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Black Sailors in the British Navy

Black Sailors in the British Navy

During the 1700s and 1800s Britain’s navy was the largest in the world. The Royal Navy’s increasing demand for manpower led it to draw its personnel from across the globe as well as the British Isles. Black men (free and enslaved) from the Americas, the Caribbean, Africa and Britain served on Royal Navy vessels in a number of capacities from ship’s cook to, in one known case, ship’s captain (Captain John Perkins).

Enslaved labour was sometimes used on naval vessels particularly in North America and the Bahamas. Men running away from slavery sometimes gained their freedom by joining the Royal Navy. Black men with previous merchant sailing experience were often pressed (captured and forced against their will) into the Navy. More still entered the service as volunteers.

Henry George

Born in Jamaica. Served in the Royal Navy for four years. Lost both his feet due to wounds in his legs. A married man when he arrived at Greenwich Hospital on 15 May 1782. Died at Greenwich Hospital on 15 November 1782.

The National Archives (TNA), ADM/65/83 (14, 15)

This letter from Philip Stephens, Secretary to Greenwich Hospital, describes how Henry George became a Greenwich Pensioner:

‘Henry George a black Seaman…was left at this Hospital Gate on the 15th… by Lieutenant Hills who the man says brought him in a tender from Plymouth.

The man appears to be a very great object of compassion having lost both his feet and is not in condition to be moved. I desire to know…whether he may be received for the present into this Hospital…In the meantime he is subsisted by a contribution from the officers.

Dr Taylor of the Hospital has examined his case and I have desired him to attend their Lordships with this letter to testify to the man’s condition and on the other side is a memo of names of the ships in which he says he has served’.

John Simmonds

Born in Kingston, Jamaica between 1783 and 1785. Pressed into the Royal Navy in 1803. Served on several ships including HMS Conqueror at the Battle of Trafalgar. Admitted as a patient to Greenwich Hospital in 1824.

The family of John Simmonds

John Simmonds was a Greenwich Pensioner of mixed heritage. He may have been the son of a plantation owner and an enslaved woman. In 1803 he was pressed into service on board HMS Revolutionnaire before transferring to HMS Conqueror. The Conqueror was the ship that took the surrender of the French commander, Admiral Villeneuve, after the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805. Simmonds went on to gain the rank of Quarter Master while serving on HMS Variable.

Following a bout of yellow fever, Simmonds was admitted to Greenwich Hospital as a Pensioner in 1824. He married a White Londoner, Ann Fouch, in Clerkenwell before moving to Mansfield where they worked as hawkers.

In 1846 John Simmonds received the Trafalgar Medal. He died in Mansfield in 1858.