Black History Month: Commemorating WWI West African Merchant Seamen

West African crew members were among the dead when the Falaba and Apapa ships were torpedoed off the Welsh coast during the First World War.

The Falaba was sunk by a German submarine on 28 March 1915, some 38 miles to the west of the Smalls, Pembrokeshire, on her way from Liverpool to Sierra Leone. Warning was given by the Germans for the 280 passengers and crew to take to the boats, but before they could do so a torpedo was fired, and the vessel sank almost immediately.

From a drawing by C. B. Norton from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19150422-47-2

From a drawing by C. B. Norton from Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19150422-47-2

 

104 passengers and crew were killed by the explosion, by drowning, or from hypothermia caused by freezing cold seas. It was the first unarmed passenger ship to be attacked in the war, and in the days following newspapers from around the world published reports of the horrific scenes and harrowing witness accounts from an inquest held in Milford Haven.

Among the dead was a Nigerian seaman called John Myers. He is listed in the ship’s register as a trimmer aged 21, and this was probably only his second voyage. He was among about 18 black crew members on board and is interred at Milford Haven, although no record of his grave has yet been found.

The Falaba belonged to the Elder Dempster shipping line which ran steamers between Liverpool and West Africa and had a long history of employing West Africans as crew members. On the previous voyage there had been 23 black seamen on board, mostly working as firemen and trimmers, who were paid at least 20% less than the rate for white seamen. The West African crew also worked in the most dangerous and vulnerable part of the ship – the engine room – stoking and oiling the engines and shovelling the coal.

John Thomas, another Nigerian and the chief fireman on the Falabar, identified John Myers among the dead. This same John Thomas was to die two years later when his ship, the Apapa, was sunk in a similar attack off Anglesey on 28 November 1917. 77 passengers and crew went down with the Apapa when she sank. 174 managed to board the ship’s six lifeboats, which were later taken in tow by two steam drifters to Holyhead.

Graves Registration Report for Glanadda Cemetery listing John Thomas and Isaac Peppell. Reproduced with kind permission from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Graves Registration Report for Glanadda Cemetery listing John Thomas and Isaac Peppell. Reproduced with kind permission from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

 

The gravestone of John Thomas at Glanadda Cemetery. Reproduced by the kind permission of the photographer, Richard Roberts.

The gravestone of John Thomas at Glanadda Cemetery. Reproduced by the kind permission of the photographer, Richard Roberts.

 

John Thomas is buried in Bangor Glanadda Cemetery alongside his shipmate, Isaac Peppell, who was born in Bonny, Nigeria. John Thomas’s wife, Melia Thomas, a white woman, was present at his burial.

Like the Falaba, the Apapa was one of Elder Dempster’s ships and had a large crew of West Africans. From the newspaper report of the inquest at Bangor we hear the rare voice of a black seaman as he identifies the body of his cousin and describes the attack:

James Thomas, a negro who was a fireman on the liner, identified the body of John Thomas, his cousin, who lived in Warwick Street, Liverpool, and Isaac Pembroke [Peppell], a fireman, also a negro, who lived in Sierra Leone. “I was on board the liner when she was submarined,” added the witness, whose evidence, given in pidgin English, was interpreted by Mr Yarwood. “It occurred off the coasts, and the sea was choppy at the time. The first torpedo hit No. 3 hatch on the port side, and another torpedo struck the vessel on the starboard side by the fore hatch. There was not five minutes’ interval between the two torpedoes, and the vessel was afloat ten minutes after being struck. There were plenty of boats, but there was no chance to loosen them.” A Juryman: Was there any firing at the boats? “There were no shots fired at the boats.” North Wales Chronicle, 7 December 1917, page 2.

The Royal Commission is currently working on a project called ‘The Forgotten U-boat War around the Welsh Coast’ – read more here: http://rcahmw.gov.uk/royal-commission-gains-heritage-lottery-fund-approval-for-the-development-of-the-forgotten-u-boat-war-around-the-welsh-coast-project/

 

Some facts

  • Total losses: during the First World War the Elder Dempster company lost 42 ships to German U-boats with 420 employees losing their lives, approximately one third (140) were black seamen. Their names are listed on the Elder Demster Roll of Honour.
  • Race Riots: after the war the ports of Liverpool and Cardiff were in decline and there was widespread unemployment among seamen leading to race riots. Around 2,000 black seamen were repatriated between 1919 and the early 1920s in an effort to ease tensions, although many who had families stayed.
  • Black Seaman: african merchant seamen serving in the First World War were not recognised as British subjects and their families were not compensated for their loss. Many lost their lives and for most their only recognition are their names on the Tower Hill memorial which commemorates men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in both World Wars and who have no known grave.
  • Wreck:the wreck of the Apapa now rests upright on the seabed, with its bow pointed towards the coast, off Point Lynas, Anglesey.
  • Flowers on the Grave:a newspaper report of the Empire celebrations in Bangor in May 1919 mentions ‘two coloured men of Upper Warwick street, Liverpool’, Apapa victims, having flowers placed on their graves by members of the church of St Mary’s.
  • Mystery Canoe: the largest exhibit at the Llŷn Maritime Museum at Nefyn is a dug-out logboat. Research carried out recently concluded that it dated from the early twentieth century and was possibly one of the canoes used by West Africans to board the Elder Dempster ships waiting off the West African coast. These canoes would be taken on board and then thrown over before docking at Liverpool. The canoe at Nefyn was found at Caernarfon and its origins had been a mystery.

 

Useful links:

Roll of Honour for the “Falaba”: http://www.merseysiderollofhonour.co.uk/obits/ships/falaba.htm

Roll of Honour for the “Apapa”: http://www.merseysiderollofhonour.co.uk/obits/ships/apapa.htm

John Thomas: photo of grave at Bangor cemetery: http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=pv&GRid=166165463

Llŷn Maritime Museum log-boat research and images: http://www.llyn-maritime-museum.co.uk/eng/cwch-boncyff.html

 

Newspaper reports:

The Falaba: Haverford and Milford Haven Telegraph, 7 April 1915: http://welshnewspapers.llgc.org.uk/en/page/view/4118479/ART9

The Apapa: North Wales Chronicle, 7 December 1917: http://newspapers.library.wales/view/4244097/4244099/6/

 

Further reading:

  • Dropping Anchor, Setting Sail: Geographies of Race in Black Liverpool by Jacqueline Nassy Brown
  • Black Salt: Seafarers of African Descent on British Ships by Ray Costello
  • Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War by Stephen Bourne

Black History Month: Commemorating WWI West African Merchant Seamen

 

Helen Rowe, Information Officer, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments Record of Wales

10/11/2016

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Liz Millman
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Hi Helen, could you contact me asap please, as we would like to invite you on Thurs 26th October: 2017 to Learning Links International’s 2nd Annual International Symposium on Black History, including update relating to research into the life and times of Rev. William Hughes, Colwyn Bay Town Hall 2-4pm phone 07711569489 for more details. Rev William Hughes created the African Institute in Colwyn Bay and it is the Centenary of presentation of a citation to Rev William Hughes by Colwyn Bay Town Council on the eve of his 3rd visit to Africa. However we don’t think this third visit… Read more »

Liz Millman
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Hi Helen, could you contact me asap please, as we would like to invite you on Thurs 26th October: 2017 to Learning Links International’s 2nd Annual International Symposium on Black History, to speak perhaps on your work on issues which shipping to Africa around the time of the First World War,as we are including an update relating to research into the life and times of Rev. William Hughes at Colwyn Bay Town Hall 2-4pm. Rev William Hughes created the African Institute in Colwyn Bay and it is the Centenary of presentation of a citation to Rev William Hughes by Colwyn… Read more »

Helen Rowe
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Helen Rowe

See also a photograph showing black crew members of the SS Hopemount, taken c1915 on the Glamorgan Archives website: http://calmview.cardiff.gov.uk/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=DX229%2f5%2f17
http://calmview.cardiff.gov.uk/GetImage.ashx?db=Catalog&type=default&fname=79%5cc5d29f-d572-4491-957c-6de0390481ad.jpg
The Hopemount had 8 crewmen from West Africa in 1915 and was sunk by a u-boat on June 13 1915, while on a voyage from Cardiff to Alexandria with a cargo of coal.

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