During the First World War, the Merchant Navy, the Mercantile Marine, was thrust into the conflict, becoming the supply service of the Royal Navy.
It carried troops, shipped raw materials, and delivered armaments and supplies to the armed forces. To keep the country from starvation, it also transported food to Britain’s home front and coal, iron, and other essential goods to keep factories in production.
In 1914, an estimated third of British merchant fleet crews had been born abroad. The majority were Asian, but there were many other races, including Caribbean, Japanese, West African, Chinese and Arabs. Such sailors from across the globe also served in Royal Navy vessels. They trained as peacetime mariners but made a vital contribution to the war effort.
2,479 British merchant vessels and 675 British fishing vessels were lost due to enemy action, with 14,287 and 434 lives lost, respectively. Many of their crews have no grave but the sea. Foreign seafarers are mostly memorialised in their home countries. However, here in Britain, their role is largely unrecognised and unsung.
This is their story.
Indian merchant seamen first began to be employed in the 17th century by the East India Company, set up by the Royal Charter to establish trade links between Britain and India.
The term ‘lascar’ eventually became a widely used, generic term for almost all non-European sailors. After the Second World War, steamships were in decline and with Indian independence in 1948, the lascar presence on British ships ended.
During the First World War, these seamen replaced British mariners recruited into the Royal Navy.
The lascars were paid a fraction of white crews’ wages and, along with other overseas sailors such as African and Caribbean people, suffered harsh treatment, received inferior rations, and mostly worked in cramped, hot, badly ventilated areas below deck. The lascars comprised an estimated 17.5% per cent of mariners on British registered ships, some 51,000 men.
The SS Maloja
The SS Maloja was a requisitioned liner carrying military and civilian passengers en route to Bombay.
It sank, causing the death of 122 passengers and 85 lascar crew, the greatest single loss of Indian merchant seamen in the war.
The names of 63 of these seamen are remembered at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s Bombay 1914-1918 Memorial, India. This memorial commemorates 1,708 members of the Indian Merchant Service and a further 498 from the Royal Indian Marine, the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine Reserve.
The Lascar Memorial in Kolkata, India, is dedicated to the memory of the 896 Indian merchant seamen (lascars).
They died serving on ships of the British Merchant Navy and the Royal Navy during the First World War.
Merchant Navy Memorial, London
The memorial’s main dedication reads: TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND TO THE HONOUR OF TWELVE THOUSAND OF THE MERCHANT NAVY AND FISHING FLEETS WHO HAVE NO GRAVE BUT THE SEA.
The men listed above were among 17 lost crew members of the merchant ship SS Warsaw when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in the English Channel on 20 December 1917.
Four of the missing Japanese men were listed by the CWGC as seamen. The fifth, Le Karimi, who was 32, was a fireman (stoker) whose job in the engine room was to shovel coal and feed the boiler furnaces to create steam.
This role, rarely undertaken by white sailors, was at the lowest end of a ship’s hierarchy, along with donkeymen who tended the auxillary ‘donkey’ boilers that powered winches and capstans, trimmers who ensured the firemen had adequate supplies of coal, and greasers who oiled machinery.
Not only was the work arduous due to coal dust and intense heat, which could reach 60 degrees, but it was also potentially extremely dangerous. Enemy mines and torpedoes could explode without warning below the waterline, fatally flooding the engine room and blowing up high-pressure boilers and steam pipes.
Many West Africans worked on Liverpool merchant ships and those serving other ports, including men from Gambia, Ghana (then called the Gold Coast) and Sierra Leone. They were usually employed below decks, or to load and discharge cargoes.
There were also many black seafarers from the Caribbean. Mercantile Marine Medal records show, for example, that 255 recipients gave their place of birth as the West Indies, 511 as Jamaica, and 133 as Trinidad.
Some black seafarers jumped ship, got work and settled in British ports where they had served, Liverpool, London, and Newport, early inhabitants of today’s communities, such as Liverpool’s Toxteth.
They married and started families, but faced extreme hostility and racism. Demobilisation meant returning servicemen resented black workers in jobs they felt were rightfully theirs.
In 1919, riots broke out in Liverpool, London and seven other British ports. Roaming mobs of angry unemployed white sailors and servicemen savagely attacked black people, scapegoating them for the problems they faced following the war, and demanding their repatriation.
During one incident, a Caribbean man Charles Wootten, a former Merchant Navy fireman, was chased by a lynch mob and pushed into the dock, where he drowned after being pelted with stones. No one was arrested.
Chinese Merchant Seamen Memorial
The inscription refers to the fact that Chinese communities, who also suffered attacks in the riots of 1919, then faced forced repatriation.
These men, who had served in the British Merchant Navy and who had made their lives in Britain, who had married and brought up families here, were pressured into returning to China.
This same process was repeated after the Second World War. Many were denied the opportunity to say even goodbye to their families. They were detained on the street and sent directly to the ships that transported them back to China, devastating families left behind.
1. Mahomed Gama, fireman
Mahomed Gama, born in 1895 in a region of India that is now Pakistan, served as a Merchant Navy fireman in the First World War and experienced first-hand the dangers of being below deck.
He was serving on the SS Medina when a German U-boat was torpedoed and sunk in British waters on 28 April 1917.
5 of his shipmates in the engine room were killed in the explosion. He survived and, along with the remaining crew and passengers, boarded the lifeboats and was towed ashore by local vessels. He next served on the SS Khiva which transported American troops to France after the United States entered the war on 6 April 1917.
The ship had four narrow escapes from U-boat attacks, including repelling one with gunfire. He died in 1965.
2. Marcus Bailey, cook and Royal Navy able seaman
Marcus Bailey was born in Bridgetown, Barbados in 1883.
From 19, he mainly served as a cook on several merchant ships and fishing vessels plying out of Hull and Grimsby. He received his seaman’s certificate in 1912, and the following year, in Fleetwood, Lancashire, he married Lilian McGowan, a woman of Irish descent whose family disowned her. The couple had three children born in Liverpool.
In 1915 he was mate on a trawler that had been converted to a minesweeper operating in the Humber estuary. It was very unusual then for a black man to occupy that role. In 1916, he served as an able seaman on the Royal Navy’s HMS Chester.
The ship took part in the Battle of Jutland (31 May-1 June 1916), the bloodiest naval confrontation of the First World War, involving 250 vessels and nearly 100,000 men. The Chester came under intense fire from four German cruisers and suffered heavy losses. Marcus survived uninjured. He died in 1927, age 44, as a patient in De la Pole hospital, a Victorian asylum in Willerby, Yorkshire.
He was buried in an unmarked grave in the hospital grounds.
3. Leonard Hinds, fireman
Leonard Hinds was born in Barbados in 1887.
He served on the SS Livingstonia, SS Vienna and SS Teviotdale, working as a fireman throughout the First World War. He was awarded the Mercantile Marine medal.
In July 1916, Leonard married Gwenllian Lloyd in Barry, South Wales and had six children.
In 1958 their son Darwin became the first black councillor to be elected in Wales and the first-ever black mayor of a United Kingdom county council (1965). His sister Gwen was Wales’s first black woman councillor (1972). His grandson, Jim Baker, became the first black councillor on Southampton City Council, elected in 1990. Leonard died in 1948.
Written by Nicky Hughes.
- The World’s War on the East Coast (via Fjordr)
- African stories in Hull and East Yorkshire: Marcus Bailey
- Our Migration Story
- Port Towns and Urban Cultures: The story of Mahomed Gama
- The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
Chinese Merchant Seamen Memorial at Pier-head moved me so very much that I would like to tell the story to more people in my book about my visit to Liverpool. It would be greatly appreciated if you could permit me to use your photo on this web-page in my book. Thank you!
Hi Angelica, that image is from the IWM catalogue, you should be able to find it online with the code IWM 62862
Thank you for this blog, it is excellent – is there anyone at Historic England I’d be able to contact to ask some further questions to for extended research? Thank you !
My grandfather served in the Merchant Navy in the Great War although he was Spanish. He was told he would have citizenship after the War, but this never happened. Has anyone else heard this happened?