliked the extra expense of these volunteers, particularly as volunteers had a right to choose their ship. On the other hand, the impressment officers, paid by results, welcomed pressed men turned volunteers as they were worth more, having abandoned any claim to discharge or exemption from being pressed.23

The ship's wagebook for the Hawk shows that, although receiving the lowest wages, the seven African seamen seemed to have been paid at much the same rate as European crewmen of comparable rank. An example is ‘Liverpool’, the Gold Coast Fante sailor whose name suggests that, if he was not a slave, was not a new raw recruit from the coast either, and may have been an experienced seaman. He received £10 11s for the journey from Africa to Liverpool, but not before £6 7s was deducted for clothes required for the journey and other expenses. These items provide an interesting glimpse into what early black sailors wore and their small pleasures. The account for the ‘Fantye man’ Liverpool shows: ‘Gold advanced you on the Coast 10 ackeys’. Ackeys were silver coins minted in England in the late eighteenth (p.41) and early nineteenth centuries for use in western Africa. Among the clothes described were two ‘frocks’ (probably a shirt of the period), costing 6s; two pairs of trousers, 6s; a blue jacket, 9s; a trade cap, 1s; a quart of brandy, 1s 3d; a pair of shoes, 8s; and a pair of stockings, 3s. Liverpool also received 10s on the passage and £1 when he arrived at the home port.24

Testimonials and Identity

Ships' pursers, faced with the job of registering and identifying members of the ship's crew, found difficulty in spelling names with no parallel in English and often resorted to ludicrous substitutes. The American Captain Parker recounted this common procedure in 1848 when dealing with the recruitment of Kru seamen, considered to be among the best. Names given to sailors were printed inside the hats of Krumen, who took great care of them on the grounds that, if the hat were lost, the member of the crew would lose his identity. Names may have been chosen to approximate the phonetic sound in English, but they were often ridiculous, examples being Jack Fryingpan, Giraffe, Upside Down, Bottle of Beer, etc.25 The practice says more about the practitioners than the recipients, and even African rulers were not exempt from this ignorance. The name of the early nineteenth-century Efik Paramount Chief, Eyo Nsa, was corrupted to Eyo Honesty and even Willy Honesty.26 Similarly, another Efik royal, Otu Efiom, was known in England as Otto Ephraim.27

As testimonials were the most valuable items in a sailor's possession, it was important to protect them from the conditions aboard an often storm-drenched sailing ship. The need for something more durable than paper may have influenced the unusual preference of some African coastal people, the Kru in particular, for a small tooth or horn engraved with their testimonial text along its length and worn on a cord around the neck. One Kruman's testimonial in the National Maritime Museum, dated around 1812–13, is engraved on a powder (p.42) horn made from an elephant tusk and reads ‘Ben Freeman born at Krew Cetra is a sober Honest Man has sailed in HMS ship Thais from Sierra Leone to Ambriz to the Satisfaction of the Officers.’28 The slave ship captain Hugh Crow told a tale in his memoirs that, in his own words, exemplified the ‘strong point of view the high estimation in which a good name is held by the poor Africans’, while at the same time showing another way of protecting valuable testimonials. While his ship was sitting in becalmed waters off Cape Palmas, Crow, no doubt bored, decided to play a trick on a prospective black seafarer who had visited his ship with his young son in a small canoe:

After swallowing a dram, or washmouth, as he called it, he with great self-satisfaction presented to me some certificates of his good conduct, which he had procured from captains who had at various times employed him. These certificates the blacks usually carry in a wooden box suspended to their necks, lest they should be lost in the event of their canoes upsetting – a casualty to which they are frequently liable. When my visitor handed me the papers which he so much prized, I am determined to amuse myself at his expense; and though I found their contents highly favourable to his character, I returned them with affected coldness, and looking him sternly in the face, said – that Tom Goodhead (which was his name) was a very good man with strict looking after; but, on the other hand, he might be a great rogue and a villain. The poor fellow on hearing these words was, for a moment, petrified with astonishment, and then sprang over the quarter-deck rails, right overboard. After swimming under water to some distance from the ship, he raised his wooly head, and anxiously cried out, ‘Capy! booky speaky that mouth?’ – meaning ‘Are such in reality the contents of my certificates?’ Fearing that what I intended as a diversion might lead to something serious, I set about redeeming my rashness, and with some difficulty composed his wounded feelings. The poor little boy had kept the canoe close to his father, and when the latter had regained it I persuaded him to return on board: I soon made friends with him, and giving him a small present, away he paddled in high spirits for the shore.29

(p.43) The Role of Music at Sea

In spite of the hard life endured by seamen of all races, they nevertheless found ways of making even work aboard ship bearable. Sea shanties were work songs devised as an accompaniment to help facilitate specific tasks on board sailing ships, and included capstan shanties, pumping shanties and windlass shanties. The American novelist, essayist and poet Herman Melville has his character Redburn comment:

I soon got used to this singing, for the sailors never touched a rope without it […] Some sea captains, before shipping a man, always ask him whether he can sing out at a rope. Sometimes, when no one happened to strike up, and the pulling, whatever it might be, did not seem to be getting forward very well, the mate would always say, ‘Come, men can't any of you sing? Sing now and raise the dead.’ And then some one of them would begin, and if every man's arms were as much relieved as mine by the song, and he could pull as much better as I did, with such a cheering accompaniment, I am sure the song was well worth the breath expended upon it.30

The journalist James Fenton observed in the Guardian that although sea shanties are associated with folk-song revival, a sort of English nationalism and naval nostalgia, they have more to do with America than England and, furthermore, they are very much like African music and the kind of singing associated with camp meetings or early nineteenth-century American religious revivals. Shanties usually take the form of a song arranged as verse and response, with the lead singer, or shanty-man, alternating with the rest of the crew taking part in the task. The idea was that the rhythm of the shanty corresponded to the physical activity involved, such as raising a sail or pulling a rope. Often the response came at the point when the crewmen had to use their strength, hence the term ‘pull’ for this part of a shanty. Some shanties do not have a pull, for instance those designed for walking around a capstan when the activity is continuous. Fenton did not believe that this kind of work song derives entirely from the slave trade, as the (p.44) encouragement of communal work by singing dates back to mariners on Venetian galleys in the fifteenth century.32 Peter Van der Merwe notes in his study that it is often hard to tell whether in some shanties we are dealing with an Africanized British tune or an actual African tune slightly Europeanized. Van der Merwe adds, ‘I incline to believe the latter.’32

On British ships out of the ports of Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol, the early nineteenth-century system of ‘chequerboard watches’ on the sugar-droghers certainly led to a multicultural enrichment of shipboard songs, mixing Irish, African American, Spanish and even Hindi idioms. Chequerboard watches involved the division of a ship's two watches, port and starboard, between black and white seamen.33 Black sailors would add their own cultural contribution to this musical mix, American sailors on British ships bringing shanties derived from

3. Midshipman's Birth, showing a black steward in attendance (reproduced by permission of Leslie Braine-Ikomi)

(p.45) the work songs of the slave plantations, such as ‘Coal Black Rose’, which was described in 1970 by the shanty devotee Stan Hugill as a ‘pure Negro ditty’:
  • Oh, me Rosie, Coal Black Rose. Don't you hear the ban-jo ping-a-pong-a-pong?
  • Oh, me Rosie, Coal Black Rose!
  • Oh, me Rosie, Coal Black Rose,
  • Strung up like a banjo,
  • Allus taut an' long,
  • [chorus] Oh, me Rosie, Coal Black Rose!
  • Oh, me Rosie, Coal Black Rose,
  • The yard is now a-movin',
  • Hauley-hauley ho!
  • [chorus] Oh, me Rosie, Coal Black Rose!
  • The Mate he comes around, boys,
  • Dinging an' a dang.
  • Give her one more pull, boys,
  • Rock an' roll 'er high.34

Shanties such as this evoke memories of loves left ashore by black sailors. There are, however, songs that one can hardly imagine being sung by any seafarer of African descent, such as ‘Johnny come down to Hilo’ (though sometimes such shanties were altered to something more acceptable, as suggested in the case below, where ‘Badian [Barbadian] beauty’ is used as an alternative to the racist term of abuse):

  • I nebber seed de like since I been born,
  • Ooh, a big buck nigger wid his sea boots on
  • Chorus:
  • Oh, Johnny come down to Hilo,
  • Oh, Poor old man!
  • Oh! Wake her, Oh! Shake her,
  • (p.46) Oh! Wake dat girl wid de blue dress on!
  • When Johnny comes down to Hilo,
  • Poor old man!
  • I love a little gal across the sea,
  • She's a big buck nigger an' she sez to me, [She's a 'Badian beauty, etc.]
  • (Oh) Johnny comes down to Hilo,
  • (Oh) Poor old man!
  • Ooh! wake her,
  • Oh, shake her,
  • Ooh! wake that girl wid the blue dress on!
  • When Johnny comes down to Hilo,
  • (Oh) Poor old man!35

Given the period of the heyday of shanties, it is extremely likely that black seafarers, being in the minority (which would certainly be the case on Royal Navy vessels), would have to grin and bear the lyrics in exactly the same way they would be forced to endure racism in daily life.

In addition to work-related music, crews found ways of amusing themselves on voyages, including singing, dancing and playing musical instruments. Not only were black shantymen valued, but recreational fiddlers were particularly welcome aboard ship. A passenger on board the Gibraltar in 1812 commented that the seamen never danced with any spirit ‘unless they had an old black to fiddle to them of the name of Bond’. Sam Bond was probably a former slave and was, in fact, a 33-year-old American gunner, his being described as ‘old’ a telling observation that perhaps reflected even a short life at sea. Bond had the curious idiosyncrasy of being unable to play on his fiddle without the accompaniment of his own voice, beginning with a low rumble and growing louder as he fiddled.36

Ships' captains took pride in their bands and took pains to acquire musicians of the right quality rather than simple fiddlers, sometimes at any cost, as one black classically trained violinist found to his detriment in 1795. Joseph Emidy was captured in his native Guinea by (p.47) Portuguese slave traders and taken by his owner from Brazil to Lisbon. In the Portuguese capital he learnt to play the violin and was found to be so talented that he eventually played second violin in the Lisbon Opera House. Emidy's energetic playing was very much admired by the commander of the Indefatigable, Sir Edward Pellew (later Admiral Viscount Exmouth), who coolly took steps to kidnap him to entertain his frigate's crew. Pellew was so impressed with his playing that Emidy was not allowed to go ashore for several years for fear of his prize ‘fiddler’ escaping.37 After four years of dining alone as the only black man on board, Emidy was finally released in Falmouth when Pellew moved to another ship. He did not appear to have had any difficulty in earning a living playing for parties, teaching and playing first violin at concerts. The county of Cornwall appreciated Emidy's playing as much as Pellew, to the extent that he became leader of the Falmouth Harmonic Society, writing chamber works and symphonies and spending the rest of his life in Cornwall. Around 1807 one of his piano and flute pupils, James Silk Buckingham, showed several of Emidy's compositions to the impresario Johann Peter Salomon in London, who was so impressed that he suggested that Emidy be invited to perform in London. His fellow musicians had reservations and ‘thought his colour would be so much against him, that there would be a great risk of failure’. Instead, a subscription was taken out for Emidy, who received letters of praise for his compositions and a large amount of money. According to Silk Buckingham, Cornwall had not experienced a violinist of Emidy's calibre before, which enabled him to make a living as a musician initially by playing the violin at parties before graduating to playing first violin at concerts and teaching not only the violin, but the cello and clarinet.

Joseph Emidy was the father of another musician, his second child Thomas, born in 1805 and living in Truro, the composer and arranger of The Royal Cornwall & Devon Artillery Quadrilles, a piano piece published in 1854. In 1802 Emidy married a local white woman, Jenefer Hutchins, of a respectable tradesman's family and fathered at least five children.38

(p.48) Late Eighteenth-Century Seamen's Strikes

Seafarers were long considered to be among the more radical and obstreperous elements of British workers. From the middle of the eighteenth century, militant groups of seamen were prominent in rowdy demonstrations, the very term ‘strike’ originating from nautical parlance in 1768, when the collective decision of London seamen to strike the sails of their ships led to a halt in the flow of commerce in the capital.39 The often romanticized image of jolly jack tars singing their shanties and dancing hornpipes in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries does not stand close scrutiny. The depredations of crimps made it difficult to hang on to what little remuneration seamen managed to retain after deductions, and in Liverpool in 1775 a group of seamen decided to protest about their poor treatment in general. Investors in a voyage of the slave ship Derby, bound for Angola and Jamaica, had attempted to cut the wages of seamen already hired. The beginning of the American War of Independence had affected trade in Liverpool, leaving many seamen unemployed. Merchants, for once, had a surfeit of possible employees and were able to pick and choose and take liberties. The authorities called in the militia from another town and put down the uprising with a show of force that reflected their own fear, firing on the protestors and killing and wounding a number. Had the uprising occurred fourteen years later, in 1789, with the French Revolution in full flow, the authorities would have been even more hysterical at the spontaneous show of mob violence.40

The 1790s saw further protests. After a strike on the Tyne in 1792 when fear of revolutionary France was being felt in Britain, further Royal Navy mutinies occurred in 1797 at Spithead and the Nore, a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames estuary. The French cry for liberty and fraternity was at its height and there were concerns among some members of the British ruling class that the mutinies might trigger a wider uprising in Britain similar to the French Revolution. The Spithead mutiny began with petitions for higher pay. A large portion of seamen's money was taken in compulsory deductions, (p.49) adding to the grievance that the Admiralty did not pay up for years at a time: one and a half million pounds in back pay was owed to seamen by the end of 1796. The authorities were faced with reasonable demands that were not without public sympathy and were forced to bring the strike to an end by raising pay, ensuring proper weights of food, dismissing quarterdeck tyrants and granting a royal pardon for those taking part in the mutiny.41

The mutineers at the Nore were less fortunate. Their demands raised similar issues to the Spithead mutiny, such as increased pay and pardons, but took a far more political tone. It seemed to some that the mutineers were on a path to revolution, blockading London, preventing merchant vessels from entering the port and making plans to take their ships to France. Some 400 men were arrested and 59 condemned to death, though the number actually executed is uncertain.42

Seamen of African descent were quite capable of defending their own interests in as forceful a way as their fellow mariners when necessary. Although they did sometimes protest against their pay and conditions as an isolated group, black sailors were often supported by sailors of other ethnic groups with similar grievances. During the eighteenth century, so-called ‘privilege negroes’ and black bondsmen paying their wages to a shore-based master were not always compliant, particularly when a realistic chance of securing their own liberty arose. It may have been the fact that the slave ship Amity was returning to the African coast from Norfolk, Virginia, in 1785, thus offering at least the possibility of escape to the home continent, that fuelled the rebellion involving two slaves known as Dick and Will. Will, described in the Pennsylvania Gazette as ‘an exceeding good looking boy’, had left Africa with Dick a year earlier and they had served as seamen on board the Amity under Captain James Duncanson, who was also their master. The historian Emma Christopher notes that, this being the case, this rebellion may be seen as both a mutiny and a slave insurrection.43

What is interesting about this mutiny is the fact that not only were the two slaves' fellow mutineers and co-conspirators a racially mixed group, but the rebels' victims seem to have been also. Alongside (p.50) Dick and Will were Richard Squire, a 30-year-old Englishman said to have been a lieutenant aboard an American ship, the USS General Washington; two Irishmen, John Mathew and Alexander Evans, said to ‘have a good deal of the brogue’ and to be ‘very subject to liquor’; a mixed-race Bostonian named Stuart with facial cuts on his nose and forehead; and John Broadman, who, although described as having a ‘black complexion’, may not have been of African descent. Similarly, alongside the captain, mate and boatswain who were cast adrift in the ship's longboat were three seamen described as ‘black boys’. Somehow or other, the captain and the rest of the crew seem to have regained control of the ship and resumed normal business, arriving at St Kitts with a cargo of enslaved Africans the following year. The fate of Dick and Will and the other rebels is unfortunately less clear.44

Christopher challenges any simplistic image of slave ships being divided along lines of black and white, citing Peter Linebaugh's description of the ship as ‘the extraordinary forcing house of internationalism’.45 Not only were African slave merchants selling captives to ships, but many seafarers making the Middle Passage alongside the captives were not white, being not only of African descent, but also Indians and occasionally native Americans.46 Increasingly, however, the fact that some American seamen came from societies in which race issues were becoming increasingly salient meant that they were more likely to see issues in terms of black and white than other tars.47 Nonetheless, many of the hazards that sailors shared made no distinction of race, and chief among these was one that threatened life and limb directly – war.


(1) Stephen D. Behrendt, ‘Human Capital in the British Slave Trade’, in David Richardson, Suzanne Schwarz and Anthony Tibbles (eds), Liverpool and Transatlantic Slavery (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), 78–79

(2) Behrendt, ‘Human Capital’, 70

(3) Behrendt, ‘Human Capital’, 72

(4) MMM, Davenport Papers, D/DDAV/3/1–5, wagebook for the Essex.

(5) Behrendt, ‘Human Capital’, 78–79

(6) MMM, Davenport Papers, D/DDAV/3/4, wagebook for the Hawk.

(7) MMM, Davenport Papers, D/DDAV/3/4, wagebook for the Hawk.

(8) W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 28

(9) Morgan, ‘Black Experiences’, 118

(10) Marika Sherwood, After Abolition: Britain and the Slave Trade Since 1807 (London: I.B. Tauris, 2007), 18–19

(11) Morgan, ‘Black Experiences’, 118

(12) British Parliamentary Papers, Statutes at Large Vol. 18: The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and IrelandAlan Cobley, ‘That Turbulent Soil: Seafarers, the “Black Atlantic” and the Shape of Afro-Caribbean Identity’, paper presented at ‘Seascapes, Littoral Cultures, and Trans-Oceanic (p.221) Exchanges’, Library of Congress, Washington DC, 12–15 February 2003 http://www.historycooperative.org/proceedings/seascapes/cobley.html (accessed 26 January 2012), 3

(13) Sherwood, After Abolition, 117

(14) Sherwood, After Abolition, 119–20

(15) Sherwood, After Abolition, 120

(16) Parker, Recollections of a Naval Officer, 156

(17) G. Atchkanov, Havelock Wilson Exposed (London: Published by the Seamen's Section of Transport Workers Minority Movement for the International Propaganda Committee of Transport Workers, n.d.)

(18) Alan Ereira, The People's England (London: Routledge, 1981), 152–53

(19) Morgan, ‘Black Experiences’, 105–06Annual Register

(20) Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors, 35

(21) Behrendt, ‘Human Capital’, 72–73

(22) Behrendt, ‘Human Capital’, 91–92, note 31

(23) N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006), 396

(24) MMM, Davenport Papers, D/DDAV/3/4, wagebook for the Hawk.

(25) Parker, Recollections of a Naval Officer, 151–52

(26) A.J.H. Latham, Old Calabar, 1600–1891: The Impact of the International Economy upon a Traditional Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), 46

(27) Latham, Old Calabar, 11

(28) Morgan, ‘Black Experiences’, plate 5

(29) Hugh Crow, Memoirs of the Late Captain Hugh Crow of Liverpool (London: Frank Cass, 1970 [1830]), 77–78

(30) Herman Melville, Redburn (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 2006 [1849]), 94

(32) Peter Van der Merwe, Origins of the Popular Style: The Antecedents of Twentieth-Century Popular Music (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), 206

(33) Fenton, ‘Songs of the sea’

(34) Stan Hugill, Shanties from the seven seas: shipboard work-songs and songs used as work-songs from the great days of sail (London: Routledge, 2nd edn, 1980), 364

(35) Hugill, Shanties from the seven seas, 266

(36) Adkins and Adkins, Jack Tar, 333

(37) Adkins and Adkins, Jack Tar, 334–35

(38) Fryer, Staying Power, 430

(39) Marcus Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 205–06

(40) Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors, 23–27

(41) Ereira, The People's England, 148

(42) Ereira, The People's England, 150

(43) Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors, 90

(44) Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors, 90.

(45) Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker, The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001), 151.

(46) Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors, 52.

(47) Christopher, Slave Ship Sailors, 52.