The African Seamen

Africans, Arabs, Indians and Chinese had been travelling the Indian ocean  waters for centuries before these so-called unknown waters were ‘discovered’ and charted by the Europeans. Since the early 15th century, Portuguese incursions into the Indian Ocean, Europeans required the maritime knowledge of the region’s indigenous mariners. Portuguese expansion in the sixteenth century relied on the charts of Arab, Moslem Gujarati and Malabar pilots. The Portuguese experienced considerable crew losses during the six to eight month journey to India and voluntary or involuntary recruitment of crew from within the Indian Ocean territories was essential for the return voyage.
The Dutch, entering the intra-Asian trade in the seventeenth century, also brought African seamen (free or enslaved) from West Africa to the Cape Colony and then across the Indian Ocean to Indonesia and to the Dejima Island, Japan. A forgotten feature of the seventeenth century, especially in the Western Indian Ocean, was the presence of African pirates aboard ships captained by men of all nationalities, including Africans.
The English East India Company ousted the Portuguese and Dutch in the Indian Ocean by the beginning of the eighteenth century and was just as starved for crew as its predecessors. Initially they searched among the Indo-Portuguese Christian community of Calcutta and Madras. Men from these communities were known as Lascars – a term originating from the Persian and Arabic “Al-Ashkar” and converted into Lascarim by the Portuguese.
When the Royal Navy rose to control the Indian ocean in the 19th century, African crews were indispensible. By 1890 over 12% of Royal Navy crew were Africans and this carried through into the third decade of the 20th century. Because of the strong naval presence at the Cape, in Simonstown, the African seamen of Kru, Siddi, Zanzibari and Ethiopian origins are an important and oft overlooked part of the roots of the people of Cape Town.
Also amongst the black sailors of the Royal Navy were African American seamen. In1775, the British were forced to consider how best to bolster their forces in North America. They sought to gain allies the American slaves and offered freedom to any slave who left his rebel master and joined the British forces. The loss of the American colonies to the British in 1776 resulted in the transportation of thousands of African-American soldiers to Britain. Many went to work in the merchant and royal navies. William Hall, born in Nova Scotia in 1827, was part of a Naval Brigade in November 1857 on HMS Shannon that helped relieve the British Residency at Lucknow, India. He was the son of a freed slave. He was the first black man to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The ‘Prize Slaves’
In 1806, a Royal Navy squadron was established at Simon’s Town. This Cape Station was to be responsible for the entire African Coast from Freetown in West Africa around the Cape to Somalia in the Horn of Africa including the islands of the Atlantic (St. Helena and Ascension). By the time of the Abolition of Slave Trade in 1807, there was a strong Royal Navy presence in the South Atlantic. The demand for labour in South Africa had increased partly due to the Abolition Act itself. The capture of slave ships and their human cargo of ‘Prize Negroes’ became an important source of revenue for the Royal Navy. These Africans were “liberated” at Cape Town where they were “apprenticed”. In fact these men, women and children were granted to local farmers and tradesmen and were a little better off than slaves. Some were granted to the Royal Navy. This “apprentice” system indentured the freed slaves to an employer for fourteen years.
The 1807 Abolition Act initially applied to the Atlantic and only to British ships and actually served as the basis to increase the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The first stage in the British attempts to end the Indian Ocean slave trade began in 1822 when the Moresby Treaty was signed by Captain Fairfax Moresby of the Royal Navy and Sultan Seyyid Sa’id. This Treaty forbade the sale of slaves to Christian traders and ships sailing from the Zanzibar Sultanate south of Cape Delgado, or east of a line from Diu (Gujarat) to Socotra. The East India Company’s monopoly over trade in India ended in 1814 and in China in 1833. In 1839 a British force from Bombay under Captain S. B. Haines attacked and captured Aden, an event that was to signal a change in Britain’s position in the Indian Ocean from the East India Company based commercial role to that of a quasi-total domination by the Royal Navy.
The Mozbiekers
The new ‘Prize Slaves’ were often from Mozambique Island or elsewhere in Portuguese East Africa. The ending of slavery in 1838 resulted in a further labour shortage in South Africa. In the Cape of Good Hope the period of indenture for freed slaves, had been gradually shortened, and by 1839 new arrivals were bound for seven years and their children were now free from indenture. In 1842 the Royal Navy was granted the right to search Portuguese vessels south of the equator. However, it was only in 1843 that a Royal Navy warship of the anti-slavery squadron based at Simon’s Town ventured as far north as Zanzibar. As a result of the Anglo-Portuguese diplomatic moves, the Royal Navy ships based at Simon’s Town took a more serious role in the liberation of Africans from the Portuguese East Africa.
The ‘Prize Slaves’ and their descendants established their own settlements at Simon’s Town and at Papendorp (Woodstock today) where they initially worked to carry goods from the lighters on the beach. The British government stipulated the registration and “marking” of newly-arrived ‘Prize Slaves’, who would now be indentured by auction. A difference from the slavery period was that under the new system, families were kept together. Children under thirteen were obliged to work for their masters but could not be separated from their mothers and the Prize Negroes had to receive a payment from their masters. Such payment however was quite nominal. It was only by 1856, some 24 years after the abolition that the last large groups of ‘Prize Slaves’ came to the Cape. But this was still not the final curtain on ‘Prize Slaves’ being brought to the Cape as the very last group – the Ormoros, arrived in 1890.
The Kru – Freemen of the Atlantic
As ‘indentures’ became scarcer in the 1850s, the Cape government began to recruit indentured labour for the Drakenstein farmlands from Botswana, the Congo, Malawi and Mozambique. They also attempted to employ freemen from the Kru people from West Africa. These and others such as the Siddis, Zanzibaris and Somalis were, over time, to integrate mainly into the Coloured population of the Cape as well as into the Xhosa community. In the Atlantic Ocean, the Kru people of Liberia were famous as mariners. For centuries they had served aboard European and American trading ships as sailors, cooks and interpreters. Kru traditions suggest that they originated from the interior and probably reached their present territory by the sixteenth century. They belong to a group of peoples who occupy more than half the territory of present day Republic of Liberia. By the eighteenth century they were working on European ships. During the slave trade period, the Kru are said to have extracted a promise from the European traders that they should not be taken as slaves. In return, they allowed slaves from the interiors to be brought across their territory.
The traditional Kru facial tattoo – a vertical line at the centre of the forehead said to represent the mast of a ship – was adopted during this period in order to be identified by the slavers. By the 1830s the Kru had become indispensible to the Royal Navy.
The Kru had proved to be good workers and later in 1861, Rear-Admiral Walker requested the Admiralty to let him use ‘Kru men’ (Kroomen) on the Cape Station in South Africa. In January 1862, authorisation was received for large ships to carry ten Kru men plus one Head Kru man and a second Head Kru man, while the smaller ships were allowed six with two supervisors. Since that period, vessels ordered for the Cape of Good Hope called at Sierra Leone for the purpose of contracting Kru men. In his General Memo 24 of 1862, Walker informed the captains in the squadron, much to their surprise of the approval. By 1863 every ship on the Cape station carried Kru men numbering nearly 100 on the East Coast of Africa, although the number of vessels had been reduced to three ships.
In 1864 the Admiralty merged the Cape with the East Indies Command in an attempt to compensate for the low number of ships. From around 1869 the Royal Navy also began employing Zanzibaris as interpreters and crewmen. Naval commanders pursued the suppression of slave trade with varied vigour. There were never more than six or seven ships available, operating sometimes from the Cape of Good Hope Station and after 1869 also from the East Indies Station.
The Sidis, Zanzibaris and Somalis – Freedmen of the Indian Ocean
There were essentially three types of freedmen employed by the Royal Navy: Africans liberated by the navy and employed directly; Africans liberated and taken by the Royal Navy to be employed in Bombay and the Seychelles; and manumitted Africans employed in the ports of East Africa. All of these men were termed “Seedies” by the Royal Navy (Spelt “Sidis”in East Africa and in India)
The term ‘Siddi’ has an old history in India, Sri Lanka and the Indonesian islands where over a number of centuries African slaves, sailors, traders and mercenaries settled and formed communities. By the nineteenth-century when the English began to use the term in the Royal Navy its meaning under those circumstances changed. Of course the original meaning continued with the Siddi communities in India. In the Royal Navy ‘Sidis’ or ‘Seedies’ came to denote Muslim seamen originally from the Swahili coast, especially Zanzibar, particularly sailors and harbour workers. British census records indicate the birthplaces, names and occupations of Sidis which helps to differentiate between three groups of Sidis.
After being deposited in Bombay by British ships, young African freedmen sometimes entered the British navy as cabin boys. In 1864, more than half of the two thousand Africans in Bombay earned their living as sailors or in related maritime work. Younger Africans were sent to mission schools such as the one at Nasik, where they learned various skills. Between 1861 and 1872, the Royal Navy delivered 2,409 “liberated” Africans to the Seychelles. Many of these were indentured to planters, but some were employed by the Royal Navy. Sidis from the Seychelles usually bore European names and were likely to be Christians. Most Sidis however were Muslim.
Many Sidis were escapees or manumitted slaves. Records often show their birthplace as Zanzibar, where slaves or freedmen constituted a significant portion of the population. Frequently they are shown as born at a port known for its slave market such as Zanzibar, Kilwa, or Mozambique.
A plan was announced by the Admiralty on 7th April 1870 to end the service of the Kru men on the East Coast but it was met with opposition from the officers of the Cape Station. This move was prompted by the difficulty in bringing the West African Kru men back and forth to the East African Station. It was therefore decided by the Admiralty that Sidis should replace Kru men. Commodore Heath was totally opposed to the change as were most of the officiating ship commanders on the station. So while Sidis were introduced and became the larger numbers, small numbers of Kru would continue in service. External African seamen continued in service at Simonstown through to the 1930s when local Coloured and Xhosa men began to be deployed by the navy. By this time many of the local recruits may have counted amongst their own roots, these external African forebears.
A record of the crew of HMS Nimble operating in the late 1800s shows that out of a total crew of sixty-one, there were five “Seedy Boys”, three Zanzibaris and one from the Comoro Islands. One of the Zanzibaris by the name of Tom Nimble was a slave freed by HMS Nimble. Another “seedy boy” called Jack Ropeman is described as born in ‘Kilwa’. It illustrates how broadly the British used the term ‘Sidi’ which in this context must be differentiated from its older historic usage.
The Royal Navy did liberate many slaves from Eastern Africa and was in a serious dilemma regarding their future. With the increase in the price of sugar in the 1870s and a shortage of labour in Natal, the Royal Navy “freed” almost 600 Africans in Durban between 1873 and 1880. Many of these people were nominally Moslems and the Zulus called these freed East Africans Zanzibaris, while the Indians called them “Siddhis” after the Afro-Asians in India.
In 1881, records also show that amongst the ‘Sidis’ the Royal Navy employed Somalis as interpreters. At the Royal Navy base at Aden a Somali community had sprung up and were being employed by the British Merchant Navy. On board HMS Dryad there were seventeen “Seedie Boys”, seven of who are shown as born in Zanzibar, and eleven in the Arabian Peninsula (Muscat, Oman, Aden and Jeddah). Only one of these, Happy Jack, has an English name, all of the rest have Muslim names. Clearly Happy Jack is a freedman; however it is very likely that most of the others are also freedmen. To illustrate how loosely used terms metamorphis into narrow ethnic terms and result in a skewing of history over time, these liberated Africans from East Africa and the Arabian Sea came to be known as Zanzibaris in South Africa. During a strike in 1884 resulting in labour shortages, several hundreds of these ‘Zanzibaris’ were brought to South Africa and housed in stables at Hope Street, Cape Town, to alleviate the labour ‘shortage’.
By 1901 the Royal Navy employed Africans from a wide variety of ethnicities and fromthe entire Western Indian Ocean. A good example is the 1901 census for HMS High Flyer. This includes seamen from Zanzibar, Mozambique, South Africa, Nyassa, India (Siddi) and Seychelles. There were also 33 Goans (mainly bandsmen and cooks) and a Singhalese on board. In fact the role of the Moslem Siddhis from the Swahili coast was rapidly replaced by the figure of the Somali stoker – often recruited from Aden or Berbera. The Royal Navy term of “Seedie” changed to “Somali” on May 14, 1934 at the Court of Buckingham Palace because most recruits were now from Somaliland.
African seamen in the form of the Habshis and Siddhis (older meaning) were a force to be reckoned with by both Asian and European powers until the eighteenth century. The decline of these African naval forces coincides with a rise in African slavery – especially in the Western basin of the Indian Ocean. Much of this human trade was conducted in Arab, European or Indian shipping. The decline of the influence of the East India Company was coupled with the rise of the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean. The Royal Navy became the vehicle of migrations of an array of African settlers at the Cape. The impact on our roots and heritage of the introduction of the Kru, the Sidis, the Zanzibaris and the Somalis by the Royal Navy in Cape Town is one of the best kept secrets in Cape genealogies.

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