Tag Archives: Black History

by UKNIWM office volunteer Richard Graham

The National Portrait Gallery has recently acquired a portrait  of this celebrated nurse who, though rebuffed by Florence Nightingale, made her own way to the Crimea to assist the British soldiers. She was one of a number of civilians who, like Miss Nightingale, seem to have distinguished themselves far more than the British commanders: others were Alexis Soyer the chef, the railway contractors Peto & Betts, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who designed a prefabricated hospital. After the war, Mrs Seacole spent some years in Jamaica but then returned to England in 1870, shortly after which she became the personal masseuse to Alexandra, Princess of Wales. She died in 1881 and is buried at St Mary’s Roman Catholic cemetery at Kensal Green in northwest London. Despite being a well known figure during her later life, Mary Seacole’s achievements were largely neglected during the first half of the Twentieth Century. More recently, her life has been looked at with renewed interest and respect, and this portrait is the first of her to be acquired by the NPG.

The UKNIWM database has over 300 records of memorials commemorating casualties of the Crimean War. One notable one is John Bell’s Guards Crimean memorial.

Guards Crimean War Memorial

Guards Crimean War Memorial

This depicts guardsmen of the then three regiments of foot guards and is an early example of a memorial featuring other ranks.

The dispatches of William Howard Russell in The Times had made the British public aware of the conditions ordinary soldiers had to endure. Queen Victoria herself showed her concern in several ways: the institution of the Victoria Cross for which all ranks were eligible, the promotion of the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley in Hampshire and her patronage of the Royal Victoria Patriotic Asylum at Wandsworth for daughters of soldiers who died in the war come to mind.

One of the most striking paintings, and one of the largest, in Tate Britain is ‘The death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781’ by John Singleton Copley (1737-1815). When the picture was exhibited in London in 1784 a brochure given to visitors explained the circumstances that caused the death of Major Francis Peirson:

           ‘A body of French Troops having invaded the Island of Jersey in the year 1781, and having possessed themselves of the Town of St. Heiller’s (sic), and taken the Lieutenant-Governor prisoner, obliged him in that situation, to sign a capitulation to surrender the Island; Major Peirson, a gallant young Officer, under the age of twenty-four years, sensible of the invalidity of the capitulation made by the Lieutenant-Governor, whilst he was a prisoner, with great valor and prudence, attacked and totally defeated the French Troops, and thereby rescued the Island, and gloriously maintained the honor of the British arms; but unfortunately for his Country, this brave Officer fell in the moment of Victory, not by chance shot, but by a ball levelled at him, with a design by his death, to check the ardor of the British Troops. The Major’s death was instantly retaliated by his black servant on the man that shot the Major.’  Pompey, the black servant, is prominent in the painting taking his revenge. Major Peirson is commemorated on Jersey, notably in St Helier’s church.

Detail from bronze panel on Nelson's ColumnThis 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.

Walter Tull was one of Britain’s first black professional footballers and the first black army officer.  Walter, the grandson of a slave, had been sent to an orphanage as a child when his widowed stepmother couldn’t cope.  After a spell as an apprentice printer, Walter took up professional football with Tottenham Hotspur.  He later transfered to Northampton Town where he put in over 100 appearances.

On the outbreak of war Walter decided to enlist and joined the 17th (1st Football) (Service) Battalion Middlesex Regiment. He worked his way up to the rank of Sergeant and after recovering in Britain from illness he went to train as an officer.  This was remarkable as at the time it was still forbidden, according to military regulations, for black people to become officers.  Walter then joined the 23rd (2nd Football) (Service) Battalion Middlesex Regiment as a Second Lieutenant.

Walter was killed in France in March 1918. Reports tell how his men attempted to retrieve his body in the face of heavy fire. They were not successful and Walter is named on the Arras memorial.

In 1999 Northampton Town FC unveiled a memorial and garden of rest in honour of Walter and it stands as a testament to Walter’s ability to overcome prejudice and ignorance. 

See the UKNIWM’s record of this memorial 

Walter’s example is the inspiration behind the club’s anti-racism initiative.  Walter Tull Way can also be found in Northampton, a road named in his memory.

 The memorials at Folkestone and Dover also list Walter.  Walter was born in Folkestone and his mother and stepmother were from Dover. His stepmother later returned to live in Dover.

Walter is reported to be named on the memorial in River where two of Walter’s sisters later lived. Campaigners are currently hoping to erect a memorial to Walter Tull on the white cliffs of Dover.

 More on BBC Online

October is Black History Month and throughout this month we’ll be looking at some of the war memorials around the UK that commemorate the contribution of Africans and Caribbeans.

MEN OF THE NIGERIAN BRIGADE DURING THE GERMAN EAST AFRICAN CAMPAIGN, 1918Unveiled shortly after the First World War in Westminster Abbey, is a memorial tablet and a wooden triptych to the million citizens of the British Empire who died during the war.

The triptych lists the number who enlisted from each country in the British Empire.  This includes South Africa (136,074), East Africa (26,300) Nyassaland (now Malawi – 10,800) Rhodesia (7,200) Nigeria (15,567) Gold Coast (10,287) Sierra Leone (694) Gambia (371) West Indies, British Honduras and British Guiana (15,950) and Bermuda (360).

Many of these troops saw action in their own countries during the First World War, defending them from neighbouring German territories and then driving the Germans from Africa. 

However, many others served far from home.  This included the British West Indies Regiment that was formed in 1915 and sent volunteers to fight in Palestine, Italy and the Western Front.  Many Africans, including 60,000 black South Africans, served in Labour Units providing support to front line troops.