Sailors from Africa, the West Indies and India have contributed to the life on board British ships during times of both peace and war. In times of conflict such as the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815) and of large-scale international trade, large numbers of men were required to fight and work on board Royal Navy ships and on commercial carriers.
As early as 1595 African men took to the sea in the British Navy, defending the coast of England as well as taking part in the various expeditions against France, Holland and Spain, including famous battles such as Trafalgar (1805).
Sailors sometimes doubled as soldiers, depending on the location of the war. As with White sailors, Africans, West Indians and Asians could be recruited in Britain for an ‘unlimited’ period – that is, permanent service – and thus become professionals or regulars. Others were recruited for a specific campaign and then discharged.
Voyages were long and arduous and conditions for all sailors, both Africans and Europeans, were often very bad. Thousands died, not so much in battle but from diseases such as cholera and yellow fever. In order to replace them, the British recruited many sailors in the colonies.