This bronze frieze from the base of Nelson’s Column depicts the Admiral’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. On the far left can be seen a black sailor holding a rifle.
At the time of the battle of Trafalgar, HMS Victory was crewed by men from many different countries, including Britain, India, America, the West Indies, Malta, Italy and Africa.
Black sailors have been present in the Royal Navy since at least the 17th century. They were often ‘pressed’ into service unwillingly by press gangs, as were many sailors from the British Isles. They were sought after for military service because they were believed to be better able to withstand diseases than white troops.
If the sailor on Nelson’s Column was a portrait of a real person, he may have been Ordinary Seaman George Ryan. Ryan was born in Africa and was probably ‘pressed’ into service. He served on several ships in the Royal Navy from 1803 until he was invalided out in 1813 at the age of 32.
See George Ryan’s service record from the National Archives.
A black sailor, who may also be Ryan, can be seen on paintings of the battle of Trafalgar in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool and the Houses of Parliament, London.