The West African Kroomen and their link to Simon’s Town by Joline Young

The first Kroomen to be employed by the British Navy in Simon’s Town arrived on the HMS Melville in 1838. [i] Their date of arrival was telling, having coincided with enslaved people at the Cape experiencing their first breath of freedom. At this time there were two distinct groups of people settled at Sierra Leone. The first group were the indigenous Kru people and the second group, the Settler-Liberians. [ii]

However, these two groups of men were employed by the Navy as one group, under the blanket name of ‘Kroomen’. [iii]

The Indigenous Kru people

Fisherman and canoeists by trade, the Indigenous Kru people lived in little villages along the narrow strip of coast from the Sinoe River to Cape Palmas, amidst the lushness of palm trees and gentle streams. [iv] There were five chief villages, namely the Kruber, Little Kru, Settra Kru, Nana Kru and King Williams Town. Their settlement here dates back to the early 1500’s, where they formed “six dake of patrilineally-related people”, i.e. the Jloh, Kabor, Gbeta, Sasstown, Grand Cess and Five Tribes or Krao. [v] Although they all shared a common language, the original Kru were in fact those of the Five Tribes or Krao dake. [vi] The close interaction of the Krao with shore-living fishermen resulted in them becoming exceptionally skilled at canoeing on the treacherous seas of Liberia. [vii] This activity was absorbed by the other dake and in time they were all generally referred to as Kru, a name which became synonymous with seafaring activities. [viii]

The village of Settra Kru in particular was described as being “superior to any other native settlement on the coast” with the people being “the best informed, most intelligent and finest in personal appearance”. [ix]

In 1847 the whole of this coastal area became absorbed into the State of Liberia, however due to the distance between the Liberian Government based in Monrovia and these outlying areas, it was some time before the power of Monrovia was felt by the Kru people. [x]

Figure 2 – Map of Kru Coastal Villages Image source

The Kru were easily identifiable by the adornment of a distinct black line from the forehead to the nose. [xi]They also bore the mark of a trident, which was tattooed on either side of their temples and were known to mutilate their incisor teeth. [xii]

Mrs Isobel Gill, the wife of a missionary wrote in her book Six Months in Ascension (circa 1878) “the moral nature of the Krooman is undoubtedly high, and one eminently fitted to receive Christianity”, but the Kru had a religion of their own . [xiii] The Kru believed in obeah (or fetish), the belief in guardian spirits. The head fetish man was responsible for the spiritual welfare and protection of the clan and was tasked with sending the obeah (guardian spirit) into a gre gre, which was a charm worn around the neck. [xiv] Obeah was also sent into larger objects, which were then believed to contain mystical powers that would assist its owners in achieving certain aims, i.e. healing the sick or resolving disputes. [xv]There was a certain karmic influence here as well in that people believed if they wronged others, the obeah or fetish of the person they had wronged would get them. This, along with the ingrained respect of elders and the stronghold of the chief, created a community of people who were hierarchical and moralistic. [xvi]

The Kroo believed in Obea. Source: From the collections of the Library of the South African Parliament.[xvii]

That they also believed in reincarnation is borne out in the extract of a diary of Assistant Surgeon Henry Tracey who served on the HMS Melville when he said “they conceive that the body remains only a short period in the grave and that they will soon return to their mammies in their own country and meet each other again”. [xviii]

Clannish by nature the underlying feature of the Kru was one of respect, especially to the elders, who bore iron rings around their legs as insignia. The sight of a large number of Kroomen canoeing along the coast, singing a chorus as they rowed, was a familiar one.  Usually one member would lead in recitative and the others would follow in chorus. [xix] According to Captain Kenneth Douglas-Morris, “the Kroos not only controlled the shipment of palm-oil but also the supervision and sailing of coastal vessels, mainly because they were the local tribe which would manage canoes in the surf”. [xx]

In fact their industry in utilising this resource took many forms. The oil from the palms formed part of a sauce served with rice, constituting a meal, the fibres were used to fashion ropes, looms and brooms and its leaves for roofing and fencing. [xxi]

Opportunities for contracting out their labour to passing ships arose with the formation of a British crown colony in Sierra Leone in 1807. [xxiii] It was then that the indigenous Kru migrated down to Freetown, to barter their labour. [xxiv] Prized for their strength and agility, seafaring ways and navigational expertise there was a demand for Kru labour by merchant ships. Horatio Bridge, a USN officer of the 1840’s described them thus:

The Kroomen are indispensable in carrying on the commerce and maritime business of the African coast. When a Kroo-boat comes alongside, you may buy the canoe, hire the men at a moment's warning, and retain them in your service for months”. [xxv]

The Kroo dominated the palm trade. Source: From the collections of the Library of the South African Parliament.[xxii]

For the Navy, the use of Kru labour had much to do with the high rate of mortality amongst white seamen, succumbing to malaria and fever in tropical West Africa. It is therefore no surprise that this area was referred to as a white man’s grave. With the use of Kru labour, the white seamen were exempted from all strenuous jobs, especially those requiring excessive exposure to the sun and “mosquito-ridden mangrove swamps”. [xxvi]

The Kru always undertook these journeys as a group, under the leadership of a Kru headman who was responsible for the return of the group. Acting as a mediator between the workers and their employers, the role of the headman was that of staff recruiter, manager, disciplinarian and carer.

He was answerable not only to the European employers of Kru labour, ensuring the strict management of the workforce, but also to the families of the men he recruited that they would return safely. In addition, he was the only person permitted to punish an erring Krooman for any transgression. [xxvii]

One wonders why, in such a clannish community, the men were happy to leave their families for such long periods. The main incentive was marriage, as a man’s status was determined by the number of wives he could afford. On returning from their journeys these men would take a wife, or many wives, depending on the wealth they had accumulated and share the remainder of earnings with their families. [xxviii] One Jack Purser of Settra Kru had no less than 29 wives! [xxix] For the younger men, some as young as 14, leaving their families to work abroad had become a rite of passage, carrying on of the tradition of their fathers, who had done so before them. [xxx] These young men, whose homecoming would spark days of festive celebrations, would give all their earnings to their fathers. Once home, even though they may have been away for a long period of time, they would place themselves once more under the authority of their parents. [xxxi]

A young Kroo boy. Source: From the collections of the Library of the South African Parliament. [xxxii]

Young Kroo boys. Source: From the collections of the Library of the South African Parliament.

The habitat of the Kru family took the form of a cluster of bamboo houses, which was enclosed by a Bamboo wall. Within this patriarchal family structure the man’s authority in the hierarchicalorder was unquestioned, however, within these boundaries, the first wife held special status. It was she who managed the household affairs, controlled the finances and directed the labour of the other wives. [xxxiii] Therefore the purchasing of wives not only increased the husband’s status, but also benefited him greatly in terms of his material assets. While the husband worked away, the wives took care of his assets by cultivating the land, where yams, sweet potatoes and rice were grown. [xxxiv]

A common sight in the villages was women bearing clay pots of water on their heads, which they would collect from a stream. Collecting water was an integral part of the day as the Kru bathed at least twice a day. [xxxv] It is no wonder that the Mayor of Simon’s Town, in 1893, described them as being “cleanly in their habits”. [xxxvi]

Another common sight in the villages was the freedom of dress of the women, which suited the warm, tropical climate. In his journal Horatio Bridge comments on one of the wives of a successful trader in Settra Kru:

A cloth around her loins, dyed with gay colors, composed her whole drapery, leaving her figure as fully exposed as the most classic sculptor could have wished. It is to be observed, however, that the sable hue is in itself a kind of veil. [xxxvii]

Besides her freedom of dress, life for the Kru woman carried little other choices, especially in terms of marriage. Girls as young as fourteen were sometimes married to men as old as sixty. [xxxviii] It was because of this that the missionary schools took in mostly boys, who were said to “show a considerable aptitude for learning”. As for the girls it was said that “it is an obstacle in the way of educating girls, as many of them are betrothed before entering school, and, just when their progress begins to be satisfactory, their husbands claim them and take them away”. [xxxix]

The Kru were almost the only people of that time who voluntarily engaged in migrant labour, a practice which in later years became a way of life for the majority of Black South Africans. [xl]

While the Kru prided themselves in being free agents to contract out their labour as they pleased, they were strongly opposed to being enslaved. In cases where Kroomen were faced with enslavement, they opted to die instead. Thus a number of Kroomen took their lives by drowning or starving themselves to death when placed in this predicament. [xli] Unfortunately this repulsion of slavery did not deter them in being involved in the enslavement of others.

Their involvement in the slave trade as interpreters and middlemen is well documented by Diane Frost in her study of West African Migrant Workers. In fact, with the decline of the pepper trade in the 18th century, this involvement was heightened. [xlii] Paradoxically, in the 1860’s they were employed by the Royal Navy to take part in anti-slavery patrols on the East Coast of Africa! [xliii]

The Settler-Liberians

The Settler-Liberians were a composition of Black Loyalists and formerly enslaved people liberated off slave ships by the British anti-slavery patrols. While the Black Loyalists were the pioneers in the formation of Freetown, over time the liberated slaves became absorbed into their community.

The Black Loyalists

During the War of American Independence from 1775 – 1783, a large number of African Americans, most of whom had escaped from their American enslavers, fought on the side of the British forces in return for their freedom. This they were encouraged to do through two proclamations sent out, four years apart, which called on African American slaves to desert their ‘masters’ and serve on the side of the British, in return for their freedom.

Figure: 4 Image source

The first proclamation set out by Lord Dunmore in November 1775, declared:

To the end that peace and order may the sooner be restored ….. I do require every person capable of bearing arms to resort to his Majesty’s standard … and I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes or others (appertaining to Rebels) free, that are able and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing this Colony to a proper sense of their duty to his Majesty’s crown and dignity. [xliv]

Whereas the first proclamation made it clear that the British were only seeking people who were able to take up arms, the second proclamation issued in 1779 by Sir Henry Clinton, was more inclusive. In it the promise of “full security”, to “any Negro who shall desert the Rebel Standard”, was offered not only to those who could take up arms but also to those who could assist behind the lines as cooks, laundresses, nurses and labourers. [xlv] For the British this strategy was devised to bolster their strength against the Americans, and for the Black American slaves, this was the precious opportunity to break out of the shackles of slavery.

After the colonists defeated the British, there were fears that the British would renege on their promises, but through the efforts of Sir Guy Carlton, the promises were kept. [xlvi] This offered a spark of hope for many as, in return for their loyalty, their names were recorded in the Book of Negroes, with which came the promise of a better life. It was thus with hopeful hearts that some of the three thousand black men, women and children, sailed away from New York between April and November 1783. However, not all these people received their liberty. Only those, the Black Loyalists, who could prove that they assisted the British during the war, left New York as free people, i.e. the ones who held the coveted status of having their names recorded in the Book of Negroes. For the others, slaves and indentured workers of the United Empire Loyalists, their status as slaves remained unchanged. The only difference for them would be the new environment that they found themselves in. [xlvii]

Some African Americans returned with the military personnel to England and others took up the promise of free land in Nova Scotia, the easternmost province of Canada. However, each group encountered a different set of problems. In England, slavery had been declared illegal by Lord Chief Justice Mansfield back in 1772, in a groundbreaking case about brought by the abolitionist Granville Sharp. However, many of them were unable to find employment there. [xlviii] With minimal chances of improving their lives economically, they added to the ranks of Britain’s poor.

Meanwhile, for the Black Loyalists who arrived in Nova Scotia, it was a case of Paradise Lost. Not only were the promises of free land not kept, but they found themselves in a society where racism was rife and they were made to feel unwelcome. This was displayed in no small measure when those living in Birchtown were driven out of their homes by white soldiers. [xlix]

These were the factors which prompted Thomas Peters, a former sergeant with the Loyalist forces, to journey from Nova Scotia to England, to seek an audience with Granville Scott. He informed Scot of the frustration of himself and other formerly enslaved people back in Nova Scotia as the promises of land had not been honoured. Peters and his fellow Nova Scotians were offered asylum in West Africa. Thus in 1786 Sharp and his supporters devised a plan to transport about 400 formerly enslaved people and “some sixty ‘shanghaied’ Plymouth Street walkers’” [l] to a small strip of land on Africa’s West Coast. Although this area had been used as a base by Portuguese traders for several centuries, Sharp visualised it becoming a self governing colony, which he called the Province of Freedom. [li]

Figure 3 – Map of Sierra Leone Image source

The casualties on this expedition were high. The sea journey and conditions of travel took its toll and many died before reaching the ‘promised land’. Sick and weary, still more died a short time after their arrival in the new settlement, named Granville Town.

For those who survived there were many hardships to overcome, but they were determined to

re-build their lives back on the continent from which their forefathers were taken. Two years later, just as they were starting to lay down roots, their security was once again threatened when their settlement was destroyed by fire. Homeless and displaced, they collected what they could salvage and moved a small distance away. Here the settlement was rebuilt, over a period of two years, and by 1790 Freetown was established. [lii]

Between February 26 and March 9, 1792, a total of 1,190 people arrived in Sierra Leone from Nova Scotia, aboard 15 ships. This was the largest free migration to Africa of formerly enslaved people of African descent ever recorded in history. [liii] In 1800 their numbers were augmented by five hundred “maroons or outlawed negroes”, arrived from Jamaica. [liv]

Life at Freetown was challenging and hardships plenty, with the result that in the first twenty years from its inception, half of the 3000 settlers had died. However, because of the abolition of the slave trade by Britain in 1807, and through the efforts of the British anti-slavery patrols set up at Freetown, their numbers became augmented by liberated slaves. [lv]

The Liberated Slaves

Figure 5 – The Liberated Slaves Image source

In his journal Horatio Bridge expressed his sentiments about the liberated slaves as follows:

The fate of the rescued slaves is scarcely better than that of the crews of the captured slave-vessels. The latter are landed on the nearest point of the African Coast, where death by starvation or fever almost certainly awaits them. [lvi]

From 1807 many formerly enslaved people who had been ‘liberated’ from slave ships by the British anti-slavery patrols arrived in Sierra Leone. [lvii] Those landed at Freetown by the British anti-slavery troops, were placed in the ‘Queen’s Yard’, where they were offered as apprentices for periods of five to nine years, to applicants able to pay the government a fee for their services. However, if no applicants were forthcoming, they were “turned adrift, to be supported as they may, or, unless Providence take all the better care of them, to starve.” [lviii]

Many of these people in fact died, but notwithstanding the many deaths that occurred, more and more human cargoes were off-loaded at Freetown by the British anti-slavery patrols. It was because of this that the population increased and by 1870 reached a total of 70 000 people. This number was bolstered by local members of the Kru clan who were encouraged to join the settlement and offered various monetary rewards for settling there. By 1816 there was sufficient Kru settlement into Sierra Leone, for there to be a quarter named Krootown. [lix]

The people of Sierra Leone were thus a mixture of indigenous Kru people, Black Loyalists from America and ‘liberated slaves’, who came from nearly every ethnic group along the Atlantic Coast of Africa. For example, a young ‘Kroomen’ on board a ship who spoke “better English”, eventually admitted that he was a native of North Carolina, but had resided in Liberia for many years. [lx]

The differences between the indigenous Kru people and the ‘liberated slaves’ were vast. While the latter had experienced the brutality of slavery, the former had partaken in its perpetuation. This fact alone was breeding ground for resentment, contributing towards a rift between these two groups of people. Religious differences were also difficult to reconcile. Whereas to the indigenous Kru people, their religion was a legacy inherited from their ancestors, with the underlying element being respect; the anglicised African Americans clung to Christianity which they had embraced as a lifeline, offering them hope at the time of their deepest suffering. The sad irony is that it was a religion inherited from the very people who enslaved them.

In addition to the above, there were other areas of conflict. For the Kru who had previously had the monopoly over trade and commerce, the Settler-Liberians “under the auspices of the American Colonisation Society” became an economic threat. [lxi] Further resentment simmered when, during the 1840’s, the Settler establishment expanded onto Kru land. [lxii]

These conflicted interests, i.e. the one group struggling for survival in a new land and the other fighting to maintain what they had; resulted in “intermittent warfare” between the two groups during the 19th century. [lxiii] However, in 1845, a Treaty of Peace and Friendship was struck between the Krus and the Settler-Liberians. A significant overture from the Kru in this Treaty was their renouncement of their involvement in the slave trade. [lxiv] Thus by the middle of the 19th century a single creolised society began to form, who identified themselves as Sierra Leonians, with the common language being Krio, a mixture of English and various African Languages. [lxv]

The Simon’s Town link

Although slavery was abolished in 1834, all enslaved people at the Cape were made to work a four year apprenticeship for their enslavers, which meant that they were actually only freed in 1838. In the run up to 1838, business and the farming sector were in a state of panic as they feared the loss of labour. The Navy was no different. For the Navy the Kroomen provided a cheap, yet powerful labour force. [lxvi] Their ability to do strenuous manual work in extreme heat, their strong athletic build, sobriety and law-abiding natures made them all the more appealing.

Brought to Simon’s Town as contract workers, they performed several arduous tasks such as mooring, clearing coal from lighters and watering and coaling of ships. On board they fulfilled various job descriptions, as stewards, cooks, carpenters-mates and deck-hands. [lxvii]

As an aside, joining the Navy also meant a new identity for indigenous Kroo people, in that their African names were replaced with names given to them by the Navy. Some of these names were overtly British, such as Johnson, Waintop, Andrew, Baker or Brown and others were downright degrading such as Black Whale, Jim Crow, Bottle of Beer, Tom Cockroach and Dick Deadeye. [lxviii] Significantly although they came from three different streams, they were collectively referred to as Kroomen by the Navy.

The Navy tried to insulate the Kroomen from the local community, telling them not to mix with the local people on their arrival. The local people, whom the Kroomen were to avoid, were people

whose ancestors were indigenous San and Khoi people or people whose ancestors were enslaved in the town from 1743, when Baron van Imhoff declared Simon’s Town a winter anchorage for the Dutch East India Company. [lxix]

While the Kroomen were housed in a separate building in West Dockyard, the formerly enslaved people lived in little cottages which were dotted around the slopes of the mountain. They were carpenters, masons, tailors, trek fishermen and washerwomen. [lxx]

The Kroomen attracted the interest of some of the local women, and vice versa. This resulted in a number of liaisons taking place, some resulting in marriage. These men now adopted Simon’s Town as their new home and did not wish to return to Sierra Leone when their contracts expired. [lxxi] One such example, in 1893, was a Kroomen by the curious name of “Flying Jib Number 2”, who appeared before the Cape Labour Commission saying that he had been living in Simon’s Town since 1887, was married to a local woman and wanted to stay in the country. [lxxii]

Another Krooman who married a local woman was Jack Savage, whose Certificate of Service in the Royal Navy shows that he first entered their service on the Penelope on 1 October 1893. He and his wife Sabinea lived in Davis Cottage Simon’s Town. Thrice decorated by the Navy; his last medal was the British War Medal, which he received on 31 August 1925.

Jack was pensioned off in 1919, however, it was only in 1923 that his naval pension was approved, at thirty two pounds and six shillings per year, back-dated to 1919. [lxxiii] In 2009 I had the pleasure of visiting Jack Savage’s last surviving son, Mr Peter James Savage, aged 80, at his home in Ocean View. Mr Savage, who is the youngest of his eleven siblings, has little memory of his father who died when he was four. He recalls a happy childhood in Simon’s Town, but a strict Calvinistic upbringing by his mother, where the rod was very rarely spared. Mr Savage could not give me any information about his parent’s ages except to say that his mother was much younger than his father. By the time of his father’s death, many of his siblings were already adults, working as labourers at the Simon’s Town Dockyard to support the family.

Mr Savage had no knowledge of his father’s history in Sierra Leone, saying that in those days the adults never discussed anything with the children. However, certain of his mannerisms, especially his very entertaining and amusing way of questioning me with riddles, is a mannerism that I have been told by another Simon’s Town resident, was very typical of the Kroomen.

A sprinkling of other Kroomen also married local women and as the Kroomen were such highly valued workers, this state of affairs was accepted in individual cases, though not encouraged.

By now Kroomen were employed in many other spheres of Cape society.

Some worked at Admiralty House, two were horse-riding companions to the Admiral’s daughters, others worked as cooks in private homes, and one enterprising Krooman ran a cab service in Cape Town. The Dockyard also absorbed a number of these men, having taken in their first Kroomen apprentices in 1859. These men were also served with the futile order to “stay away from the evil examples of liberty men and Hottentots”. [lxxiv] This order was reinforced by Rear Admiral Salmon in 1883, when he decreed that Kroomen should not leave the Dockyard area, where they resided, without permission. [lxxv]

When Mr Pinkham became master of the Admiralty coal hulk, The Nubian in 1901, his staff of nine included seven Kroomen. Himself quite an unusual man, The Nubian was home to his family and staff as well as an assortment of animals, which included pigs, chickens, ducks, pigeons, cats and a monkey! A regular church-goer, he and his family were transported to St Frances church every Sunday in a gig pulled by “four smartly dressed Kroomen”.

When Mr Pinkham was attacked by one of them, “due to discontent among the Kroomen”, this man was court martialled and found guilty of attempted murder, to which he was sentenced to be flogged by the Head Krooman. [lxxvi] This occurrence was out of character for the Kroomen who were lauded by the Mayor of Simon’s Town, Mr F H S Hugo to the Cape Government Commission in 1893 as being “well behaved, non drinkers and cleanly in their habits”. James Piggot of the Royal Navy described them as “intelligent, well-behaved and sober”. [lxxvii] Still others described them as “hard workers who rarely complained”. [lxxviii]

Although the cause of the “discontent among the Kroomen” in the case of Mr Pinkham is not known, a meeting by the National Council of Glebo in Sierra Leone, attended by “chiefs and mission-educated men” reflected issues affecting Kru migrant workers generally. The recommendations of the Council were printed in the African Times of 30 April 1874, distributed in London, under the title “New regulations in Hiring Kroomen at Cape Palmas”, issued by Sear Nybar Weah, King of the Gedeboes or Kroo people at Cape Palmas and other parts adjacent”.

Although these regulations never became effective, it gave an illuminating picture of how the Kru migrant workers were treated in certain quarters. It was also the first time that the Kru migrant workers were given a ‘voice’. The regulations proposed were as follows:

  • Kroomen were only to be shipped if money was paid to them in advance.
  • No-one mistreating Krumen or detaining them for over 12 months would be allowed to recruit again
  • There was to be no collective punishment for one man’s theft
  • Sick men were to be sent home
  • Merchants down the coast were to ensure that the Krumen would have secure passage directly to their homes. [lxxix]

[lxxxi]Apart from the ‘Pinkham story’, there is no other recorded evidence to suggest discontent amongst, or ill-treatment of, Kru people in Simon’s Town. In an article about the opening of the Simon’s Town Railway Station in 1890, the reporter described the crowd on the platform as “staid-looking Europeans, gorgeously attired Malays, …… and Kroomen from Sierra Leone dressed in sailor clothes and with merry good-humoured faces”. [lxxx]

By 1901, the accommodation at West Dockyard, must have become stretched, as a sizeable ‘Kroo Town’ had developed near the railway station, consisting of tents. Of this settlement, the late Prof Arthur Davey remarked that although the living conditions were deplorable, the crime rate amongst the Kroomen was very low and consisted mostly of petty fines, i.e. one Kroomen was fined for letting his pigs run into the street!  In these cases they always paid their fines promptly. [lxxxi]

While the first Krooman to be buried in Simon’s Town was nameless and, as a “pagan”, was buried in the bush outside the walls of the burial grounds; many Kroomen became assimilated into the society they found themselves in and attended the St Georges Naval Church at the Dockyard, where a number of them became baptised. The burial records of St Francis church records the burial of two women who were wives of Kroomen in 1859 and 1861. [lxxxii]

Most Kroomen worked for the Navy for their contract period of three years and were eager to return home, but a few served for more than twenty years, earning Petty Officer rates, parchment certificates, good conduct badges, naval pensions and long service and conduct medals. These were invariably men who had married and settled in Simon’s Town. [lxxxiii]

Whereas some Kroomen came to Simon’s Town to serve out their contracts and return home and others came here to start new lives, some unwittingly came here to die. Such was the case of

L T Dow, who was fatally wounded while serving in the 1st Anglo Boer War. Francis Gibson, a shipwright apprentice of HMS Boscawen who was educated at the Missionary School in Sierra Leone, was only 16 when he died in Simon’s Town in 1858. [lxxxiv]

In all, the number of Kroomen commemorated individually in the Garden of Remembrance at Seaforth, Simon’s Town and in the Commonwealth Cemetery in Dido Valley totals eighty nine. Evidence of twenty six more surfaced in Naval Hospital and Burial records. [lxxxv]

In 1903 the vice Admiral reported difficulty in recruiting Kru labour from Sierra Leone. This was put down to these men preferring shorter trips on merchant ships and disliking the weather conditions of the Cape. [lxxxvi] The poor remuneration by the Navy was given as another likely reason. [lxxxvii] While these reasons were both valid, the political tensions in Liberia were an even stronger factor, as the Liberian government began to cast its net over the outlying areas under its control.

With the implementation of the Port of Entry Act of 1864, the Liberian government sought to remedy its economic problems by gaining control over, and exacting an income through, the Kru migrant workers. This act limited the shipment of Kroomen to five points of entry, i.e. the Cape Mount, Monrovia, Buchanan, Sino and Cape Palmas, where customs were collected from returning migrant workers. [lxxxviii] In addition to this, employers were also ordered to pay a fee to the Liberian government for departing Kru workers, i.e. $1.00 for a labourer and $2.00 for a stevedore. While this Act and a later one in 1873 was not effectively executed, it was the beginning of the end of free movement for the Kroomen, as further more stringent legislation followed. [lxxxix] In 1891 the Liberian Legislature established the Native African Shipping Bureau. Through this bureau the movement of Kru labour was recorded and regulated, ensuring that taxes were paid to the government. [xc] To the Kru, who considered themselves autonomous from Liberia, this legislation was the cause for much resentment.

As the laws became harsher and the financial penalties greater, the incentive for partaking in migrant labour was possibly weakened and it was only a matter of time before the boiling pot of emotions erupted into full-scale revolt. What followed was a series of unrest between the Kru sub-groups culminating into “widespread wars” from 1910. [xci] The alarming spread of the Kru coast revolt, led by the Kabor Kru, eventually covered 100 miles of the coast. The Liberian government responded to this with the formation of the Liberian Frontier Force, which became the oppressive arm of the government, under President Arthur Barclay. [xcii] By the time the unrest was quelled, forty seven leaders were hanged. Those left behind were made to pay the price for their discontent through the imposition of fines and seizure of land. It is thus not surprising that those who could; left the country to start new lives elsewhere. [xciii]

By 1931, in the so-called ‘Kru War’, the fire of Kru resistance was finally doused and the Kru were forced to succumb to the ruling power. [xciv] In the aftermath of this war an investigatory mission headed by Dr QW A Mackenzie, ‘secretariat of the League’ found that there was “devastation and distress in the Kru region”. [xcv]

Notwithstanding all these factors, Kroomen still arrived in Simon’s Town, but on a much smaller scale. The laws governing Kroomen staying on in Simon’s Town after their contracts had expired had also become stricter. According to the Africa Station book of Vice Admiral F.L. Tottenham for 1935, they were not to be discharged at Simon’s Town, but were to be repatriated. “Furthermore, no Krooman was to marry in South Africa without proof of being able to fund the repatriation of his wife and family at the end of the employment contract. The immigration laws of the Union of South Africa”, it was explained, “did not admit Kroomen as permanent settlers”. [xcvi]

An exception seems to have been made in 1920 when a group of Kroomen deserted their ship while in Simon’s Town. They were summarily pardoned and employed as labourers in the Naval Dockyard. Five of these men, namely Jim Thomas, Bestman, Sierra Leone, Peasoup and Palm Tree were later seconded for service at the Royal Observatory. [xcvii] Their duties at the Royal Observatory were certainly less strenuous than those of their counterparts who worked for the Naval Dockyard, however, when the Liesbeeck River overflowed it was their job to ferry the staff through the floodwaters in a handcart. [xcviii]

After 1935, no further Kroomen were employed from Sierra Leone and in 1962 the original building at West Dockyard, which housed the Kroomen, was demolished. The only physical reminder of this building is the huge cast iron gates, which were rescued and now form the entrance to the West Naval Dockyard.

Figure 7. Original gates at entrance to the West Naval Dockyard
Source: Volker Janssen, The Southern Cape Peninsula Vol. 1 – Simon’s Town (Janssen Publishers cc, 2004), p.15 (Reprinted with the kind permission of Volker Janssen).

The other more tangible reminder we have of the Kroomen is the many Kru descendents scattered all over the Western Cape. One such descendent is Mr Ronald Roberts of Retreat, whose grandfather, Joseph Roberts, was a Kroomen from Sierra Leone who had married Louise Summers from Simon’s Town. Joseph worked as a cook for a Mrs King Salters in Simon’s Town. Another well known ex-Simonite who is a Kru descendent is the late Mr Peter Clarke, who was a poet, artist and writer. The late Joan Swain, who worked at the Simon’s Town Museum for many years, was the granddaughter of Jack Savage, mentioned earlier in this article. These people, who were all forcibly removed from their homes in Simon’s Town under the Group Areas Legislation of 1967, are just a smattering of the many people, from all over the Western Cape, who knowingly or unknowingly, carry the bloodline of these once great seafaring men of the West African Coast.


This article was first published by the Quarterly Bulletin of NLSA on 1 April 2010 and is re-published here to honour the memory of the late Prof Robert Shell (13.02.1949 – 03.02.2015) who first reviewed the article for publication in 2009.


I wish to thank Dr Sandra Rowoldt Shell and the staff at the UCT African Studies Library for their tireless assistance during my search for material for this article in 2009 and for Sandy’s ongoing assistance with library images. I also wish to extend my sincere gratitude to Lila Komnick from the Library of the South African Parliament for so kindly supplying valuable historical images for this article.


[i] Arthur Davey Kroomen: Black Sailors at the Cape (Unpublished paper, 1992) p.9.

[ii] Diane Frost, Work and Community among West African Migrant Workers since the Nineteenth Century (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999) p.11.

[iii] Michael Whisson, Water and Workers – Meeting the needs of the Royal Navy in Simon’s Town (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol XIII No. 4, July 1985) pp.152 - 153. (The term refers to the language spoken by the indigenous coastal peoples, although some of the men recruited by the Royal Navy were ex-slaves rather than true Kru speakers).

[iv] Horatio Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser: Comprising Sketches of the Canaries, The Cape de Verds, Liberia, Madeira, Sierra Leone and other places of interest on the West Coast of Africa, (New York: George P. Putnam & Co, 1853), p.106.  (A large stream of sweet and clear water runs through a grove of palm-trees to the sea).

[v]Diane Frost, Work and Community among West African Migrant Workers since the Nineteenth Century, (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999) p.7.

[vi]Ibid, p.7.

[vii]Ibid, p.8.

[viii]Ibid, p.10.

[ix]Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.65.

[x]Arthur Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, July 1990), Vol, XVI No. 2, p.51.

[xi]Lovedale Institution.The Christian Express (Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1902), p.139.

[xii]Capt Kenneth Douglas Morris, Naval Medals (1793 – 1856), (London: K J Douglas-Morris, 1987) p.15.

[xiii]Mrs Isobel Gill, Six Months in Ascension: an unscientific account of a scientific expedition (London: Murray, 1880) p.237.

[xiv]A.B. Ellis, The Land of Fetish, (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883), p.50. Horatio Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.105 (I saw a native doctor making his “greegree” or charm, for rain).

[xv]Ellis, Fetish, pp.308 - p.309. (It is about the golden axe. The axe belongs to the fetish: it is a sign of the fetish. The axe was sent …… to obtain our desires peaceably).

[xvi]Horatio Bridges, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.17 (Age is more respected by the Africans than any other people).

[xvii]This image is sourced from the South African Parliamentary Library Archives.

[xviii]Henry Tracey A visit to Cape Town in 1838 (Johannesburg: Friends of the Library, University of the Witwatersrand, 1980), p.8.

[xix]Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.17.

[xx]Captain Kenneth Douglas-Morris, RN, Naval Medals (1793 – 1856), (London: K J Douglas-Morris, 1987) p.14.

[xxi]M McCulluch. Western Africa Part II – The Peoples of Sierra Leone Protectorate (London: International African Institute, 1950) p.10.

[xxii]This image is sourced from the South African Parliamentary Library Archives.

[xxiii]Davey, Kroomen: Black Sailors at the Cape,p.2.

[xxiv]Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.7.

[xxv]Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.16.

[xxvi]Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.35. (1793 – 1856), (London: K J Douglas-Morris, 1987) p.14.

[xxvii] Jane Martin, Krumen “down the Coast”: Liberian Migrants on the West African Coast in the 19th Century (Boston, Mass.: African Studies Centre (Working Papers No. 64, 1982), p.5.

[xxviii]Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.17.

[xxix] Ibid, p.105.

[xxx] Martin, Krumen “Down the Coast”, p.4.

[xxxi] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.17.

[xxxii] This image is sourced from the South African Parliamentary Library Archives.

[xxxiii] Ibid, p.19.

[xxxiv] Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.5.

[xxxv] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.106.

[xxxvi] Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.52.

[xxxvii] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.116.

[xxxviii] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.19.

[xxxix] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.105.

[xl] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.37.

[xli] Anon. The Christian Express, The Kroo Boys (Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1902), p.139.

[xlii] Frost,West African Migrant Workers, p.9

[xliii] Arthur Davey, Tindals, Seedies and Kroomen, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol XVII No. 4, July 1993), p.157.

[xliv] Lawrence Hill, Freedom Bound, (Toronto: The Beaver, February – March 2007), p.18.

[xlv] Hill, Freedom Bound, p.18.

[xlvi] Hill, Freedom Bound, p.22.

[xlvii] Hill, Freedom Bound, p.18 and p.22.

[xlviii] Syl Cheney-Coker America’s Heritage in Sierra Leone (U.S.: Topic 1987) Issue No. 176, p.38.

[xlix] Hill, Freedom Bound, p.22.

[l] Whisson, Water and Workers, p.151.

[li] Syl Cheney-Coker, Sierra Leone, p.38.

[lii] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p13 and p.34. (The continued migration of Kru to Freetown for seafaring work can be explained in part by the greater opportunities in ship work Freetown offered, but also because of increased harassment of Kru migrants endured from the Liberian government when recruited for work on European steamers); Cheney-Coker Sierra Leone, p.38.

[liii] Cheney-Coker, Sierra Leone, p.39.

[liv] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.168.

[lv] Cheney-Coker Sierra Leone, p.39.

[lvi] Bridges, Journal of an African Cruiser, pp.51 – 52.

[lvii] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.168.

[lviii] Bridge, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.170.

[lix] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.8.

[lx] Bridges, Journal of an African Cruiser, p.60.

[lxi] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, pp.10 -11.

[lxii] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.11.

[lxiii] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.13.

[lxiv] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, pp.32- 33.

[lxv] Cheney-Cooker, Sierra Leone, p39.

[lxvi] Whisson, Water and Workers, p.153.

[lxvii] Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.52.

[lxviii] Davey, The Kroomen of Smon’s Town, pp.52 - p.53.

[lxix] Michael Whisson, The Fairest Cape? – An account of the Coloured people in Simonstown (Johannesburg: The South African Institute of Race Relations, 1972) p.4.

[lxx] Whisson, The Fairest Cape, p.6.

[lxxi] Davey, Kroomen, (unpublished article) page 11.<

[lxxii] Ibid, p. 15.

[lxxiii] A copy of Jack Savage’s Certificate of Service with the Royal Navy received courtesy of the Simon’s Town Museum.

[lxxiv] Davey Kroomen:(unpublished) p. 10.

[lxxv] Whisson, Water and Workers, p.153.

[lxxvi] Bill Rice, Nubian (C.370): The Admiralty Coal Hulk based at Simon’s Town from 1901 – 1912 (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. XXIII No. 2, July 2004) p.76.

[lxxvii] Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.52.

[lxxviii] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.35.

[lxxix] Martin, Krumen “Down the Coast,, pp.10 - p.11.

[lxxx] D M Rhind, The Simon’s Town Railway Line, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol XVI No. 2, July 1990), p.60.

[lxxxi] Davey, Kroomen (unpublished) page 12.

[lxxxii] Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.51.

[lxxxiii] Douglas-Morris, Naval Medals, p.13.

[lxxxiv] Davey,The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.52.

[lxxxv] Davey, The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, p.51.

[lxxxvi] Whisson, Water and Workers, p.153.

[lxxxvii] Whisson, Water and Workers, p.153.

[lxxxviii] Martin, Krumen “Down the Coast”, p.11.

[lxxxix] Martin, Krumen “Down the Coast”, pp.13-14.

[xc] Martin, Krumen “Down the Coast”, p.11.

[xci] Martin, Krumen “Down the Coast”, p.13 and p.15.

[xcii] Davey, Kroomen (Unpublished article: 1992), pp.21 - 22.

[xciii] Frost, West African Migrant Workers, p.13.

[xciv] Davey, Kroomen, pp.21 -22.

[xcv] Davey, Kroomen, p.22.

[xcvi] Davey Kroomen, p.13.

[xcvii] Patty David, Bill David, Peggy Shand and Dorothy Fisher, Kroomen at the Royal Observatory, Cape, Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. XVI No. 3, January 1991), p.107.

[xcviii] Ibid, p.108.

• Anon.The Christian Express (Lovedale: Lovedale Press, 1902).
• Bridge, Horatio. Journal of an African Cruiser: Comprising Sketches of the Canaries, The Cape de Verds, Liberia, Madeira, Sierra Leone and other places of interest on the West Coast of Africa, (New York: George P. Putnam & Co, 1853).
• Cheney-Coker, Syl. America’s Heritage in Sierra Leone (U.S.: Topic 1987) Issue No. 176.
• Davey, Arthur. The Kroomen of Simon’s Town, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, July 1990) Vol, XVI No. 2.
• Davey, Arthur. Kroomen: Black Sailors at the Cape (Unpublished paper, 1992).
• Arthur Davey, Tindals, Seedies and Kroomen, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol XVII No. 4, July 1993).
• Douglas Morris, Capt. Kenneth. Naval Medals (1793 – 1856), (London: K J Douglas-Morris, 1987).
• Ellis, A.B. The Land of Fetish, (London: Chapman and Hall, 1883).
• Frost, Diane. Work and Community among West African Migrant Workers since the Nineteenth Century (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999).
• Gill, Mrs Isobel. Six Months in Ascension: an unscientific account of a scientific expedition (London: Murray, 1880).
• Hill, Lawrence. Freedom Bound, (Toronto: The Beaver, February – March 2007).
• Martin, Jane. Krumen “down the coast”: Liberian Migrants on the West African Coast in the 19th Century (Boston, Mass.: African Studies Centre (Working Papers No. 64, 1982).
• McCulluch, M. Western Africa Part II – The Peoples of Sierra Leone Protectorate (London: International African Institute, 1950).
• Michael Whisson, The Fairest Cape? – An account of the Coloured people in Simonstown (Johannesburg: The South African Institute of Race Relations, 1972).
• Patty David, Bill David, Peggy Shand and Dorothy Fisher, Kroomen at the Royal Observatory, Cape, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. XVI No. 3, January 1991).
• Rice, Bill. Nubian (C.370): The Admiralty Coal Hulk based at Simon’s Town from 1901 – 1912 (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol. XXIII No. 2, July 2004).
• Rhind, D.M. The Simon’s Town Railway Line, (Simon’s Town Historical Society Bulletin, Vol XVI No. 2, July 1990), p.60.
• Tracey, Henry. A visit to Cape Town in 1838 (Johannesburg: Friends of the Library, University of the Witwatersrand, 1980).
• Michael Whisson, The Fairest Cape? – An account of the Coloured people in Simonstown (Johannesburg: The South African Institute of Race Relations, 1972).

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