The ‘Kroomen’ from West Africa and the ‘Zanzibari Siddis’ in our Heritage

When next you visit Simonstown, one time major naval base of the British Royal Navy in Cape Town, I would encourage you to visit the old graveyard and read the inscriptions on the tombstones. One word will jump out at you from many a tombstone – KROOMAN. It does not mean CREWMAN though these Kroomen served on many a Royal Navy vessel and were a big part of life in Simonstown for the best part of a century. The Kroomen are another big part of the ancestral heritage of many Capetonians. The term Kroomen derives from the Kru of Sotta Krou, Bloléquin and elsewhere in West Africa and are one of the many tributaries in the identity of ‘Coloured’ people. The Kru derive from the Grebo people to be found along the coast of Liberia and Ivory Coast.

From the 1840s through to the 1930s African sailors, Seedies and Kroomen were recruited by the British Royal Navy. The term Siddi denotes communities of former African slaves who were taken to India, Zanzibar and Seychelles where descendent communities exist to this day. The Royal Navy came into contact with the Siddis during the time between 1808 to 1850 when they were patrolling the coast of Africa and seizing slaver ships and ‘cargoes’ of ‘prize slaves’ after the abolition of the transoceanic slave trade. As a result Siddis or Seedies entered the service of the Royal Navy. Most Seedies were Muslim and were former slaves. Some Seedies were also in fact Somali interpreters from a community around the British base in Aden. In 1934 the Royal Navy formally dropped the term Seedies and used the term Somalis instead. Seedies generally came to the Cape via Zanzibar to the Simonstown Royal Naval Base and they were also brought across in sizeable numbers during the Cape labour crises in 1884. These were housed in the Hope Street stables at that time. Other Seedis settled in communities in Kwazulu Natal.

The Kroomen were experienced fishermen from the West African Kru of the Grebo tribe and they became an indispensable part of Royal Navy operations along the African coastline. The Kru had started working on European ships as ‘Free Blacks’ already in the 18th century after Christian missionaries had engaged with communities along the Liberian and Cote d’ Ivoire coastline – what was known as the Grain Coast. Many other ‘Free Black’ sailors were already in the Royal Navy as a result of the British giving North American slaves freedom in exchange for alliances and military service against the colonists during the American War of Independence. Some of the ‘Prize Slaves’ brought to the Cape by the Royal Navy ships after 1808 also found themselves ‘apprenticed’ by the Royal Navy. By the early 19th century the Kroomen were spread across the world working even in harbours in North America. In 1857 William Hall, a former slave born in Nova Scotia and in the service of the Royal Navy, was the first black man to be awarded the Victoria Cross for valour. By the turn of the 20th century black naval recruits included persons from the Caribbean, Goa, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. This wide variety of persons of colour from across the globe enriched our local dna as ‘Coloured’ people and are migrations which our history and heritage stories are silent about. For instance, a few years ago Kurt Oderson, a local filmmaker went to the Carribean and traced his ancestry from that part of the world.

In the Cape the distinction between ‘Prize Slave Apprentices’, Seedies and Kroomen was not sharply made and all were called Kroomen. While the Royal Navy were long using Kru, Seedies and ‘Prize Slaves’ aboard their vessels, it was specifically in 1861 that Rear Admiral Walker requested the authorisation of the Admiralty to approve the use of Kroomen at the Simonstown Station at the Cape. It was granted in 1862 and in 1864 the Cape and East Indies Commands were merged and then in 1869 the Kru were joined by Seedi crewmen and interpreters from the East Indies.

One will note on the Tombstones and from other records that the Kroomen had a range of names that tell nothing about their origins. When Kroomen were signed-on to a ship they were given a name which depending on the person doing the naming would range from everyday English Christian names and surnames to nautical names, such as “Happy Jack”, “Flying Jib” or “Double Block”, and often facetious and mocking names like “Pea Soup” and “Bottle of Beer.”

Much is written about the valour of the Kroomen whose only marker in Cape Town is the gravestones in the Simonstown graveyard and the small tribute in the museum. During the Second World War in 1941 the recruitment of African seamen began to be wound down and as the colonies began independent from the 1950s the century old story of the black Royal Navy Seamen faded from view. Ever wondered why you may have an odd sounding name and what its origins may be? Perhaps you are a descendent of the Kru or the Deedies or the ‘Prize Slaves? It is well worth delving into. Our history and heritage is a lot more complex than many would have us believe. We will never truly be able to celebrate who we are without greater audibility and visibility being given to these stories. How does 100 years of significant history just fade away into insignificance?



6 thoughts on “The ‘Kroomen’ from West Africa and the ‘Zanzibari Siddis’ in our Heritage

  1. Thanks you for this site. I find this very exciting. I remember our history lecturer taking us through the old graveyard in Simonstown and seeing the round kroomen tombstones, and, on another occasion at the Siomnstown museum, meeting a gentleman from the USA whose descendant had been a krooman. I find it extremely exciting that you have an actual photo of some of the kroomen. It would be great to know more about the photo and the people in it. (Bit hard 150 years on). Where would the written records of names (during service) be held today?

  2. Really interesting stories- much i havent heard or read before..and i have a history major from uct and am a decendent of the slave saints!
    ..albeit that the slave part was never mentioned in our family..these stories as part of our cape history needs wider coverage..tx for this

  3. My father served in four of the British Royal Navy ships from 1920 to 1930, based in Simons Town, and in his final Discharge Papers in 1930, the entry read “Return of the Seedies to Zanzibar”. I know that the description of Seedies or Siddis (Indian usage) is related to the “Freed African Slaves” who rose to become useful hands and attained some rank in the East African/India/Arab Trade but the British loved to describe all the people of the East Africa as Seedies. My father was not a freed slave.
    He was born in the Island of Comores in 1898 and migrated to Zanzibar in 1916. Like many young men of his time, he joined the British Navy just after the WW1 and left just before WW2 when the four ships he sailed on over a period of 10 years were ultimately sold for scrap, according to his records and to the records I managed to unearth.
    The newly published book by Ray Costello “BLACK SALT – Seafarers of African Decent on British ships” only deals with the Atlantic side of history, from 1550s, through the Atlantic Slave Trade to the WW2, and nothing about East Africa, although the Krumen, the Zanzibaris as well as the Somalis were also employed in the Royal Navy ships based in Simons Town.
    I am a seafarer by profession, so is my son, therefore, I have taken a lot of interest tracing back to find out what exactly happened during those war years, when many Comorians were employed in South Africa, married there and some settled in South Africa. I find you website very interesting.

    • Thank you for this very personal comment. You are quite right the Seedies/Siddis were certainly not just freed slaves. (The Siddies of India have a different history). There is also a large Siddi community in Durban who are not part of the Simonstown story but also originate from Zanzibar. I must try to get the book. A number of my family were seamen… a profession they followed because our family are a mix of Indian, Coloured and White in old Apartheid terminology and one way of escaping the difficulties of those years was to choose a life at sea. I retired on Pension just over a year ago, but part of my service was as Commanding Officer for Immigration Port Control for Cape Town Harbour and Airport. I also was leader of a team looking at the feasibility of establishing a national coastguard and ensuring a better Immigration and Port Control service in South Africa’s 8 Maritime Ports, and served as Special Advisor to the Minister. My first venture involving the sea was as an engine-room hand aged 14 but the course of life had me go in other directions later on. I’ve always taken a keen interest in things Maritime. But my overarching passion is around the Slavery Era. Thanks again.

  4. Patrick love your work
    We are decendents of makooa/Zanzibari slaves brought in 4th August 1873 to Port Natal
    We are currently trying to find the villages our forebears were taken from ..northern Mozambique..We have preserved our language and culture ……

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