The black heroes of Trafalgar

The seamen who did their duty for Nelson and England 200 years ago came from many nations and races, and included black men from the West Indies, says Colin Brown
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The Independent Online

This week, 200 years after their historic battle, Admiral Horatio Nelson and his heroic crews will be celebrated across the country for pulling off England's most significant naval victory.

Inspired by Nelson's famous last order to the fleet that "England expects that every man will do his duty," the men were true to their leader's word.

A few hours later, Nelson lay dying on the deck of his flagship, the Victory, knowing that the defeat of the combined French and the Spanish fleet was within his grasp.

England had been spared the invasion by Napoleon's French army. However, the great victory at Cape Trafalgar off the west coast of Spain was owed in large part to a forgotten foreign legion of sailors. More than a third of the crew of the Victory were drawn from outside England, including the West Indies, Africa, France and Spain.

The crews on board the English fleet were renowned for their toughness. Public floggings were frequent, there was a lack of drinking water, food was in short supply and scurvy was common. They were also the best-drilled and most disciplined force on the seas.

Many of the foreigners on board may have been press-ganged, the hated system of recruitment that was still rife in the Royal Navy, which was always short of sailors to man the so-called "wooden walls" of England.

Little is known about the foreigners who made up nearly a third of Nelson's flagship, and the many more who served on the other men of war in Nelson's fleet that day.

Malcolm Godfrey, 50, a retired naval officer, who has researched the black sailors who served alongside England's most famous naval hero, said some may have been recruited while Nelson's fleet chased the French fleet in the Caribbean.

"The problem is that the records at the time show the country where they joined ship, but not their ethnicity," said Mr Godfrey, who runs an event company in Greenwich, home of the National Maritime Museum and the former RN College, now a university, where Nelson's body was taken before his state funeral.

"In the run-up to the battle of Trafalgar," said Mr Godfrey, "they chased the French fleet to the Caribbean. The Navy brought in people from the Caribbean because they were used to the climate. They could have pressed men as they pursued the French.

"They also released men from slavery and they were freed to join the Navy. A lot of those listed on board as Americans could possibly have been black slaves who were freed.''

The black sailors were such an integral part of the Royal Navy that a black figure is given a key role in the painting of the death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise which is in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, with a copy on the wall of the Royal Gallery in the House of Lords. The sailor, flanked by two redcoats, is pictured in the centre of the canvas, standing over the dying Nelson, and he is pointing up at the rigging, probably at the sniper who fired the fatal ball that had penetrated Lord Nelson's spine.

An almost identical black figure was also carved later on the plinth on the south side of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. The man is unidentified, but may be one of the nine West Indians who were listed on board the Victory at the battle. They include Jonathan Hardy, 25, an ordinary seaman, John Thomas, 23, a Jamaican landsman, or John Francois, 32, an ordinary seaman. George Ryan, 24, also was listed as "African''.

Pieter Van der Merwe, of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, said there was "little evidence" that the blacks in the Royal Navy in Nelson's day suffered "institutional discrimination". However, he pointed out that it was rare for blacks to be promoted beyond able seaman, and being made a commissioned officer was almost unheard of, although a mixed race "mulatto" rose to become an RN Captain in the West Indies, where he served out his naval career.

The number of foreign nationals in the crew of the Victory was "unremarkable at the time given the international nature of the seafaring population,'' he added.

Colin White, director of Trafalgar 200 and curator of Nelson and Napoleon at the National Maritime Museum, said: "There were certainly 'men of colour' on the British side at Trafalgar. There were, for example, West Indians and an African on board the Victory, as well as Indians."

Nelson's Navy may now be seen as being as English as boiled beef, but the Victory muster book listed only 441 English on board on the morning of the battle. The remainder were a seafaring United Nations: 64 Scots, 63 Irish, 18 Welsh, 3 Shetlanders, 2 Channel Islanders, one Manxman, 21 Americans, 7 Dutch, 6 Swedes, 4 Italians, 4 Maltese, 3 Norwegians, 3 Germans, 2 Swiss, 2 Portuguese, 2 Danes, 2 Indians, 1 Russian, 1 Brazilian, 1 African, 9 West Indians, and three French volunteers.

On the morning of 21 October 1805, the crew were eager to get on with the job for which they were trained, as one English eyewitness records: "As the day dawned the horizon appeared covered with ships. The whole force of the enemy was discovered standing to the southward, distant about nine miles, between us and the coast near Trafalgar. I was awakened by the cheers of the crew and by their rushing up the hatchways to get a glimpse of the hostile fleet."

However, there would also have been many foreign languages mixed with the English as the crew caught their first sight of the French and Spanish ships.

Records show that among the foreign nationals on board the Victory at the last muster were three Frenchmen, who were volunteers, but were fighting against their own countrymen.

One of the Frenchmen, John Rawlins, aged 25, was officially listed as a landsman, which meant he had no previous seafaring experience when he was taken on board. John Dupuis, aged 32, a second French sailor on board the Victory, was officially listed as an ordinary seaman. John Packet, 47, the third Frenchman, was recorded as an able seaman, which suggested that he had served at sea for some time.

Many more sailors were listed with unknown origins but could have been drafted into the crew from abroad. They included Charles Sayking, an ordinary seaman, and Jas Sarr, a supply man, neither of whom have countries listed after their names. The Americans included John Stair, 27, an able seaman, William Sweat, 21, Charles Thomas, 25, William Thompson, 30, all ordinary seamen, and a teenager, Richard Bulkeley, 18, a midshipman.

England's flagship crew included Frederick Bush, 24, a German, an ordinary seaman. The Swedish contingent on board the Victory included Peter Blumberry, 28, and Peter Which, 24. Hans Yaule, a landsman, came from Switzerland to fight alongside Nelson. The Italians included Phillip Thovez, 20, a midshipman, and Filippo Vava, 24, a private in the red coat of the Royal Marines.

Perhaps the most exotic member of the "foreign legion" was Gaetano Spedillo, an Italian, who was listed as the "retinue valet" and may have been responsible for making sure that Lord Nelson was immaculately turned out that day. If so, he failed to remind his Lordship to carry his sword on deck. It was left in his cabin.

One of the "Americans" may have been the same William Brown who was later discovered to be a woman while serving on the Charlotte and was dismissed from the Navy in 1815 - after serving 11 years at sea and becoming captain of the foretop.

Women were often allowed to sail with their partners on board ship. Two women are clearly portrayed on the deck of the Victory in the paintingThe Death of Nelson. The master gunner of the Victory had his wife on board.

Many of the foreigners on board could have been pressed against their wishes, and some played a key role in the battle. A Swiss, Andrew Sach, 35, was a yeoman of the sheets, and Samuel Spencer, 26, the master's mate, was from Halifax in Canada.

A Royal Marine, Lt Paul Harris Nicholas, who was on board HMS Belleisle, recalled: "The determined and resolute countenance of the weather-beaten sailor, here and there brightened by a smile of exultation, was well suited to the terrific appearance which they exhibited. Some were stripped to the waist; some had bared their necks and arms; others had tied a handkerchief round their heads; and all seemed eagerly to await the order to engage. My two brother officers and myself were stationed, with about thirty men at small arms, on the poop, on the front of which I was now standing. The shot began to pass over us and gave us an intimation of what we should in a few minutes undergo. An awful silence prevailed in the ship, only interrupted by the commanding voice of Captain Hargood, "Steady! Starboard a little! Steady so!" echoed by the master directing the quartermasters at the wheel. A shriek soon followed - a cry of agony was produced by the next shot - and the loss of the head of a poor recruit was the effect of the succeeding, and as we advanced, destruction rapidly increased."

The crew of the Victory suffered some of the worst casualties of the fleet at the battle, with 57 of her crew killed or dying of their wounds a few days later, and a further 102 wounded.

The full list of the muster of the Victory is on the official website at An exhibition, Black Sailors in Nelson's Navy, is currently at the visitor centre of the Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich.

The Trafalgar Trail, a guide to Nelson and the South-east of England, by Malcolm Godfrey, is due to be published next month

Five who played key roles in British history

Johnson Beharry

The Grenada-born private became the first living recipient of the Victoria Cross in 36 years this March after he twice risked his life to rescue comrades in southern Iraq. Pte Beharry, 25, returned to his vehicle after it was ambushed in May 2003 to help comrades, and a month later he manoeuvred his vehicle into cover during a mortar attack.

William Hall

Able Seaman Hall joined the Royal Navy in 1815, andwas the only black man aboard his ship when it sailed up the Ganges in 1857 to help quell the Indian Mutiny. His brigade was charged with trying to capture a formidable fortress and as the gunners were picked off, Hall dragged the cannon and reload it alone until the walls were breached. He was the first black man to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

Mary Seacole

After offering her services as a nurse to the War Office in London four times and being rebuffed because of her colour, Mary Seacole funded her own journey to the Crimea in 1855 to tend to wounded British soldiers and officers. The Jamaica-born clinician spent two years running her "British Hotel" near Sebastapol, helping troops on the battlefield.

She returned to Britain destitute but was feted by officers who knew of her reputation. Seacole faded from public memory after her death, but last year topped a poll of 100 Great Black Britons.

Walter Tull

After losing both his parents at the age of 11, Waltr Tull's sporting prowess led him to overcome racial prejudice and become Britain's second black professional footballer when he joined Tottenham Hotspur in 1908.He joined the Army in 1914 and became the first black British officer in 1917 - despiteregulations forbidding it.Lieutenant Tull was killed during the second battle of the Somme, in 1918. He was recommended for the military cross.

Ulric Cross

As a 24-year-old in 1941, Ulric Cross sailed from Trinidad to join the RAF to fight Nazi Germany. He trained as a navigator and excelled to the extent that he joined the elite Pathfinder squadron of Mosquito bombers. By the end of the war, he had flown more than 80 bombing missions, including 21 over Berlin.He later told how his plane once limped back to Britain after losing an engine. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Distinguished Service Order before becoming a lawyer and eminent judge.

Cahal Milmo