Britain's merchant shipping: West African seafarers in Liverpool

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'Scale of Provisions' for the crew of the SS Volta, taken from ‘Articles of Agreement’, SS Volta 1900 (Courtesy of Liverpool Public Library)
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The scale of provisions details the allocation of food and water to sailors working on board British merchant ships. We can see from this source that sailors were treated unequally. ‘Coloured’ (West African) crews were given smaller portions of water and meat than white British crews, and were rationed biscuits rather than bread.

(Source information: The image is provided courtesy of Liverpool Public Library and also appears in Diane Frost (1999), Work and Community among West African Migrant Workers, Liverpool University Press)

The emergence of Britain’s merchant shipping industry

As an island, Britain relied on maritime activity to maintain its economic and political power. Britain’s trade with the rest of the world, including its Empire, relied on merchant ships to transport goods and people. Technological advances in steam gave Britain an advantage in terms of world trade and made it a world leader in steamship technology in the nineteenth century. West African and white British sailors carried important cargoes from colonial West Africa to Liverpool between the 1880s and the 1950s.

In the nineteenth century three significant factors led to the growth of Britain’s merchant shipping industry. First, the abolition of the slave trade in Britain in 1807 saw trading in slaves replaced by what was called ‘legitimate trade’ between Africa and Europe. This trade was based on the import of non-slave goods from West Africa to Britain, and the export to West Africa of British and European manufactured goods, like cloth and alcohol. The period of British colonial rule in Africa saw powerful European nations like Britain, France, Germany and others in competition with one another to impose political and economic control in the region. Africa was a huge continent with valuable raw materials which were needed by European powers to fuel the development of their manufacturing industries. Imported African materials included timber, palm oil (used in the manufacture of soap at Port Sunlight on the Wirral, and candles), coffee, cocoa (for chocolate), rubber, precious minerals like gold and diamonds, as well as other important cargoes used to manufacture British goods. 

Second, technological advances saw the gradual development and use of steam-powered ships. By the 1860s and 1870s, steam had begun to replace sail on British merchant ships trading with West Africa. This had several consequences. It meant more sailings were made between Britain (from Liverpool) and West Africa, because ships no longer had to rely on prevailing winds and tides. Steam power also made sailings faster, and thereby shortened distances, enabling ships to sail more often and with increased speed.

Third, the development of steam ships required sailors to have different skills, not traditional sailing skills. Sailors were now required to work in extremely high temperatures in the engine rooms (stokeholds) deep inside the ship. Here sailors known as ‘donkeymen’ and ‘firemen’ shifted coal and fed the furnaces needed to create steam, the ‘stokers’ stoked the furnaces and the ‘greasers’ greased the machinery to propel the ship.

Manning Britain’s merchant fleet: West African sailors

Initially, white British sailors were employed to do engine room tasks on British steam ships on this route but, eventually, West African sailors were employed to replace them.

Throughout the 1880s to the 1920s, sailings between Liverpool and West Africa saw a number of white British sailors becoming sick as tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever struck them down. Insufficient medical knowledge at this time could not counter this. In some cases, these tropical diseases caused death. Liverpool shipping companies like the Elder Dempster Line began replacing white British sailors with West African ones during voyages from West Africa back to Liverpool. At first, the number of West Africans employed on these trips was small, amounting to only a handful, but eventually British shipping companies began to use wholly West African crews on voyages between Liverpool and West Africa. On Elder Dempster steam ships sailing from Liverpool to West Africa, West African crews were employed in the engine rooms as firemen, donkeymen and greasers. They were also employed on deck to load and discharge cargoes in West Africa. Those in charge of the ship, the captain and his officers, remained white British. 

The use of West African sailors in the British merchant shipping industry was justified on grounds that West Africans were better able to withstand the extremely high temperatures, especially when in West Africa. This justification reflected racial stereotypes at the time, which attributed particular physiological characteristics to Africans and others. For the British shipping industry, it made economic sense to employ West African sailors as they were paid lower wages than white sailors, they were given inferior rations, they were prepared to work hard in difficult, hot, dirty and noisy conditions and they were not yet organised into trade unions. Officers on these trips were white British, so there was a clear division of labour between those who ran the ship and gave orders and those who carried the orders out.

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‘A Negro Strike at Sierra Leone, 1874’, Illustrated London News (Newspaper Image © The British Library Board. All rights reserved. With thanks to The British Newspaper Archive,
Many different groups of West Africans worked on Liverpool ships, including Gambians, Gold Coasters (from what is now Ghana) and Sierra Leoneans. British ships from Sierra Leone recruited Kru people (also spelt Kroo). Originally migrants from Liberia, Kru people moved to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, in search of work onboard ships. The Kru people made Freetown their home and some of those who travelled from Freetown to Liverpool as ships' crews eventually settled in Liverpool. They were ‘twice migrants’. There were a number of incentives for settling in Liverpool. These included the higher wages paid to sailors if they set sail from a British port rather than from West Africa; greater employment opportunities outside of shipping; better standards of living and, for some, relationships with local Liverpool women. Kru sailors and others made frequent journeys back to West Africa during their work on British ships. This meant their time in Liverpool could be transient or short-term, sometimes for a few months at a time before signing on with another ship bound for West Africa. In between ships, the Kru stayed in sailors' hostels or boarding houses that were close to where ships from West Africa docked in Toxteth, south Liverpool. Others ‘jumped ship’, became permanent residents and found work on shore or went on to work aboard other ships.

Crews from around the world

West Africans were not the only sailors from overseas who were employed in Britain’s merchant shipping industry. Chinese, Malays and Indian lascar crews were employed in the trade with China, India and the Far East (see: 'The lascars'). This trade stretches back to the pre-nineteenth century period. By the mid-nineteenth century ‘lascars’ – a term which defined Eastern seamen - included Burmese, Bengali, Malay, Chinese, Siamese, Surati and Indian sailors (the latter making up over 60 per cent). From the mid-nineteenth century Arab seafarers were also recruited from the British-held port of Aden (known today as Yemen) in south-west Arabia, as well as Somalian sailors. Most seafarers were recruited through some kind of local ‘agent’. These employment agents were paid a fee by the seafarers. This system of recruitment could be open to abuse and corruption, with seafarers getting into debt in order to secure employment.

Life in a port city: Racism and riots

Liverpool was an important international port where sailors came from all over the world including the United States, South America, the Caribbean, India, China and Scandinavia. Many brought with them cultural influences from their homelands, including jazz and blues music from the US, and the stew we know as ‘Scouse’, which was originally brought to Liverpool by Scandinavian sailors. As well as the settlement of West African sailors, West Indian (Caribbean), Chinese and Indian (lascar) sailors were also frequent visitors and settlers. Indeed, Liverpool’s Chinatown is one of the oldest in Europe. This grew out of the settlement of Chinese sailors during trade between Liverpool and China from the 1850s (see: 'Chinese Limehouse').

For many of those who stayed or settled in ports like Liverpool, life could be difficult. Racial discrimination and day-to-day hostility could be a frequent encountered. The colonisation of overseas territories in Africa, India and the Caribbean saw the emergence of a set of ideas that would justify and legitimise this political control of territory. Part of this related to racist ideas about ‘non-white’ peoples, who were constructed as racially and culturally inferior to white people. In some cases, they were portrayed as children who needed the ‘guidance’ of a father-figure like Britain. This was known as paternalism. This treatment and portrayal of Africans and others was damaging and exploitative. It prevented and distorted the future development of those nations occupied or controlled by Britain. It also exploited their valuable resources, giving nothing back in return. Such people were also constructed in negative and inferior terms that would be used to treat them accordingly, not only in Africa but also in the UK ports and cities where they came to work.

In 1919, a series of ‘race riots’ broke out in some of Britain’s port cities, including Liverpool.

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‘Repatriation of Negroes’ from the Liverpool Daily Post and Mercury, June 1919 (Courtesy of Liverpool Public Library)
West Africans and West Indians were attacked by angry white mobs of unemployed sailors and servicemen, who sought to blame or scapegoat black people for the problems they faced following the First World War. In one case, a Caribbean man, Charles Wootten, was chased by a mob and pushed or fell into the dock where he drowned after being pelted with stones.  Black sailors bore the brunt of the blame for the violence of 1919 even though they did not initiate the violence and simply tried to defend themselves. The government did not challenge the attitudes and violence of those who attacked them. Instead, the ‘riots’ of 1919 led to government calls for legislation to repatriate black people back to West Africa. Similar calls for repatriation also came with reference to Chinese communities, who had also suffered attacks in riots in 1919.

Post-1945: a new generation of imperial migrants

The above information illustrates that Britain’s diverse ethnic communities have a long history in Britain. Port cities like Liverpool, Cardiff, South Shields and London have settled black and minority ethnic (BME) communities which date back to Britain’s trading history before the Second World War. Many West African seamen who arrived in Britain between the 1880s and 1920s settled and married local British women. This early migration is a distinct feature of Britain’s port cities. Indeed, Liverpool has a number of families that can trace their ancestry back many generations to these and even earlier migrations.

Following the Second World War, these early seafaring migrants in Liverpool saw the arrival of a new generation of black immigrants from Britain’s empire and former empire (New Commonwealth immigrants). These new immigrants had fought and worked on the side of the British in the Second World War and came to Britain after the war to help Britain build its war-damaged economy. West Indians, for example, had been recruited to work in the RAF during the war and were stationed at Burtonwood close to Liverpool. After the war, workers from the West Indies came to work for British industry or the newly established NHS. Bus drivers from Barbados and Jamaican nurses, for example, were employed by recruiting agents sent out to the Caribbean. South Asian workers from India and Pakistan (and later Bangladesh) also came to work in Britain’s’ cities.  All of these migrant workers came from territories previously occupied by Britain during the days of empire. Such territories began to organise struggles to gain their independence after the war, with India being the first to gain independence from Britain in 1947. India’s example provided inspiration and hope to other independent struggles throughout Africa and the Caribbean. 

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Questions and Student Activities
  • What might West African sailors have had to gain from being employed on Liverpool steam ships during this period?
  • What can this source tell us about black migration history?
  • Are there any useful comparisons you can make between the experiences of African sailors and lascars? How were their lives on ships similar? How were they different?