Black History Month — Powerful Stories of Amazing People

This Black History Month we look back at some incredible people and their contributions to the UK’s Armed Forces — follow our channel and check back here regularly as we add more stories over the course of October 2017

Corporal Salim Hill

Watch Corporal Salim Hill talk about his love for boxing and his achievements and journey to become the lead coach of the RAF Boxing team.

Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa c.1745–1797

Olaudah Equiano was born in a village in Nigeria. At the age of 11 he was abducted and sold into slavery. He was eventually sold to Michael Pascal, a British naval officer, who renamed him Gustavus Vassa. Pascal was fond of Olaudah and when they were in London he sent him to school to learn how to read and write. During the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France 1756 -1763, Olaudah served as Pascal’s personal servant onboard Royal Navy ships. He was also a powder carrier, carrying gunpowder from its safe storage below the waterline, out of reach of enemy shot, to the gun decks. Olaudah was embarked in HMS Namur, the flagship of Admiral Boscawen, for the capture of Louisbourg in 1758 and later wrote that the ceremony of surrender was “the most beautiful procession on the water I ever saw.” Olaudah was also involved in the Battle of Lagos off of the coast of Portugal in 1759, again in HMS Namur, and in the capture of Belle Île off of the coast of Brittany in 1761, this time embarked in HMS Etna, as well as other battles.

Pascal sold Olaudah to Captain James Doran, who transported him to Montserrat in the Caribbean. From there he was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant from Philadelphia. King gave Olaudah work on his shipping routes and in his stores, and also developed his education, teaching him about religion and trading. King let Olaudah conduct business on his own and to buy his freedom in 1766.

Olaudah made his was back to England. The landmark ruling in Somersett’s Case of 1772 abolished slavery and in 1773 Olaudah was serving in HMS Racehorse during an Arctic expedition, alongside a young midshipman named Horatio Nelson who was serving in the expedition’s other ship, HMS Carcass. Olaudah became significantly involved in the abolition of slavery and in 1789 he published his pioneering autobiography; its descriptions of suffering persuaded many to join the abolitionist cause and to add force to Britain’s growing anti-slavery movement. Olaudah’s autobiography was not only a milestone in English literary works, but it also gave him independence in the form of a solid and substantial income. He used his newfound wealth to support economic, social and educational development in Sierra Leone.

Olaudah also supported London’s poor black community. His widely read autobiography and his prominent connections made him a well-known figure, able to act as a leader for minorities and as a voice for his people.

Today’s Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force pride themselves on being equal opportunities employers.

Flight Lieutenant Trevor Edwards

Flight Lieutenant Trevor Edwards

Trevor Edwards has flown Jaguars with the RAF and Airbus aircraft with British Airways. And as of November will take the controls of the Boeing 787. Here is his story in his own words.

“I was born in Woolwich, east London, to West Indian parents who had migrated to Britain in the early 1960s. I grew up in a pretty tough housing estate, but I attended the Grammar School in Dartford and worked hard. In 1985, I joined the RAF as an officer in the RAF Regiment, but I later transferred to aircrew, starting my flying training in 1987. I received my ‘wings’ at RAF Valley the following year and, after coming top of the Tactical Weapons course, I became a fighter pilot flying Jaguars. I eventually joined 54 Squadron at RAF Coltishall.
The first time I flew the Jaguar with 1000lb bombs and the guns fully armed with high explosive bullets, I could not believe that a lad from east London was authorised to bomb and strafe a deserted island in a multi-million pound single-seat fighter aircraft.
My tour on Jaguars was eventful as the Squadron was deployed several times to Turkey flying missions over the ‘no-fly zone’ in North Iraq. We also operated from Southern Italy, supporting NATO forces during the Bosnian conflict.
After my time on 54 Squadron, I became a flying instructor on the Tucano aircraft at RAF Linton-on-Ouse. I left the RAF as a Flight Lieutenant in 1997 to join British Airways and I am currently an Airbus Training Captain.
I consider myself to have been a very ordinary London kid who was trained by the RAF to do very extraordinary things.”

You can follow these links to find out more about flying in the Royal Navy, Army and RAF today.

Story courtesy of the RAF Museum’s online ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition.

Longest Serving Female Royal Navy Reserve Celebrates 40 Years Service

Little did 19-year-old Hackney girl Evadne Gordon know, when she joined the Royal Naval Reserves on 31st March 1977, that 40 years later she would still be serving.

Chief Petty Officer Gordon, 59, was both the first person from her family to be born in the UK, after her parents moved from Jamaica in the 1950s, and the first to join the Armed Forces.

Now Evadne is celebrating becoming the longest serving female member of the Royal Naval Reserves, and she has no intentions of hanging up her uniform just yet.

Back when she first joined as a Wren after responding to a newspaper advert and attending a selection interview, Star Wars had only just been released, James Callaghan was Prime Minister, Abba topped the charts with Knowing Me Knowing You, and female Naval Reserves were not allowed to carry weapons or serve aboard a ship.

Of course, a lot has changed in the four decades since, with Reserves now fully integrated into the Armed Forces and for the first time since they were able to join the military a century ago, women are able to serve on the front line and do all the jobs that their male colleagues can.

The changes have been really positive, women are now treated equally. I wasn’t allowed to serve at sea or carry arms when I joined, but now there are no limits to what we are able to do. There has been a lot of progress, and it’s great to see.
The Royal Naval Reserves are fully integrated now too. When I joined the Wrens, we were a separate entity and lots of full timers didn’t know who we were and what we did, they thought we were veterans on the reserve list. Now we are no different than the Regulars and do our jobs alongside them.
Evadne met the Queen Mother in the early eighties.

Evadne’s long career has included parading during the Lord Mayor of London’s show, stints training hundreds of officers and personnel in Hong Kong, Gibraltar, Dubai, and Portugal in addition to the UK, and she was also responsible for sending and receiving transmissions from Royal Navy ships around the world.

In 2012, she was part of the welcoming party for the Queen during the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for the Royal barge’s arrival at HMS President, where she still serves in the Operations (HQ) Branch, and in the early eighties even met The Queen Mother.

Back when I joined, Wrens could only sign up for three years, so I thought I would give it a go and see where it led to. It just seemed like an interesting thing to do. I never planned to stay for forty years, but each time I had the opportunity to extend I did. I am still in and have just put in for another extension.
I have had a fantastic time. It’s worthwhile, and very interesting. They always say that you get out of it as much as you put in. It’s hard work, but it’s so rewarding, and you meet some very interesting people.

In addition to her military work, Evadne, now a grandmother, also holds down two civilian jobs — one at the Queen Mary University in an administrative role and the other at the Jamma Umoja residential family assessment center in Bromley. She’s even been able to use the many skills she’s picked up as Reserve including a military tracking system she introduced in her civilian role to track staff training.

The most important elements of military life I have brought to my civilian jobs is the discipline and team work, and the fantastic sense of camaraderie.
Photograph courtesy of Imperial War Museum

Pilot Officer John Henry Smythe 1915–1996

John Henry Symthe was born on 30 June 1915, in Freetown, Sierra Leone. In 1939 he joined the Sierra Leone Defence Corps, rising to the rank of Sergeant. Sponsored by the government of Sierra Leone, John volunteered for the RAF as a navigator, fighting in WWII.

John completed 27 missions over Germany and Italy. On the night of 18 November 1943 he was the navigator aboard a Short Stirling III heavy bomber of No 623 Squadron, one of 395 aircraft dispatched to attack the German city of Manheim. The aircraft was crippled by anti-aircraft fire and the crew was forced to parachute from the stricken aircraft. John attempted to hide in a barn but was discovered, captured and spent the next 18 months in a prisoner of war camp until he was liberated by the Soviet Red Army.

After the war John stayed in the RAF studying Law until 1951 when he was called to the Bar at Middle Temple. He married and later returned to Sierra Leone where he continued his law career. John was commissioned into the Sierra Leone Naval Volunteer Force and having been selected as a Queen’s Counsel he was appointed as the country’s Attorney-General. In 1978 he was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE). He moved back to Britain, settling in Oxfordshire, where he lived until his death in 1996.

You can follow these links to find out how the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force continue to employ personnel in legal roles.

The African and Caribbean War Memorial in Windrush Square, Brixton

First ever memorial to African and Caribbean Service Personnel.

Back in June the first ever memorial to honour the contribution of African and Caribbean servicemen and women in both world wars was unveiled at Windrush Sq in Brixton.

The ceremony that marked the event was a hugely important moment, and was attended by a range of guests including Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

Black Britons volunteered at recruitment centres to serve in the Army and Navy soon after Britain joined the First World War in August 1914. As the war pulled in volunteers from all four corners of the world, they were soon joined by volunteers from the Caribbean, many of whom paid for their own passage to fight for the “Mother Country”. The West Indies not only contributed men to the war effort but people from the islands made significant donations despite significant economic hardship.

The British West Indies Regiment was enacted by Army Order in 1916, with the first battalion formed in Seaford, East Sussex. By the end of the war 11 battalions comprising over 15,000 soldiers — 66 % of whom came from Jamaica — had seen action, particularly in Palestine and Jordan. However, many men also fought in the European battlefields of France, Belgium and Italy, as well as in Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq) and East Africa. Altogether 2,500 were killed or wounded.

During the war servicemen from the unit received 81 medals for bravery, with 49 servicemen were mentioned in despatches.

55,000 men from Africa were recruited for military service and hundreds of thousands of others carried out vital roles, fundamental to sustaining the war effort as carriers or auxiliaries as part of the Labour Corps. They came from Nigeria, the Gambia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, Sierra Leone, Uganda, Nyasaland (now Malawi), Kenya and the Gold Coast (now Ghana).

While African troops did not see active service on the battlefields of Europe, they did fight in the Middle East and on the African continent. It is estimated that 10,000 Africans were killed with 166 receiving awards for bravery.

Speaking at the time of the unveiling, The Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said:

The UK is indebted to all those servicemen and women from Africa and the Caribbean who volunteered to serve with Britain during the First and Second World Wars. It is thanks to their bravery and sacrifice that we are able to enjoy our freedoms today. We should also congratulate those who have worked tirelessly to place this memorial in the heart of Brixton.

Jak Beula, CEO of the Nubian Jak Trust said:

More than 2 million African and Caribbean Military Servicemen and Servicewomen’s participated in WWI and WWII but have not been recognized for their contribution. The unveiling of this memorial is to correct this historical omission and to ensure young people of African and Caribbean descent are aware of the valuable input their forefathers had in the two world wars.

During the Second World War, forces from the British Commonwealth of Nations were active in all the major theatres of war. Some 16,000 men and women from the Caribbean left their families and homes to volunteer for the British Armed Forces.

Around 6,000 served with the Royal Air Force and the Royal Canadian Air Force working as fighter pilots, technicians, air gunners and ground staff.

In addition thousands of West Indian seamen also served in the Merchant Navy, transporting cargo and people. This proved to be one of the most dangerous services during the Second World War with almost one third of all merchant seamen dying at sea.

West Indian women also served in Britain with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), with 80 choosing to serve in the WAAF while around 30 joined the ATS. 236 Caribbean volunteers were killed or reported missing during the Second World War, 265 were wounded. Caribbean air force personnel received 103 awards for bravery.

Paul Reid, Director of the Black Cultural Archives said:

The histories of World Wars often overlook the significant contributions made by African and Caribbean soldiers. However, today we can proudly mark the recognition of their bravery and sacrifice to the struggles of independence.
As the national heritage centre dedicated to the preservation of Black history, we will continue to tell the stories of their service and to ensure their contributions and the legacy of this historical narrative becomes part of a more inclusive British history, and remains accessible to all through our archive collection.

The Government supported the monument by providing £80,000 worth of funding through the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Photograph courtesy of Valerie Wint

Flight Lieutenant Arthur Wint 1920–1992

Arthur Wint was born in Plowden, Jamaica in May 1920. A keen sportsman from an early age, by 17 he was the Jamaica Champion Boy Athlete. Six feet five inches tall, modest and with a quiet manner, the Jamaican was aptly nicknamed the “Gentle Giant.”

In 1942, Arthur and his two brothers, Lloyd and Douglas, joined the Royal Air Force and travelled to Canada to train as aircrew. In 1944, he won his ‘wings’ and was described as “a very keen pilot.” Arthur saw active service flying Spitfires and left the RAF in 1947 with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.

After the war, Arthur won a scholarship to St Bartholomew’s (Barts) Hospital in London to study medicine. In 1948, he captained the record-breaking Jamaican team at the Olympic Games in London, winning a Gold medal in the 400 metres and Silver in the 800 metres.

Arthur practised as a doctor in Britain for several years before returning to Jamaica. In 1973, he was awarded the Jamaican Order of Distinction for his services to charities and schools, and the following year he became Jamaica’s High Commissioner in London. Arthur again returned to Jamaica in 1978, serving at Linstead Hospital until his retirement in 1985. He passed away in 1992.

On his death, Michael Manley, the former Jamaican Prime Minister, explained his friend’s significance:

“The single most important element to the influence of Arthur on my generation was the sense of Jamaica, the Caribbean, as a great centre of potential excellence. We were, comparatively speaking, a tiny part of the world with a very small population, but here we were producing people who were running world records, Olympic records, who were taking on the best at the highest level and winning.”

You can follow these links to find out more about the opportunities available in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force today.

Story courtesy of the RAF Museum’s online ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition.


Flight Sergeant David Abiodun Oguntoye and Flight Sergeant Dulcie Ethel Adunola Oguntoye (née King)

Dulcie King was born in May 1923 at Gravesend in Kent. In August 1942, at the age of 19, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and served for two years as an equipment assistant. After Victory in Europe (VE) Day, Flight Sergeant King was posted as an education instructor to RAF Bicester, near Oxford.

David Oguntoye was a school supervisor in Nigeria when, in 1942, he volunteered for the RAF. He arrived in Britain in June 1943, and was selected to train as a navigator in Canada. Returning to Britain too late to see war service, Flight Sergeant Oguntoye was posted to Bicester as a welfare officer for the Caribbean airmen stationed there. In the summer of 1946 he met Dulcie King and they began courting.

Some of their colleagues disliked the fact that Dulcie had chosen a black boyfriend. On one occasion a group of airmen tried to attack David, but Dulcie intervened to protect him. The couple continued to be seen together, and in October 1946 they attended a dance at Bicester.

“He sat on the arm of my chair with his arm ostentatiously around me. This, of course, was something we never normally did in public, but we intended to demonstrate unmistakably our relationship.” — Dulcie Oguntoye

David and Dulcie married on 16 November 1946, shortly after leaving the RAF. They both qualified as lawyers before going to live permanently in Nigeria in April 1954. In 1964, David was selected as a Court President while Dulcie became first a Magistrate and, in 1976, a High Court Judge. David died in June 1997, but Dulcie still lives in Nigeria where she is a tribal chief and ‘benevolent matriarch’ to her late husband’s family.

Today’s Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force pride themselves as being equal opportunities employers.

Story courtesy of the RAF Museum’s online ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition.


Photograph MOD Crown Copyright 2016

Second Lieutenant Kidane Cousland

Second Lieutenant Kidane Cousland, 25, was brought up on a tough housing estate in north London. The son of a single mother he never knew his father.

Life at school for Kidane was a disaster. Branded a failure and a troublemaker, he didn’t learn to read until he was 12. It isn’t surprising that from a very early age he felt angry and disconnected.

“I wasn’t happy with where I was in life. I wasn’t happy with my teachers. I wasn’t happy with people telling me who I was, or what I’d become.”

He left school at 15. A year later, determined to do something that would make his mother proud, and inspired by stories of his grandfather who had been a colonel in the Royal Artillery in North Africa during the second world war, he joined the Army. Since then, he has unstintingly dedicated himself, 100 per cent, to soldiering. Looking back, he is convinced that if he hadn’t taken that important life decision, then by now he would either be dead or in prison.

As a result of his commitment, at 16 he was top of his selection board. He went on to win the gunner of the year award in his phase two training and at 18 he was the top student on his All Arms Commando course.

Kidane’s talent and commitment was spotted and he was selected for officer training at Sandhurst, where earlier this year he graduated top of his class, winning the prestigious Sword of Honour award.

Now Kidane is training as a troop commander in the Royal Artillery. He has his eyes set on taking a degree with a view to studying for a masters.

“I am passionate about the Army. It allows you to unlock your potential and achieve your best. It is a true meritocracy, a place of real social mobility where you progress on your merits. The British Army has always been diverse, and still is. We should recognise that and celebrate it.”

You can find out more about the Army and the wide variety of careers that it offers here.


Photograph courtesy of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

Lieutenant Walter Tull 1888–1918

Walter Tull was one of Britain’s first black professional footballers and the first ever black officer in the British Army.

Walter was born in Folkestone, Kent, one of six children. His father was the son of a slave and had come to Britain from Barbados. By the time he was nine, Walter’s parents had both died and he was moved to an orphanage with his brother, Edward. While there, Walter showed a talent for football and started playing for local amateur side, Clapton FC. He was scouted by Tottenham Hotspur and joined them in July 1909, playing for them until he transferred to Northampton Town in October 1911. He broke barriers as one of Britain’s first black professional footballers, and later the first black officer to lead white men into battle.

In 1914, he enlisted with 17th (1st) Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment and fought in World War One, promoting to the rank of Sergeant in 1916, and fighting in the Battle of the Somme. In December of that year he returned home having contracted trench fever. Once he had recovered, he was sent to the officer training school at Gailes, Scotland. Walter was commissioned and sent to the Italian Front in May 1917. He led his men in the Battle of Piave and was mentioned in dispatches for his “gallantry and coolness under fire”. In 1918, he was transferred to France.

Walter was killed in action on 25 March during the Spring Offensive, near the village of Favreuil in the Pas-de-Calais. He commanded such friendship and loyalty that several of his men risked their own lives to recover his body. However, they had to abort the attempts under the heavy gunfire and advance of the enemy. Sadly, after the fighting, Walter’s body could not be found and he has no known grave, although he is commemorated with honour on the Arras Memorial in France. In 1999, Northampton Town F.C. unveiled a memorial to Walter at its Sixfields Stadium.

The Army that Walter joined was very different to that of today. You can find out more about the Army of today and the jobs that modern soldiers do here.

With thanks to John Fennelly, Tottenham Hotspur Club Historian.

Photograph courtesy of Bruce Castle Museum (Haringey Archive and Museum Service)

Leading Logistician Olusoji Fasuba

Olusoji Fasuba is the current African 100m record holder and the 13th fastest man of all time. He is also a Leading Logistician in the Royal Navy. His shipmates call him ‘Flash.’

Olusoji was born in Nigeria in 1984. His mother was a runner in her youth and his father was in the Nigerian Navy. Some might say that his destiny was preordained.

His mother first noticed his talent as he ran around at kindergarten. By the time he reached primary school he was being asked to race for secondary schools. Although he nurtured a desire to follow his father into the Navy he decided to see how far, and fast, he could go as a full time athlete.

Bronze medal in the 4x100m relay at the 2004 Athens Olympics, silver medal at the 2006 Commonwealth Games, indoor world champion over 60m in 2008 and an African 100m record of 9.85 seconds all followed. However, he is most proud of his three consecutive African Championships in Athletics 100m titles from 2004–2008.

While living and training in Portugal he was visited by some old team mates who had joined the British Army. They tried to talk him into joining as well. Until then, Olusoji had been unaware that Commonwealth citizens could join the UK forces, but at that point his running career was going well and he dismissed the idea. A few years later, while in Germany, he realised that his times were beginning to drop. Keen to provide some stability to his family and remembering the conversation with his old teammates, he phoned a UK Armed Forces careers office, booked an appointment, and flew to the UK. Not to join the Army, but to follow his childhood dream and join the Navy. Remembering that day he said:

“When I arrived they were surprised to see me. They didn’t think that I would actually turn up!”

Olusoji joined the Royal Navy in April 2011 as a Logistician. He has since deployed to the Mediterranean and the Middle East in HMS Bulwark, an assault ship which delivers the Royal Marines ashore by air and by sea, as part of what is now the Joint Expeditionary Force (Maritime), working with many different nations, including the US, France, Portugal and Albania. Having been promoted to Leading Logistician, he is now a member of the ship’s company of HMS Somerset, a Type 23 frigate. When asked what he likes best about his new life he said:

“I love the opportunities that you get in the Royal Navy — lots of sports, education and diversity. Although training for the 100m onboard a frigate is a challenge!”

You can learn more about life in the Royal Navy here.


Sergeant William Robinson Clarke 1895–1981

William Robinson Clarke was born in Kingston, Jamaica, on 4 October 1895. With the outbreak of World War One, ‘Robbie’ paid his own passage to Britain and joined the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) on 26 July 1915. At first he served as an air mechanic, but on 18 October he was posted to France as a driver with an observation balloon company. Robbie wanted to fly, however, and in December 1916 he was accepted for pilot training in England. On 26 April 1917, he won his ‘wings’ and was promoted to Sergeant. 
 
 On 29 May 1917, Robbie joined 4 Squadron RFC at Abeele in Belgium and became the first black pilot to fly for Britain, flying R.E.8 biplanes over the Western Front. While on a reconnaissance mission on the morning of 28 July, he and his observer, Second Lieutenant F.P. Blencowe, were attacked by enemy fighters. He described the action in a letter to his mother:

I was doing some photographs a few miles the other side when about five Hun scouts came down upon me, and before I could get away, I got a bullet through the spine. I managed to pilot the machine nearly back to the aerodrome, but had to put her down as I was too weak to fly any more … My observer escaped without any injury.

Robbie recovered from his wounds, and after the war returned to Jamaica to work in the building trade. He was an active veteran and became Life President of the Jamaican branch of the Royal Air Forces Association.

You can follow these links to find out more about aviation in the Royal Navy, Army and RAF today.

Story courtesy of the RAF Museum’s online ‘Pilots of the Caribbean’ exhibition.

Mary Seacole 1805–1881

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier and her mother a free Jamaican woman, who ran a boarding house for invalid soldiers. Having lived at various times in Jamaica, England and Panama, as news of the escalating Crimean War reached Mary she travelled to London with her mind set on assisting in the care of soldiers.

She attempted to join the second contingent of nurses bound for the front and get sponsorship from the Crimean fund for her travel, but she was refused. Mary finally decided to travel to Crimea using her own funds. She planned to build a ‘British Hotel’, offering “a mess-table and comfortable quarters for sick and convalescent officers”. She found a suitable site, which she christened Spring Hill. However, she did not have any building materials, so she spent her free time collecting scrap metal and wood. In 1855, the British Hotel opened, proudly made from iron sheets, packing cases, and salvaged doors and windows. Her supplies were sent from London and Constantinople, and she bought items from the nearby French and British camps. Mary helped to look after the troops by feeding them and treating their wounds. She also went to the frontline to tend to the wounded, and became known to troops as Mother Seacole.

The Special Correspondent of The Times newspaper described his experience at her hotel:

Mrs. Seacole…doctors and cures all manner of men with extraordinary success. She is always in attendance near the battle-field to aid the wounded, and has earned many a poor fellow’s blessings.

However the end of war was both a blessing and a curse to Mary. After the Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856, soldiers began to leave Crimea. Her business was full of unsellable stock, with new provisions still coming in every day. She had to make cheap sales and take heavy losses on much of her stores, leaving many unpaid debts to creditors.

She returned to England penniless. Fortunately, Mary’s plight was highlighted in the British press and she was supported by the soldiers she had helped to save. As a consequence the Seacole Fund was set up. Many prominent people donated money and Queen Victoria added her support. This provided Mary with enough money to continue practicing as a ‘doctress’ until her death in 1881.

Mary Seacole statue — Photograph MOD Crown Copyright 2016

Mary also broke new ground by being the first black woman to publish an autobiography in Britain, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands, detailing her experiences and exploits in Panama and the Crimea. She was voted top of a poll on Great Black Britons of history in 2004 and in 2016 a statue to Mary was erected in the grounds of St Thomas’s Hospital in London.

Today, Mary’s legacy lives on in the Mary Seacole House, a mental health resource service set up to offer support and advice in emotional and practical matters, primarily for the black and racial minorities of Liverpool, and the Mary Seacole Housing Association, which provides supported accommodation to young, single, homeless people in Luton.

Military medicine is very different today than it was during the Crimean War. The extreme demands of war have driven medical advances and innovation, often leaving valuable peacetime legacies; the hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan became one of the world’s leading trauma care facilities and the use of a special tourniquet that helps to stem blood loss faster is now used in the NHS.

You can follow these links to learn more about healthcare professionals in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force today.

Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Lance Corporal Connie Mark 1923–2007

Connie Mark (née Macdonald) was born on 21 December 1923 in Rollington Town, Kingston, Jamaica. Her heritage came from all over the world; she was part Scottish, part Indian, part Lebanese, and part Jamaican. Connie was well educated, and came from a family that strongly supported the Royal family. When she left school she trained as a secretary.

In 1943, at the age of 19, Connie joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) of the British Army, working as a medical secretary in the British military hospital in Jamaica with the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWII. She achieved the rank of Lance Corporal, but felt she was not paid correct wages because of racial discrimination. After Connie retired from military life she continued to fight for proper recognition of the role played by Caribbean servicewomen.

Connie moved to Britain in 1954 where she became active in her West London community. She formed the Gladiola Community Club, was treasurer to the Commission for Racial Equality, and was a founding member of the Mary Seacole Memorial Association. She received a British Empire Medal for meritorious service in 1991 and was made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) in 1993.

Today the Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force are recognised as being equal opportunities employers, with pay based purely on rank and qualifications.

Able Seaman William Hall 1821–1904

William Hall was the first black man and the third Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross for his courageous actions at the Relief of Lucknow.

He was born in Nova Scotia, Canada, to Jacob and Lucy Hall who had escaped slavery when the ship transporting them to the plantations of the southern states was seized by the British Frigate HMS Leopard; black refugees from captured ships of the War of 1812 were taken to British colonies to live freely. William’s parents were released in Halifax, Nova Scotia and employed as farm hands.

In 1852, William found himself in Liverpool where he joined the Royal Navy. The recruiting officer enquired the reason a Nova Scotian would fight for the Queen. William answered that the Royal Navy had saved his parents from a life of slavery and that he wanted to repay that debt.

William served in HMS Rodney for two years in the Crimean War, receiving British and Turkish medals for manning heavy artillery. When the Indian Mutiny broke out in May 1857, he was aboard HMS Shannon en route to China. She was ordered to change course for Calcutta. A Naval Brigade was formed of gunners, sailors, and marines from several ships, under Captain William Peel. After HMS Shannon journeyed up the Ganges to Allahabad, the brigade fought across land to reach Cawnpore. Peel’s forces arrived in time to take part in the Relief of Lucknow. During the battle mutineers inflicted heavy casualties on the attacking British using grenades and musket fire. William’s gun crew were ordered to within 20 yards of the walls they were bombarding, drawing a huge amount of enemy fire. In the end, only William and Lieutenant Thomas James Young, the battery’s commander, were left alive. Between them they operated the last gun until the wall was finally breached, earning both the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy.

I remember that after each round we ran our gun forward, until at last my gun’s crew were actually in danger of being hurt by splinters of brick and stone torn by the round shot from the walls we were bombarding.

-William Hall

William remained with the Royal Navy until his retirement in 1876. He moved back to Nova Scotia in near anonymity, living peacefully on a farm with his sisters. However, in 1901, when His Royal Highness the Duke of Cornwall and York, the future King George V, visited Nova Scotia, William attended the welcome parade wearing his Victoria Cross and other service medals. The Duke noticed the medals and struck up a conversation with William, who is today commemorated as a Canadian military hero and an important figure of black history.

You can find out more about the Royal Navy of the past, present and future here

Surgeon Major James Africanus Beale Horton 1835–1883

James Africanus Beale Horton was one of the first Africans to qualify as a medical doctor and one of the first to serve as an officer in the British Army. Moreover, he was also a scientist, a mining entrepreneur and a political activist. He wrote on a variety of topics including medicine, geology and politics. His philosophies would later become the foundation for future African independence.

James was born in British colonial Sierra Leone and his parents were former Igbo slaves. He was educated by the Church Missionary Society (CMS). In 1853 he was transferred to Freetown’s Fourah Bay Institution to train as a minister for the Church of England. However, at the request of the War Office, James and two other young men were selected by the CMS to study medicine in preparation for a medical officer position in the British Army.

James attended Kings College in London for three years and then Edinburgh University for a fourth year to earn an MD. As a student, James took the name Africanus in recognition of his roots. In 1859 James went back to West Africa and commissioned in the British Army Medical Service where he assumed the post of assistant staff surgeon. In the course of his career as a medical officer he would travel to various posts across West Africa, and served in two Ashanti wars (1863 and 1873). In 1874 he achieved the rank of Surgeon Major.

During his time in West Africa James became increasingly concerned with politics and political thought. Racial theories at the time alleged the inferiority of Africans, which he actively contested in his published works. He also proposed several visions for the self governance of African nations and ethnic groups. However, James was also loyal to the British Empire and saw a future where Britain would play a significant part in guiding the cultural and technological development of Africa. In 1880, aged 45, he retired and returned home where he founded the Commercial Bank of Sierra Leone. This was closely related to his interest in industrial and financial development, and enabled him to contribute by funding local entrepreneurs and supporting infrastructure plans. Throughout the rest of his life he committed to unceasing support of education by providing scholarships to promising young Africans.

James died one of the richest men in Africa at the age of 48. On his death, he donated large parts of his estate for the development of scientific education in Africa. Edinburgh University commemorates him as its first African graduate with a memorial plaque in Buccleuch Place. A crater on Mercury is named after him.

Military medicine is very different today than when James was in the Army. The extreme demands of war have driven medical advances and innovation, often leaving valuable peacetime legacies. The hospital at Camp Bastion in Afghanistan became one of the world’s leading trauma care facilities. Lessons learned there, such as the use of the ‘intraosseous injection’ (which allows blood to be transfused straight into bone marrow) in cases of extreme trauma, are now used in the NHS.

Follow these links to learn more about healthcare professionals in the Royal Navy, Army and Royal Air Force today.

Photograph courtesy of the Imperial War Museum

Leading Aircraftwoman Lilian Bader 1918–2015

Lilian Bader (nee Bailey) was born in Liverpool. Her father was from the West Indies and had served with the Royal Navy, her mother was white British. Lilian was orphaned at the age of nine and lived in a convent until she was 20.

Lilian was ‘let go’ from her first employment because of issues with her heritage. However, she was determined to play her part in the World War II effort. After hearing a group of West Indian soldiers on the radio talking about how they had been rejected from the Army but were able to join the Royal Air Force, Lillian quickly volunteered. She joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) at the beginning of 1941 and was one of the first women to be trained as an instrument repairer, a trade that was newly opened to women. In December 1941, Lilian became a Leading Aircraftwoman and soon gained the rank of Acting Corporal.

During the War she married a soldier called Ramsay Bader, who was a tank driver with the Army. Ramsay’s father was from Sierra Leone and his mother was white British. In February 1944 Lilian left the WAAF and she and Ramsey had two sons. Subsequently she gained a degree from London University and became a teacher.

You can find out more about RAF history here