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?