The Black Sailor on Nelson’s Column

My eyes have been opened recently by David Olusoga’s new book; Black and British. You may have seen the BBC series that was released alongside it?

Olusoga aims to shed light on the history of Black Britons that have been “miss-filed, recategorised or side-lined” out of mainstream history, culminating in a series of Plaques across the UK.  I’ve already talked about one of these, which you can find at 17 Gough Square.

But this Black Briton is really hiding in plain view. And has been for over 150 years.

Nelson’s Column

At the base of one of London’s icons, a few steps from the official centre of London, is the bronze relief of ‘Death of Nelson’ from The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) sculpted by John Edward Carew.

Black Sailor Nelson's Column

The scene is the aftermath of Nelson being shot by a French sniper. Take a closer look at the left hand side and you’ll spot a sailor, stood up with his rifle firmly in his hands and looking up towards the rigging where the shot came from.

Black Sailor Nelson's Column

His features are unmistakably African and he is included in the scene because he was there, fighting alongside the British that day.

Black Sailor Nelson's Column

WHO WAS HE?

From the ‘mustard’ books on ships that detail every men who fought on ships in The Battle of Trafalgar, there are 18 men listed as being born in Africa. One of them, George Ryan aged 23, is listed as working on HMS Victory. He served in the Royal Navy until 1813 when he was injured and honourably discharged aged 32.

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Contemporary critics admired the relief, commenting particularly on the black sailer as “a perfect work full of character”.

It’s important to note that he wasn’t treated like a token addition, and as Olusoga points out, neither was he included because of “some Nineteeth Century feelings of political correctness”. He’s shown there because he was there and it was recognised at the time that black sailers had been among the heroes of Trafalgar.

So have a look next time you’re in beside Nelson’s Column, just above Nelson’s famous quote from the battle; “England expects that every man will do his duty.” George Ryan certainly did his duty and should be celebrated for it.

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7 Comments

  • Valuable observation. How few see it. Thank you.

    April 11, 2018 at 10:13 am
  • Frank Stephenson

    Reply

    I recently read a newspaper column, written by a black journalist, who informed the world that your “black sailor” was a slave, obviously because she had some sort of axe to grind. I am glad that you have taken the time to get your facts right. It is clear the he is a free man fighting alongside his comrades.
    I am white but even I know that Black people have lived and worked in this country since the Roman invasion, so I am glad that you are spreading the word.
    By the way, did you know that the fine old English tradition of Morris dancing was originally called Moorish dancing, if you watch it then you can see that it is actually a sword dance and the Moors, (Black Africans) were famous for their sword skills.

    November 4, 2019 at 8:53 pm
    • jacqueline booth-dickson

      Reply

      Thanks for this, Frank. Very informative

      August 5, 2020 at 9:16 am
  • CLIVE HUGHES

    Reply

    What may not be widly kmown,is that the Royal Navy was and is, entirely opposed to slavery. I was aware of the black sailor standing guard over the fallen Lord Nelson on the artwork at the foot of Nelson’s Column, facing down Whitehall. The RN spent a lot of time searching the Atlantic for slave ships, which were turned around and escorted back to African shores. Wm. Wilberforce’s Private Bill to abolish the Slave Trade, passed ino English Law in c1807.

    “There is only one race, the Human Race, and while one of us is a slave, none of us is free”
    William Wilberforce MP

    May 10, 2020 at 4:46 pm
  • Stuart W

    Reply

    The Navy implements the prevailing Govt policy.
    “naval anti-slavery in the nineteenth century takes on its full significance only in the context of 200 years of unremitting state support of the trade. Suppression represented an about-face in policy, an overnight reversal on the basis of a legal imperative from parliament. The suddenness with which the navy, previously the handmaiden of the slave trade, was joined to the anti-slavery project throws into sharp relief the ideological terrain of the preceding era.”
    Newton, J. (2013) ‘Slavery, Sea Power and the State: The Royal Navy and the British West African Settlements, 1748–1756’, Journal of Imperial & Commonwealth History, 41(2), pp. 171–193. doi: 10.1080/03086534.2013.779098.

    July 19, 2020 at 12:16 pm

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