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'BAME Seafarers in the First World War'
A volunteer participating in the 'BAME Seafarers in the First World War' Project.

Our third Case Study project is ‘BAME Seafarers in the First World War’, which was coordinated by the University of Portsmouth.

1) What motivated you to contribute to Mapping the Centenary?  

We were delighted to contribute to IWM’s Mapping the Centenary initiative because it is such a great way to keep the legacy of the project alive. It is also a record of the ways in which funding bodies, heritage institutions and universities were able to collaborate to uncover hidden and previously overlooked histories of the First World War, thus advancing our understanding of the many impacts it had on our lives.

2) How would you describe your commemorative project or activity in five words? 

Revealing lost histories, highlighting heroism.

3) Why did you decide to pursue this project?  

We wanted to explore the topic of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Seafarers in the First World War as it was an underrepresented history of the First World War. Many members of the public would have been able to cite the Western Front and perhaps aspects of the Home Front. However, little was known about the merchant contribution to the war at sea, and even less about those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds who contributed to the war effort. The way they have been remembered on memorials built after the War also contributed to the lack of visibility of their stories of sacrifice and heroism. We wanted to debate the gaps in the knowledge, identify archives and evidence, and inspire community groups to research these histories in order to aid understanding and highlight links that previously excluded groups of citizens may have had with the First World War.

4) What went particularly well? Was there anything that did not go as expected or that surprised you? 

Our first event was aimed at academics, heritage practitioners and community research group leaders. It was very successful in highlighting ways in which the First World War at sea facilitated (or embroiled) diverse contributions to the war effort via the acquisition of merchant ships, and also the merchant navy’s role in supplying Britain with vital food and materials for the war effort. As a consequence of the event, we were able to network and hold a larger, public-facing event at the National Archives.

One drawback was the scope of funding. By the time we staged our last event (January 2019), the HLF was re-evaluating its funding strategy, which meant that there was some ambiguity on what was available for community groups inspired to research as a consequence of the event. However, we had very positive feedback from members of the public who had not previously realised the links that their ancestors may have had with the First World War. For example:

“I didn't know anything about black seafarers never mind them ever being in the First World War.” Audience feedback, 2019.

5) Did your involvement change your understanding of the First World War, and if so, in what way?  

My background is in British history in the Victorian and Edwardian period – especially involving the Royal Dockyards and the Royal Navy, so it was a departure for me to explore the merchant navy and how non-white citizens of the British Empire contributed to the war effort. I now appreciate how divorced some members of society have felt every year when the rhetoric of the First World War is commemorated. I hope our project has gone some way in incorporating new links and stories to the narrative!

6) What tips or advice would you want to give future commemorative projects?   

Identify a ‘need’ or interest with local communities and potential participants. Enable and inspire the public to explore and make sense of the material in order to enable them to take ownership and pride in a project. Projects should facilitate growth and discovery, not passive engagement. 

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Scarcroft School York in World War One.
'Scarcroft School York in World War One' publication, produced by the Clements Hall Local History Group.

Our fourth Case Study is ‘The Impact of the First World War on our Neighbourhood in York’,  led by the Clements Hall Local History Group (York).

1) What motivated you to contribute to Mapping the Centenary?  

A desire to share project experiences as part of the centennial legacy.

2) How would you describe your commemorative project or activity in five words? 

Varied, engaging, revealing, motivating, creative.

3) Why did you decide to pursue this project?  

The project had the capacity to develop a number of strands, and to interest and motivate a wide range of local organisations, and residents. We also saw an opportunity to engage with new audiences, which is a key aspiration of our organisation.

4) What went particularly well? Was there anything that did not go as expected or that surprised you? 

  • There was substantial interest among school pupils – from primary age upwards –which became a major project feature.
  • We developed our research skills and confidence.
  • We discovered a range of ways to share our findings including website, exhibitions & film.
  • We valued the practical support and expertise offered by the AHRC First World War Engagement Centres at five UK universities.
  • The potential to develop links between the local, national and international was only partially realised.

5) Did your involvement change your understanding of the First World War, and if so, in what way?

We became much more aware of the nature and extent of the First World War's impact and legacy on local households. Our understanding of the nature of the relationship between the home front and the fighting front was enhanced.

The project challenged, albeit to a limited degree, the Euro-centric focus of the government-led commemoration, and also offered ways to examine myths surrounding the conflict.

6) What tips or advice would you want to give future commemorative projects?

  • Start planning early.
  • Aim for diversity and multiple perspectives.
  • Engage and involve a wide range of organisations and individuals.
  • Seek opportunities for collaborative working.
  • Identify, and be informed by, available resources and expertise - for instance, the British Association for Local History; university engagement; archives and museums.
  • Consider using a range of creative approaches, incorporating media such as performance or film.
  • Research the experiences of those who are marginalised.
  • Explore trans-national perspectives.
  • Ensure that project research findings are effectively communicated to audiences.

Our thanks to these two project representatives for their generous insight.

If you have been inspired to submit a listing for your own First World War commemorative project, please visit the ‘Add Your Project’ section on ‘Mapping the Centenary’.