Historic diversity in the Royal Navy

Historic diversity in the Royal Navy

15 October 2020

Historically, Royal Navy crews were a diverse group, not only originating from many different regions in Britain but also abroad.

Burials from the historic Royal Navy cemetery at The Crescent, Plymouth have confirmed this. Expert analyses of the bones from this site suggest that while the majority belonged to people with origins in European, West Asian and Mediterranean population groups, people with African and Asian ancestry are also present.

One key event in British naval history is the Battle of Trafalgar, which took place west of Cape Trafalgar, Spain, between Cadiz and the Strait of Gibraltar on 21 October 1805 and depicted in a historic painting from our collections above. It was the decisive sea battle that ended Napoleon’s hopes of invading Britain. Admiral Lord Nelson was in command on board HMS Victory prior to being fatally shot.

Nelson’s dramatic death is portrayed at the base of Nelson’s column in London’s Trafalgar Square, in a bronze relief by the sculptor John Edward Carew and also in a painting by Daniel Maclise. Both include a black sailor in the group assembled around the dying Nelson. Positioned on the left, he is shown pointing up at the rigging, possibly at the sniper who fired the fatal shot.

Photograph of the bronze relief at the foot of Nelson's column

Documentary records of the time are also rich in confirming the diversity of the Royal Navy. At the time of Trafalgar, nine West Indian sailors and one African are recorded as serving on board HMS Victory. Alongside them were one Brazilian, one Russian, one Manxman, two Indians, two Channel Islanders, two Swiss, two Portuguese, two Danes, three Shetlanders, three Norwegians, three Germans, three French volunteers, four Italians, four Maltese, six Swedes, seven Dutch, 18 Welsh, 21 Americans, 63 Irish, 64 Scots and 441 English.

At times the Navy’s recruitment methods have been notorious, with boys and young men often ‘pressed’ into service. This involved physical coercion, often characterised as kidnap. ‘Press gangs’ often targeted the poorest sections of society. It’s also thought many of the foreign sailors were ‘pressed’. However, the Navy has been described as a refuge for escaped Black American and Caribbean slaves. Controversially, Nelson is known to have opposed the abolition of the slave trade. It’s also been suggested that the diversity of the Royal Navy crews would have been reflected in port towns.

Life aboard ship was tough. Public floggings were frequent, there was a lack of drinking water, food was in short supply and scurvy was common. Boys and men in good physical shape were targeted for recruitment. However, as sailors, they undertook specific, repetitive and strenuous activities which had an impact on their physical appearance. On land, sailors were instantly recognisable by how they looked, walked, behaved and spoke.

Among those buried in the Royal Naval cemetery in Plymouth is a young man who is thought to have died between 1800 and 1826. Analyses strongly suggest that his ancestry belongs to the group which encompasses people with East Asian, American Indian and Polynesian ancestry. Unusually, he was buried within an ornate coffin rather than a plain Royal Navy issue one.

While the coffin is still of the cheaper type, it’s decorated with iron fittings and possibly brass studwork. Occasionally, relatives supported the expense of more elaborate burials. It’s believed this indicates he had strong links with England, possibly local to the Plymouth area.