The professed purpose of this volume is to isolate the history of seafarers of African descent from the broader history of people of color in Britain, and to popularize it (p. xiv). In this the author seems to respond to Ian Duffield’s call for “sustained empirical enquiry” into black seafarers (Duffield 2000: 122). He seeks to recover black seafarers’ voices and “contribution” (p. xii), offering a compensatory history that restores black people to British history, and arguing for their centrality to the national story. Black Salt purports to be based on “black narratives” (p. xii) though it strays from these occasionally. A preliminary history focused entirely on seafarers as distinct from other inhabitants of the Black Atlantic, the book could be a valuable addition to the literature, despite minimal original research. Its frequent reliance on outdated and superseded sources, however, means it must be approached with caution.
The book’s subjects range from sea shanties to strikes, identifying interesting characters along the way. It traces black seamen’s presence in British ships and Britain itself from their recruitment or enslavement on the West African Coast. It ranges from the Sierra Leone settlement to black settlements in British ports including Liverpool, Portsmouth, and Bristol. It usefully covers and distinguishes black service in both the Royal Navy and mercantile marine. It locates black seamen throughout the North Atlantic, including North America and beyond: Nova Scotian William Hall was decorated for his service during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The book relates the stories of black sea service in multiple wars, including the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic wars, and the world wars of the twentieth century. The author has apparently produced several books based on oral histories with black Liverpudlians, and the parts of the book relying on these prove the most intriguing.
Neither author nor press, however, apparently felt the need to work this fascinating material into a coherent narrative, argument, or interpretation. Fragmentary arguments appear, such as the reference to black men’s well documented role in the Battle of Trafalgar: “seafarers of African descent were notable, if anything, for their ordinariness … ubiquitous and expected … becoming accepted, in a rough, limited sort of way” (p. 68). Surely it is precisely such limits that the scholar must delineate. Bringing evidence systematically to bear on this or other questions might have made for a more dynamic and fruitful enquiry.
A book of such ambitious scope necessarily relies heavily on the work of others. Drawing liberally and somewhat indiscriminately on popular as well as scholarly literature, Black Salt contains almost no original research, and when it does appear it is isolated and sporadic rather than systematic or substantial. For instance, the author cites one ship’s muster and one burial registry (p. 74) rather than undertaking systematic analysis of a larger number of either that might have yielded significant new knowledge or even a new interpretation.
As a synthesis of extant literature which could serve usefully as an introduction to the question, the book falls short, often relying on decades-old scholarship while ignoring more substantial and up-to-date treatments. Questions ill served in this way include the Sierra Leone settlement, Britain’s nineteenth-century black population, the 1919 riots, the Coloured Alien Seaman Order of 1925, the role of the National Union of Seaman, and relations between Elder Dempster shipping lines and its crews. Citing the major works omitted would exhaust the word limit for this review, but an example is the book’s reliance on a half-dozen pages of journalist Peter Fryer’s 1984 survey Staying Power (1984: 298–301, 315) to discuss the riots of 1919, when Jacqueline Jenkinson’s definitive monograph on these riots appeared with the same press in 2009. Failure to engage this literature becomes consequential when the author erroneously identifies “poorer sections of British society” as the principal perpetrators of racism, and interracial marriages as the catalyst for the 1919 riots (pp. 152, 153). No justification appears for the book’s focus on seafarers of African descent (p. xviii) while excluding other colonized people who populated British ships and port communities. Indeed, the author appears unaware that most of the 8000-some men registered under the Coloured Alien Seamen Order after 1925 were of Asian or Arab rather than African or African diasporic origin (p. 165).
The book is successful as a work of compensatory history, but not as an original contribution to scholarly knowledge, nor as a particularly new interpretation. An admittedly popular work intended to appeal to “black youngsters” (p. xix) seems an odd choice for a university press and the author alike. Scholars of the many periods covered, conversely, will need to delve deeper into the relevant literature, both cited and omitted.
Duffield, Ian, 2000. “I Asked How the Vessel Could Go”: The Contradictory Experiences of African and African Diaspora Mariners and Port Workers in Britain, c. 1750–1850. In Ann Kershen (ed.), Language, Labour and Migration. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, pp. 121–154.
Fryer, Peter, 1984. Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain. London: Pluto.
Jenkinson, Jacqueline, 2009. Black 1919: Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.