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, 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 and 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 a multitude of other races, including Caribbean, Japanese, West Africans, 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 as a result of enemy action, with respectively 14,287 and 434 lives lost. 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 from the 17th century by the East India Company, set up by 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 came to an end.
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% percent 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 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) who 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, 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 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, 133 as Trinidad.
Some black seafarers jumped ship, got work and settled in British ports where they had served – Liverpool, London, Newport – early inhabitants of communities that exist today, such as Liverpool’s Toxteth. They married and started families, but faced extreme hostility and racism. Demobilisation had meant that returning servicemen resented black workers being 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 going back 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 at first hand the dangers of being below deck.
He was serving on the SS Medina when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat in British waters on 28 April 1917. Five 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 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 the age of 19 he served mostly as cook on a number of merchant ships, and well as 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 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, 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 the first black woman councillor in Wales (1972). His grandson, Jim Baker, became the first black councillor on Southampton City Council, elected in 1990. Leonard died in 1948.
- 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