Faculty Research & Creative Activity

The Royal Navy’s employment of black mariners and maritime workers, 1754–1783

Charles R. Foy, Eastern Illinois University
Charles Foy, Eastern Illinois University


The Royal Navy has been portrayed as an institution that embodied liberty, regularly employing and relying upon blacks to keep its vessels afloat and to implement Britain’s blue water policy. Despite the critical role black naval seamen played, their employment was shaped more by regional practices than by Admiralty edicts. The result was that blacks were often treated inequitably. Black seamen had less access to pension benefits and were not promoted in the same numbers as working-class white seamen. In England and New York, blacks were largely kept out of royal dockyards and received less favourable compensation than whites. In contrast, while blacks were employed in great numbers in the slave-based economies of Antigua and Senegambia, they were largely barred from highly skilled maritime artisan work. In sum, blacks’ experiences in the Royal Navy were varied and were more influenced by local conditions than by edicts from London.