Through various stories and blog posts our project has uncovered both the turbulent and triumphant history of sailors of African descent in Hull and East Yorkshire. We have explored the lives of individual seaman, themes such as economic hardship, racism, suicide and crime alongside larger stories on the history of sailors with Black heritage in our region. However, we are still finding new material which uncovers more information about the seamen of African descent who visited, lived and worked in Hull and East Yorkshire. This blog post focuses on the dangers of working in the maritime sphere and reveals the names of men who tragically perished.
The most common cause of death for seaman was drowning. During the First and Second War many sailors drowned after their vessels were sunk by enemy fire. These included seamen with Black heritage who had a connection to our region, such as Adolphus Meheux, Jim Bailey and William George Ash who are all featured in this project. However, during peacetime one of the biggest determining factors of a safe voyage was the weather. On 10 February 1871, the Great Gale, which was a severe storm in the North Sea, struck the East coast of northern England. When the storm hit, vessels near Bridlington found themselves in desperate trouble and many were wrecked. Around 50 men, at least one of whom was believed to be of African descent, lost their lives because of the Great Gale. A witness recorded “One body being that of the coloured man who escaped from the brig that struck near to the end of… [Bridlington] pier and whose splendid swimming would have saved him but he was disabled by breaking his leg in some way, and the poor fellow was thus compelled to succumb to the waves through which he had battled so bravely, and sank close to the north side of the pier.” Sadly, very few of the sailor’s bodies were identified thus we have not been able to trace this man’s identity. Bad weather was extremely dangerous and posed a threat to the safety of all sailors. Half a century after the Great Gale, tempestuous weather claimed the life of another seaman of African descent. On 25 October 1921, the steam trawler Gamecock arrived back in Hull with the news that their boatswain Ernie Jones, who lived at 76 Campbell Street, had been washed overboard during a terrible storm.  More recently, Adam Ali lost his life on board the Kingston Peridot after the vessel encountered bad weather and sank in late January 1968 (read the Ali's family story).
As well as drowning at sea, the bodies of sailors were also found in local docks. How they ended up falling into the water in many cases remains a mystery. It is possible that some of the sailors had fallen from the dockside or from their ships when drunk. However, it is remarkable to consider that despite making their living on board ships, many sailors were not strong swimmers. For example, in January 1912, Harry Williams, a seaman of African descent from the Elswick Hall was found in the Albert Dock basin. He had been reported missing in late December and was identified by his hat which was floating beside his body. A verdict on his death was returned as “Found drowned.”  A further example is one of Arthur Douglas, a 52-year-old Jamaican sailor who was pulled from the docks on 12 January 1941. He had been drunk when he was last seen in October and had not returned to his ship. Local police surgeon, Dr Scott stated that his body appeared to have been in the water for around 10 weeks. An inquest into his death also returned a verdict of “Found drowned.” 
Another tragedy in January 1912 resulted in ‘coloured’ seaman, Frederick Hoford, drowning in the Alexandra Dock when trying to save another sailor of African descent. Joseph Daniels, a coal heaver, of Rose Cottages, Marfleet witnessed the events that unfolded. He met the two sailors who were lost and showed them back to the dock area. When they had identified their ship, Daniels left the men and walked only a few yards when he heard a splash and saw Davis in the water. He threw a rope which Davis caught but Holfod had already jumped into the dock unbeknown to onlookers. It was not until Davis was rescued that it was realised the other man had drowned trying to save his friend.  In 1941, the body of another sailor of African descent was fished out of the docks. It was reported that South African seaman, John Spottie, had accidently fallen into King George Dock when he was returning to his ship during a blackout. 
Although, the predominant cause of death for sailors was drowning, other accidents and tragedies also occurred. For example, in January 1916, two laundrymen, Joshua Macauley and Jonas Williams from Sierra Leone were found dead in the washhouse of the Elizabethville which traded between Hull and the Congo and typically carried an all African crew.  They had apparently been suffocated by fumes from a charcoal fire while in King George Dock.  An inquest was held in Hull regarding their deaths but more information has yet to be found.
Below are two paintings believed to be by the popular local artist John Ward (1798–1849) who was one of the leading marine and ship painters during the early nineteenth century. Although, they appear to be very similar there is one important difference, can you work out what it is?
Both paintings are set at the mouth of the River Hull and Humber shipping lane at sunrise with a view of steam and sailing ships in the background. Also featured in the paintings are lightermen rowing their small boats out into the river and two men in the midground looking out across the water, in what appears to be deep discussion. However, in the foreground of the picture there is a subtle but important difference. In the first painting, one man in red (possibly a dock worker), is seated on a rock or large piece of wood and appears to be smoking a long pipe. However, in the second painting this man is joined by an acquaintance who is seated to his left. The other gentleman is Black. He is wearing a yellow hat and light-coloured jacket with blue trousers and black shoes. He is also probably a dockworker and is smoking the same long pipe. Thus, while the first image shows an idyllic traditional and popular view of Hull’s maritime landscape in the early nineteenth century, the second painting represents a more faithful and accurate portrayal of actual Black presence within the port.
Undoubtedly, the paintings raise more questions than answers. It is believed that the second picture with the inclusion of the Black sailor was painted around 1800. If this is the case, then it could not have been painted by Ward since he would have only been two years old at the time. Given the scenery and artistic style of the work, it is possible that this early date is incorrect and that, in fact, Ward produced this work much later on. The first painting without the Black sailor has been dated to around 1835 and is believed to be by Ward. This begs the question whether Ward made a copy of the older picture (perhaps by an unknown artist) and then deliberately removed the Black figure? Or did he make a copy of his own painting and add the man into the scene later on? And if so why remove or add a Black dockworker? Additional historical research and pictorial analysis would need to be done in order for these questions to be more fully answered. Nonetheless, the paintings and their story remain intriguing.
With thanks to Dr Nicholas Evans for bringing this to our attention. If you think you have any further information about either of these painting, please do contact us here.
Dr Lauren Darwin