Merseyside Maritime Museum reveals 500 years of Black British seafaring

Daniel Maclise Death of Nelson detail 1859-1864 C National Museums Liverpool

Merseyside Maritime Museum reveals 500 years of Black British seafaring

Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors reveals the contribution Black seafarers have made to some of the most significant maritime events of the past 500 years. The exhibition opens at Merseyside Maritime Museum on Friday 29 September 2017.

The exhibition is based on the book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships, by historian Ray Costello. It will combine personal stories, historic data, objects and memorabilia to chart a course through the often troubled waters of Britain’s maritime past to explore the work of Black sailors. Historically overlooked, Black Salt shows how Black seafarers contended with the dangers and hazards of life at sea, and challenged inequality on board and ashore.

The painting The Death of Nelson by Daniel Maclise (which normally hangs at the Walker Art Gallery), shows that there were sailors of African descent who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar. Displays examine the turmoil between communities and social change during the twentieth century, with examples from the 1919 race riots archives and the work of leading Black Activist, Chris Braithwaite, who campaigned for seafaring workers’ rights.

Exhibition curator, Ian Murphy said: “As well as revealing that there have long been Black seafarers, visitors may be interested to see that there are Liverpool stories in Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors. Joseph Gibson served in the merchant navy and fought in the First World War, and generations of both the Quarless and Savage families worked at sea. Their experiences are told through personal items including service books and medals.

“Elder Dempster shipping line operated one of its routes from Liverpool to the West Indies for 30 years from 1931. The exhibition features collections relating to the company which, from the1950s and 1960s at the height of trade, employed more than 4000 people including 1400 Nigerians and 400 workers from Sierra Leone.”

Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors brings the Black seafaring experience up to date with a display about current sailors including a profile on Belinda Bennett, who in 2016 became the first Black female captain, working in the cruise industry.

Ray Costello said: “Generations of Black seamen have been serving on British ships for hundreds of years, yet aside from a few examples, they and Britain’s Black population have largely been overlooked by historians. The Black Salt exhibition reveals the legacy of those sailors, many of whom signed off in British ports, which then saw the steady growth of Black populations in cities such as Cardiff, London and of course, Liverpool. Their experiences span the gamut of sorrow and tragedy, heroism, victory and triumph”.

Ray’s book Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships is published by Liverpool University Press and is available now.

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