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.
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.
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.
His features are unmistakably African and he is included in the scene because he was there, fighting alongside the British that day.
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.
Contemporary critics admired the relief, commenting particularly on the black sailer as “a perfect work full of character”. He wasn’t treated like a token addition, or – as Olusoga says – included because of some 19th 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.