Forgotten victims of war: Black merchant seamen interned in the Second World War

A selection of images of Black prisoners of war from their earlier registration cards. There are five rows of five photographs.
A selection of images of prisoners of war from their earlier registration cards. Catalogue ref: BT 350 and BT 364

To mark the end of Black History Month I would like to share with you some research taken from our Merchant Navy records relating to Black merchant seamen who were interned in the Second World War. The information is largely drawn from two series of records, which have been the subject of improved cataloguing to record the names and identifying details of merchant seamen.

The series BT 373 Merchant Seamen Prisoner of War Records consists of pouches recording the circumstances of capture and the eventual fate of merchant seamen captured during the Second World War, while the series WO 416 is comprised of German record cards of British and Commonwealth Prisoners of War and some civilian internees. BT 373 was completed last year and all the names are now searchable on Discovery, while WO 416, which is a much larger project, is now about 70% complete. Among other fields you can search by name, where born, capacity (the job they carried out on the ship), name of ship, and where interned.

What we have found is that, so far, at least 56 of the merchant seamen who were captured were of African descent. Of these, at least 25 have photographs, as shown above. Most of the photographs were attached to their CR 10 cards, Central Index cards to the Special Register of Seamen which run from 1918 to 1921, indicating that their service in the Merchant Navy had already been quite considerable by the time of the Second World War.

Cover sheet from the Merchant Navy prisoner of war pouch for Abraham Emmanuel Bright.
Cover sheet from the Merchant Navy prisoner of war pouch for Abraham Emmanuel Bright. Catalogue ref: BT 373/474

Forty-two of the seamen were born in West Africa, with 23 giving their place of birth as Sierra Leone, while in addition there were eight from Nigeria, five from the Gold Coast (Ghana), five from the Gambia and one from Liberia. Another 13 merchant seamen were born in the West Indies, with nine hailing from Jamaica, while there was one from Trinidad, one from Barbados, and one from St Vincent. A lack of surviving records from the Registrar General of Shipping and Seamen has meant that one merchant seaman, Eric Walcott, who served on the Nicolaos as a Fireman, and who was interned by the Germans in Marlag und Milag Nord, has his birthplace listed merely as West Indies. Finally, one seaman, James Clement, was born in Georgetown, British Guiana (Guyana).

German record card for Merchant Navy internee John Manny.
German record card for Merchant Navy internee John Manny. Catalogue reference: WO 416/245/254

With the exception of four seamen who lived in Jamaica at the start of the Second World War, the rest had either settled in the United Kingdom or had accommodation in the UK when they signed on to their last ship. Of these, 35 had addresses in Liverpool, while the remainder are scattered around the major ports, including North and South Shields, Glasgow, Leith, Swansea, Cardiff, Newport, Hull and London. Those who lived in Liverpool were at addresses largely around Toxteth and the docks, such as Stanhope Street, Selbourne Street, Mill Street and Beaufort Street. These were mostly boarding houses, hostels and seamen’s homes.

The last ship's movement card for Trelawny, reported as sunk by enemy action on 22 February 1941.
1939 Register Entry for John Manny at 154 Palmerstone Street, South Shields. Catalogue ref: RG 101 2701

Twenty-two served on the same ship, Duquesa, a steamship which had previously been an ocean liner and which was captured by the Germans on 18 December 1940. The seamen were interned in Marlag XB at Sandbostel in Saxony, which was a Marinelager or camp for marine prisoners, before moving to Marlag und Milag Nord in Westertimke, within the same region, but in a camp where they were treated as navy internees or marineinternierten, rather than as prisoners of war. There are pouches for each of these seamen, which were put together by the Registry General of Shipping and Seamen, as well as record cards made up by the Germans, some of which hold further photographs.

Within the same camp there were eight black merchant seamen from SS Trelawny, a cargo ship which was sunk on 22 February 1941, a further seven from Empire Ranger, which was lost on 29 March 1942, four seamen were from Empire Industry which was sunk on 16 March 1941 and two seamen from Nicolaos, a Greek-owned cargo ship which was sunk in the Atlantic on 12 April 1941. As internees captured by the Germans they were eligible for repatriation between 1944 and 1945, subject to examination by a Mixed Medical Commission to determine their fitness.

The last ship's movement card for Trelawny, reported as sunk by enemy action on 22 February 1941.
The last ship’s movement card for Trelawny, reported as sunk by enemy action on 22 February 1941. Catalogue ref: BT 389/30/108

Five black sailors who were on board Allende, which was sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Liberia, were taken ashore at the Ivory Coast, before being interned in Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta). Thompson Oyebo, a Fireman on board Sithonia, which was sunk on 13 July 1942 off Tenerife, was interned in Sebikotane, Senegal, while John Eggeston Sutherland, an Able Seaman on board Parracombe was interned in Le Kef, Tunisia. They were all repatriated before the end of the war.

Those sailors who fared worst were six merchant mariners who were interned by the Japanese. James Clement, Darnley Manning and Caleb Phillips were on board Gemstone, which was captured off the coast of Brazil on 4 June 1942. They were taken on board the German ship Stier, but were later transferred into Japanese hands and were taken to Fukuoka Camp in Japan. James Clement had previously served in the First World War on board the ships Parima and Berbice and had been awarded the British War Medal and the Mercantile Marine Medal. He died in captivity on 21 February 1943. Darnley Manning, from Bridgetown, Barbados, but residing in Jamaica, died in Japanese hands on 22 December 1944. The cause of death was diagnosed as malnutrition and heart disease. Boatswain Caleb Phillips had also served in the First World War, on the St Ninian and War Sorel. He died in captivity on 24 May 1943, of beri beri and malnutrition. All three sailors were cremated, but have gravestones at Yokohama cemetery.

Japanese Prisoner of War card for Darnley Manning.
Japanese Prisoner of War card for Darnley Manning. Catalogue ref: WO 345/34

Three sailors were on board the Willesden when it was sunk by the German ship Thor on 1 April 1942. They were transferred to Japanese hands and interned in Kawasaki Camp, Tokyo. Fireman and Trimmer Joe James died of acute pneumonia on 30 December 1942. Another Fireman and Trimmer, Joe Mendie, died in captivity on 8 May 1943, while Donkeyman Alfred Williams died of heart trouble and bronchitis on 8 September 1943. Together with Joe James he had served in the First World War. All three, like the sailors from the Gemstone, have a memorial at the Yokohama cemetery.

Cover of seaman’s pouch for Joe James.
Cover of seaman’s pouch for Joe James. Catalogue ref: BT 373/2820

The records in BT 373 often contain snippets of letters written to and from the merchant seamen while they were held in internment camps. These letters were intercepted by the Postal Censorship Department. Interesting parts of the letters were transcribed and sent to the department to which they would be of interest such as the War Office and the Registry General of Shipping and Seamen before the letters were sent on. They provide interesting first-hand accounts of how a ship was lost and what life was like in a camp. Some of the letters are from merchant seamen complaining that they have not received letters or parcels, while others were sent from relatives to the merchant seamen providing details of life at home.

Postal Censorship extract from a letter from Charles Brown to his wife Agnes.
Postal Censorship extract from a letter from Charles Brown to his wife Agnes. Catalogue ref: BT 373/478

As we close Black History Month, it is to the seamen, some of them very long-serving, who were incarcerated during the Second World War, to whom this blog is dedicated. As our Maritime Records Specialist, with a large number of merchant seamen in my family, I pause to remember their service. Next month, on 11 November, I will be thinking of them particularly.

3 comments

  1. Marie T says:

    thank you for bringing Black lives British History to the agenda…often forgotten or unacknowledged. many commonwealth countries also supported the British during war time and have never been fully commended for it.

  2. Rebecca Eversley says:

    Thank you for including Sekon Camora. We have him on our project as he is family and are interested in any records regarding his time captured

  3. Clare Hart says:

    Thank you for finding this information. Thompson Oyebo was the husband of my great grandmother Margaret Oyebo (Bello). I would be very grateful for any further information regarding his maritime service

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