Black Greenwich Pensioners

Sat 3 October - Sun 21 February
Mezzanine Gallery, Visitor Centre

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Uncovering the History of Black British Mariners

This October, we are delving into our rich and complex past, shining a light on the Black mariners that played a crucial role in our history. Our new exhibition Black Greenwich Pensioners explores the hidden histories of the Black Royal Navy personnel who formed one of Britain’s earliest Black communities when they became pensioners at the Royal Hospital for Seaman on the site where the Old Royal Naval College stands today.

Co-curated by Black British heritage consultant S. I. Martin, this vital and fascinating exhibition looks at the presence and impact of the recorded Black communities which have been resident in Greenwich for over 200 years. Telling the stories of Black seamen, some of whom were volunteers and others who were enslaved or oppressed, the exhibition traces their dangerous and unpredictable lives in the 18th and 19th centuries. It will explore their diverse geographical origins, ranks, and duties, as well as their significant contribution to the development of Black revolutionary and abolitionist thought and writing.

The exhibition seeks to examine the role Black Mariners played in British naval conflicts as well as delving into the personal histories of prominent Greenwich pensioners such as John Thomas, who escaped slavery and was later returned to enslavement in Barbados; John Simmonds, a Jamaican veteran of the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar whose descendants still reside in the UK; and Briton Hammon, the author of the first slave narrative. Documenting the contribution of these men to the British abolitionist movement, the Royal Navy, and to their local Greenwich community, the exhibition will include paintings, prints and photographs and a small selection of objects from which we can discover more about the lives of the Black Greenwich Pensioners.

S. I Martin comments, using the Royal Hospital for Seaman, Greenwich as a lens, the exhibition shines a light on the social and political history of Britain’s maritime and naval past, and uncovers the remarkable and varied personal stories of the men who lived there. This isn’t a one size fits all narrative. This is a global story told on a local level. Our hope is that anyone who visits will come away with a deeper understanding of their cultural history having discovered a seldom-told story about the roots of their local community.

There will be related workshops and tours during the exhibition.


Image credit: The family of John Simmonds, born Kingston, Jamaica about 1784, died Mansfield, Nottinghamshire 1858