Nelson's Black Heroes

Nelson's Black Heroes
Tony Costigan explores the history of Nelson's unsung heroes at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar

At 9.45am on the 4th November 1805, after an epic nine-day voyage battling Atlantic storms and currents from the Iberian Peninsula to the English Channel, the battered and exhausted crew of the 10-gun Royal Navy (RN) schooner, HMS Pickle, finally dropped anchor at Falmouth. The ship’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Lapenotiere, immediately set about hiring a carriage to hurry him and his dispatches 263 miles to the Admiralty in London.

After 19 changes of horse, Lapenotiere completed the journey of a week in 36 hours, arriving at the Admiralty at 1am on the 6th November. Upon receiving the news, the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Barham, made ready to inform the Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger. Pitt received the intelligence at 3am and at 7am, informed King George III of the glad tidings that a great victory had been won over the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar.

It was a great victory, but at the cost of the life of its architect, Vice-Admiral, the Lord Viscount Nelson. Nelson had planned a pell-mell battle. Traditionally, naval fleets fought each other by sailing in parallel lines, the opposing ships blasting each other with broadsides as they passed. Not so for Nelson. His plan was to get in close and grapple with the enemy in a medieval-like melee.

He achieved this by dividing his fleet into two columns which then stormed towards the centre of the enemy line at a ninety-degree angle resembling the column of a ‘T’, the combined fleets describing the top bar.  This enabled the English ships to rake the combined fleets’ vessels with devastating fire as they passed through the gaps between them. Soon all became chaos with the cacophony of shot, crashing timbers and dying men. Ships became entangled and locked together in mortal combat, their guns continuing to blast each other at point blank. Up in the rigging, Marine marksmen threw grenades and fired down at the opposing decks.

It was one such French marksman who found his target in the form of Nelson, who had been pacing the deck of HMS Victory. Mortally wounded, Nelson was carried below while the battle continued to rage.  Eventually, from chaos came order. The better trained and more disciplined crews of the English fleet prevailed and the commander of the combined fleets struck his colours in submission. Among those victorious ‘English’ crewmen throughout the fleet were over 1400 foreigners, of which about a third were of black African descent.

There is little hard evidence as to how these men came to be serving aboard ships of the RN; what does exist is largely circumstantial. Britain was at war with France and her allies over a period of twenty-five years, and it developed into a global affair. The navy expanded and ships required crews. Some crewmen were snatched and pressed into service; others, down and out, joined as the only way to improve their situation. For some black men, the attraction may have been that, since the Mansfield Judgement ruling that no man on British soil could be considered enslaved, many would be legally free the moment they stepped on board the ships. 

Recruits were sought not only at home but also in distant ports due to battle casualties, with desertion and diseases like black water fever and malaria constantly depleting the numbers of seamen. These raged through the ships of the West Indian Division with devastating effect and necessitated local recruitment of those best suited to cope with the conditions. Such men included 'free coloureds' and runaway slaves making their bid for freedom, many of them aiming for Royal Navy ships.

There were ten black crewmen aboard the Bellerophon at Trafalgar, including Samuel Marlow, a 24-year-old Jamaican and former slave who worked on board as a steward when the ship wasn’t in action. Another was Magnus Booth, 31, a West Indian Mustee, the description for a person of mixed race. His previous occupation as a writer suggests he was educated; typically, he was the son of a white planter and his black slave mistress. Jon Hackett, 22, was an African-American recruited in Maryland. Hackett had not returned to the U.S. in ten years, implying that he too could have been a runaway. His normal job aboard ship was that of a Topman, a position requiring a lot of experience and ability as a seaman. However, when the marine drummer “beat to quarters”, Hackett would rush to his station as part of a gun crew, on the lower deck.

One incident on the Bellerophon, recorded by Midshipman Franklin, described how ‘Franklin and a Marine sergeant were carrying down a black seaman to have his wounds dressed, when a ball from a rifleman entered his breast and killed him.’ However, written records of ordinary crewmen at Trafalgar are rare and mention of black crewmen even more so.

Vague as the written records are, there is evidence of black seamen being “in the thick of it” to be found in the artwork generated in the wake of Trafalgar. Among this artwork is the bronze frieze at the base of Nelson’s Column, London - a significant recognition of the contribution of the black seamen in the battle, given that construction of the column didn’t begin until 1840, thirty-five years after the event.

With the final surrender of Napoleon in 1815 the RN was reduced in size by 60%. The pressed men were released from service. Of the black crewmen little is known. Some may have sought work as unskilled labourers; others went into service. The lucky ones may have found vacancies replacing those released pressed men. The limbless would most likely have fared worst, and as with the majority of invalided seamen, reduced to beggary. Yet their courage and commitment to the defeat of Napoleon and his allies was – and remains - undeniable.