John Myers, West African seaman’s 105-year-old grave found

Simon Hancock, the curator of Haverfordwest Town Museum (a partner on the Royal Commission led WW1 U-boat Project), has been in touch with the amazing news that he has found the long-lost grave of the Nigerian seaman, John Myers (also spelt Meyers), who was drowned when the SS Falaba was sunk off Pembrokeshire in March 1915.

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

Falaba sinking and black crews

In 2016 we wrote a blog describing the story of the sinking of the passenger liner SS Falaba in 1915, with the loss of 104 lives. We explored the little-known fact that many of the crew on merchant ships in the First World War were black and came from the then British colonies. Because they mostly worked in the engine rooms which were the most vulnerable areas of the ship, they often died when their ships were torpedoed by enemy submarines.

From the report of the inquest, Haverfordwest & Milford Telegraph 31st March 1915, Welsh Newspapers Online

The inquest

At the inquest into the deaths following the sinking of the Falaba, the body of John Myers was identified by fellow Nigerian crew member, John Thomas, and was then buried in the graveyard at Milford Haven.

Despite searching the graveyard, the U-boat project team was unable to find his grave.

The photograph below shows the surviving crew of another passenger liner sunk by a U-boat two years later, the SS Apapa. John Thomas, who had survived the Falaba sinking and had identified John Myers’s body, was drowned on this ship and is buried in a cemetery in Bangor. His grave is marked with a Commonwealth War Graves headstone.

Survivors from the SS Apapa outside Stanley Sailors’ Home, Holyhead
The Commonwealth War Graves headstone for John Thomas at Glanadda cemetery, Bangor
John Aboe from Forcados, Nigeria, survived the Falaba sinking. We believe this is his seaman’s card from after the war. He is listed as having died in WW2 when the SS Domingo de Larrinaga was torpedoed in 1940.

Appeal to provide a memorial to John Myers

The sum hoping to be raised will fund a headstone and to buy the grave plot. Any surplus will fund the identification of other black actors in the history of Pembrokeshire and research into their lives’.

Simon Hancock, who recently found the plot where John Myers is buried (pictured), and who has researched black and minority ethnic sailors coming on ships to Wales, has started a Just Giving page which is asking for donations. Simon writes: ‘The sum hoping to be raised will fund a headstone and to buy the grave plot. Any surplus will fund the identification of other black actors in the history of Pembrokeshire and research into their lives’.

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 Dempster 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 seamen: African and Carribean 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.
  • 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 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.

Find out more:

  • Read the story of Jabez Massaquoi, one of the survivors of the Falaba sinking, also from West Africa, who settled in Stoke and was interviewed there in 1967.

Helen Rowe, Information Officer

Black History Month: Commemorating WWI West African Merchant Seamen

10/21/2020

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