The role of BAME seafarers in east coast shipping first caught my attention through the casualties associated with SS Audax, sunk off Staithes in September 1918 after being torpedoed. The CWGC database lists Ghaus Muhammed, Donkeyman, and Muhammad Abdul, Fireman, together with Second Engineer Gustav Johansson. As was often the case, their bodies were not recovered and they are commemorated on memorials rather than in graves. Gustav Johansson is commemorated on the Tower Hill Memorial alongside thousands of other casualties from the Mercantile Marine. Ghaus Muhammed and Muhammed Abdul are attributed to the Indian Merchant Service and are commemorated in Mumbai on the Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial. Gustav Johansson is recorded as aged 26 with his next of kin, and that he was born in Sweden; there are no such details for Ghaus Muhammed and Muhammed Abdul. It seemed to me remarkable that these three were commemorated separately and so far from the place where they served and died. The wreck of the SS Audax still lies off the coast of North Yorkshire, amongst hundreds of other merchant ships sunk by enemy action in the First World War.
There are 1,708 members of the Indian Merchant Service commemorated on the Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial in Mumbai and a further 498 from the Royal Indian Marine, the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine Reserve. Although ship names are recorded, it is not possible (without a great deal of cross-referencing) to say where in the world they were lost. My point here is to underline that they were not all sunk in long distance or oceanic trades; as the examples above demonstrate, members of the Indian Merchant Service were also serving in Britain’s coastwise trade between UK ports and across to the Continent, and were lost just off the English coast.
There should be no surprise in this. The UK’s Mercantile Marine in the First World War was diverse with perhaps 30% being ‘foreign’. Names and places of birth, where recorded, are inadequate proxies for gauging overall diversity. However, even these details show that casualties listed in the CWGC database for east coast wrecks encompassed seafarers from around the world. As with Gustav Johansson on the Audax, Scandinavian origins are not unusual. On the SS Rio Colorado, mined just off the Tyne in March 1917, one of those lost was Fireman Ali Abdullah of the Indian Merchant Service, commemorated in Mumbai. Deaths amongst his colleagues included Firemen from Belgium and Denmark and a Spanish Donkeyman, plus Able Seamen from Norway and Sweden. As well as seafarers from England and Scotland, the casualties from SS Hercules referred to above included Able Seamen C. Kylimbas and J. Kayopolos, who is recorded as being born in Greece. The seven casualties recorded from SS Madame Renee, torpedoed off Scarborough in August 1918, were mostly from South Shields, plus Hull and Cardiff, but also included Donkeyman Iwai Sutoe born in Kobe, Japan. The SS Clan MacVey made it down the east coast from Newcastle en route for Falmouth and Port Said, but was torpedoed off Dorset: Firemen and Trimmers Ah Pow, Ah San, Ah Yong, Kah Ling and Kee Ching are all attributed to the Mercantile Marine and are commemorated on the Hong Kong Memorial (there is no next of kin information); Second Engineer Jon Hogg and Fifth Engineer Officer Alexander Fraser are also attributed to the Mercantile Marine but are commemorated at Tower Hill.
Another monument of direct relevance is the Lascar War Memorial in Kolkata, which was ‘erected by the shipping companies and mercantile community of Calcutta to the memory of 896 seamen of Bengal Assam & Upper India who lost their lives in the service of the British Empire in the Great War of 1914-1918’. ‘Lascar’ is also a term used in the CWGC database, but as a ‘rank’; only 347 casualties are recorded with the attribution ‘Lascar’ from the First World War, split between the Royal Indian Marine and the Indian Merchant Service and predominantly commemorated in Mumbai. 'Lascar' in the CWGC database does not equate to 'Lascar' for the purposes of the Kolkata memorial, or with broader historical uses of that term. First World War casualties included far more Asian seafarers than are referred to as Lascars in the CWGC database, with many Asian casualties having specific ranks. Irrespective, there is little sense that the casualties commemorated in Kolkata – whether termed Lascars or not – included men who died in UK waters.
As is apparent from the examples above, Asian and particularly Muslim seafarers were often employed in stokeholds and engine rooms, as Firemen, Trimmers, Donkeymen and so on. Trimmers moved coal around the stokeholds to keep the ship balanced (trimmed); Donkeymen tended the auxiliary ‘donkey’ boilers used to power ships’ machinery such as winches and capstans. These were amongst the worst roles on a steamship as they were physically demanding in the heat and coal dust of the machinery spaces. Roles were often allotted on racial and ethnic ‘principles'. As Woodman points out of the pre-WWI British Indian Steam Navigation Company, ‘it was practice to have Hindu sailors on deck, Muslim ratings in the engine room, and to recruit cooks and stewards from Catholic and Portuguese Goa’ (Woodman 2010 p. 152). Lane makes a similar point about liner companies when writing about the Second World War: ‘black ratings worked as firemen and cooks and stewards. The ABs [Able Seamen] were white’; but he also goes on to note of tramp companies (more typical of the east coast) that ‘there were those who engaged Arab-speaking firemen, European ABs and ethnically heterogenous cooks and stewards – and others whose crews were heterogeneous in all departments’ (Lane 1990 p. 157).
The engine room was not only the worst place to work, it was probably the most dangerous given the character of warfare on the east coast. Mines and torpedoes – the main weapons used against merchant ships for much of the war – exploded without warning below the waterline. If not killed or maimed by the explosion and its immediate consequences amongst the high-pressure boilers, steam pipes and furnaces, staff in the engine room would have to contend with flooding and the difficulty of escaping up through the decks from the bottom of the ship. Generally speaking, if you escaped from a ship on the east coast you had a good chance of survival because of the number of vessels in the War Channels – other merchant ships, fishing boats, minesweepers and patrol craft – that could help with rescues; but engine room staff suffered. Although the working conditions and wartime hazards of the machinery spaces applied to engine room staff of all backgrounds on the east coast, it seems likely that casualties among BAME seafarers were disproportionately higher than their overall employment because of the roles in which they were employed.
The wrecks of ships that were sunk and still rest on the seabed today represent not just their own circumstances but also the thousands of ships that survived the War Channels. Paradoxically, these lucky vessels would end their days in the breakers yard; virtually none have been preserved so it is wrecks on the seabed that provide their lasting heritage. Similarly, the casualties amongst BAME seafarers on the east coast represent many more who survived but of whom there is now little trace: those who lost their lives point to a far greater number of BAME seafarers working in the East Coast War Channels.
Some sense of this can be obtained from records of seafarers rather than of casualties, though it is difficult to relate them to a particular theatre such as the East Coast War Channels. Crew lists – especially the digitised 1915 crew lists – can be searched for individual vessels to examine the composition of their crews. Izzy Mohammed of the Connected Histories project pointed me towards the crew list of the SS Dumfries, torpedoed off Trevose Head, north Cornwall in May 1915. Two men died – Habibullah Umrullah and Rajab Ali Sonia Ghazi, both commemorated in Mumbai – but the rest of the crew survived. The crew list shows that 34 of the crew of 67 were recorded as being born in Bangladesh (notably Chittagong and Sylhet) and India (e.g. Lucknow, Tripura and Midnapore) and were subsequently transferred to the SS Sutherland at Middlesbrough. Unfortunately, the Sutherland was itself sunk by a U-boat the following January in the Mediterranean, returning from Bombay to Hull. A fireman, Ali Ghulam Haidar, was lost but the rest of the crew survived.
The 1915 crew list dataset can also be searched as a whole for place of birth: a search shows 4,836 listed crew recorded as having Aden in Yemen as their birthplace, for example – though it should be noted that there is likely to be duplication from people being named on multiple crew lists in the course of 1915. Similarly, it is possible to search the online record for the Mercantile Marine Medal held by The National Archives (BT351/1) for place of birth. This comprises 157,425 records for seafarers who were given this award: 1,269 recipients are recorded with Aden as a place of birth, in comparison to 2,005 for South Shields and 2,957 for Hull, for example. Not all of these recipients or listed crew served on the east coast, but these figures give a sense of the overall diversity which provides context to the individual casualties referred to above.
The crew lists and Mercantile Marine Medal records also indicate the presence of Black seafarers. Again the proxy is imperfect (it does not help in identifying Black seafarers born in the UK, for example) but 511 recipients of the Mercantile Marine Medal give their place of birth as Jamaica, 133 as Trinidad, 255 as West Indies and so on. Direct relationships with the east coast depend, as above, on relating individuals to specific ships. For example, the crew list of the George Royle sunk off Cromer in January 1915 (in a storm rather than due to enemy action) includes C. Roberts from the West Indies amongst other crew from Italy, Finland, Netherlands, Lisbon, Romania, Serbia and the UK.
A more direct example of a Black seafarer on the east coast is William Savory, a fisherman from Grimsby born in Barbados. He was aboard the trawler Seti when it was attacked by German surface vessels far off the coast of Yorkshire on 26th August 1914, within the first month of the war. He and other members of the crew were captured and taken to Germany where they were allowed to be abused by civilians. Savory recounted that he was kicked and called a ‘Black pig of a mine-layer’. Savory and his companions were transferred by rail from Wilhelmshaven to Emden: ‘I was pulled out at every station for exhibition and was spat at …’ (The National Archives, FO 383/156). His account focuses on the harsh treatment of the fishermen until he was repatriated in November 1915.
Tomas Termote’s book on the U-boats of the Flanders flotilla includes a photograph of a captured Black seafarer with five Irish seamen on the conning tower of UC-26, which served between September 1916 and April 1917 on the east coast and in the English Channel. Unfortunately, there is no further information to indicate his vessel or circumstances (Termote 2017 p. 305).
Another example of a Black seafarer on the east coast is presented in an account of First World War minesweeping published as Swept Channels by ‘Taffrail’ (Taprell Dorling). He recounts the story of ‘a very old coloured gentleman from the West Indies with curly white hair who belonged to the Jamaican RNR [Royal Naval Reserve]’ serving on the minesweeping sloop HMS Alyssum. The account is presented as a humorous incident but concerns correspondence between the Black seafarer’s wife and the Commanding Officer at Grimsby where ‘she, being white, had some difficulty finding accommodation because of her dusky offspring’ (Taprell Dorling 1935 p. 127).
These few references indicate both the presence of Black seafarers on England’s east coast in the First World War and also the presence of racist attitudes; though some degree of integration is also implied amongst crews that were often diverse, especially in the Mercantile Marine. Understanding the experience of BAME seafarers beyond citing these instances is difficult because, as commented above, they seem largely forgotten in a theatre of the war that has itself been little studied.
Some context is presented by Stephen Bourne’s book, Black Poppies, covering the role of Black servicemen and the wider Black community in 1914-1919 (Bourne 2014). Black Poppies includes on the cover a photograph of Marcus Bailey – born in Barbados – in his uniform from HMS Chester. Bourne also details the race riots in 1919 that focussed on BAME seafaring communities in UK port towns. Marcus Bailey is also discussed in Ray Costello’s Black Salt, covering the huge history of Black seafarers on British ships from the Sixteenth Century to the present (Costello 2012). Costello also presents the loss of the SS Mendi off the Isle of Wight in February 1917, a tragedy which also features as the principal account of Black seafarers in the First World War in David Olusoga’s The World’s War (Olusoga 2014 pp. 269-272).
The sinking of the Mendi resulted in one of the greatest losses of life in a single shipwreck around the coast of the UK in the First World War. The CWGC database records the names of 616 men of the South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC) who died on 21st February 1917 when the Mendi was rammed accidentally by the Darro. These men were troops in transit across the sea rather than seafarers so although tragic, their loss does not provide much insight into the experience of BAME seafarers around the UK. As Gribble and Scott explain, the Mendi's crew of 89 included at least 25 Africans mainly from Sierra Leone, Benin and Nigeria working as deckhands, fireman, trimmers and in the galley (Gribble and Scott 2017 pp. 83-84), reflecting the Mendi's pre-war career for the British and African Steam Navigation Company on West African routes. However, the 30 members of crew who died when the Mendi sank are not named in the CWGC database or on their memorials. This lack of acknowledgement, even though they died in the same circumstances as the SANLC troops, arises because the Mendi was lost as a result of collision, which counted as ‘maritime peril’ rather than enemy action. One of the iniquities of the commemoration of those who died at sea in the First World War is that members of the Mercantile Marine and other civilian services are not remembered as ‘war dead’ unless as a direct result of enemy action, irrespective of whether their deaths were exacerbated by wartime conditions; but service personnel are commemorated whatever the cause of death. It is an unfortunate twist in a tragic story that the Mendi’s crew – including BAME seafarers – have not received as much attention as the SANLC troops that they died alongside.
I have tried here to draw together some strands indicating the role of BAME seafarers on vessels traversing the east coast of England in the First World War. Some of my examples are from other areas of UK coastal waters and it is certain that many more instances can be brought to light: the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales ( RCAHMW) has highlighted West African seafarers lost on the Falaba and the Apapa off the coast of Wales; Historic England has flagged diverse crews on Sir Francis, Empress and Polesley and casualties from the Indian Merchant Service on the Medina, for example. My case is not only that BAME seafarers deserve to be remembered, but that any account of the First World War at sea which does not address the diversity of seafarers is partial and incomplete. The role of BAME seafarers in UK waters during the First World War warrants attention as well as commemoration because of the relationship between seafaring and the development of BAME communities in the UK – such as the Yemeni community in South Shields – but also to shine a light onto the experience of seafaring itself in the First World War (to compare with Lane’s chapter on ‘Sons of Empire’ in the Second World War (Lane 1990), for example). As an archaeologist, however, my concern is also for the physical remains of the World’s War on the East Coast, both in the wrecks of individual ships and in the assemblage of wrecks that marks this battlefield as a whole. If you want to see a monument to BAME seafaring in the First World War you don’t have to travel as far as Mumbai or Hong Kong. Give some thought to the wrecks that lie just off our coast, and look out to sea.
Bourne, S., 2014, Black Poppies: Britain's Black community and the Great War. Stroud: History Press.
Costello, R., 2012, Black Salt: seafarers of African descent on British ships. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.
Gribble, J. and Scott, G., 2017, We Die Like Brothers: the sinking of the SS Mendi. Swindon: Historic England.
Lane, T., 1990, The Merchant Seamen's War. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Olusoga, D., 2014, The World's War: forgotten soldiers of empire. London: Head of Zeus.
Termote, T., 2016, War Beneath the Waves: U-boat Flottilla Flandern 1915-1918. London: Uniform.
Woodman, R., 2010, More Days, More Dollars: the universal bucket chain 1885-1920. Stroud: History Press.
Black Salt Exhibition
Imperial War Museum
This article reflects discussion with a great many people over the last couple of years, for which I am very grateful. I hope to develop a collaborative initiative on BAME seafaring in the First World War and I would welcome comments via firstname.lastname@example.org.