Five hundred years of Black British seafaring is highlighted in a new exhibition opening at Merseyside Maritime Museum this week.
Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors examines the contribution made to major maritime events since the 16th century, and is based on the 2012 book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships by Liverpool historian Ray Costello.
In the age of sail, Black seamen served on many Royal Navy ships, as deckhands, gunners and top men. In the 18th century the numbers totalled at least 27,000. Later, when steam became king, they also crewed merchant vessels, working as stokers, stewards and cooks among other roles.
The new exhibition takes a chronological look at 500 years - from Tudor times to modern day, and combines personal stories, historic data, objects and memorabilia to chart a course through the often troubled waters of Britain’s maritime past to explore the work of Black seafarers which has been historically overlooked, showing how they contended with the dangers and hazards of life at sea, and challenged inequality on board and ashore.
Death of Nelson by Daniel Mcalise Credit. National Museums Liverpool
Artefacts include a rare sailor's testimonial on scrimshaw for a seaman called Ben Freeman, and on loan from the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.
Many sailors signed off in British ports like Liverpool, London and Cardiff, which then saw the steady growth of Black populations
Their experiences span the gamut of sorrow and tragedy, heroism, victory and triumph.
Curator Ian Murphy says: “As well as revealing that there have long been Black seafarers, visitors may be interested to see that there are Liverpool stories in Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors. Joseph Gibson served in the merchant navy and fought in the First World War, and generations of both the Quarless and Savage families worked at sea.
“Their experiences are told through personal items including service books and medals.
“Elder Dempster shipping line operated one of its routes from Liverpool to the West Indies for 30 years from 1931. The exhibition features collections relating to the company which, from the 1950s and 1960s at the height of trade, employed more than 4,000 people including 1,400 Nigerians and 400 workers from Sierra Leone.”
Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors is at Merseyside Maritime Museum from September 29 to September 2018 and is free.