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 Kroomen Serving In The Zulu War

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PostSubject: Kroomen Serving In The Zulu War   Thu Dec 08, 2011 10:54 pm

Kroomen Serving in the Zulu War

by Tom Hyde

During the 19th, and into the early 20th century, Royal Navy ships on the West Coast of Africa employed African natives from Sierra Leone, called “Kroomen,” for duty on board. In 1862 ships on the Cape Station were allowed one Head Krooman, a Second Head Krooman, and ten Kroomen for large ships. Smaller ships were allowed two supervisors and 6 Kroomen.[1] From then on, vessels ordered for the Cape of Good Hope called at Sierra Leone for the purpose of recruiting Kroomen. By 1879 the strength of the Royal Navy included 409 Kroomen.

When Kroomen were signed-on to a ship, they were given a new name. The choice of names would depend on the one assigning them. Occasionally Kroomen’s names would be of a nautical nature, such as, “Flying Jib” or “Double Block.” Sometimes their names had a more culinary sound, as “Pea Soup” while others were more reminiscent of times spent at the pub, such as “Bottle of Beer.” Most Kroomen were simply given a more common “Christian” name.

Queen’s Regulations included instructions regarding the employment of Kroomen to serve in Her Majesty’s Navy. “Whenever Kroomen or Natives of Africa are entered to supply vacancies in the Ship's Complement, they are to be borne on a distinct List, headed ‘Africans entered to supply vacancies in the Complement;’ they are to be paid on discharge like other Kroomen, but such as are employed on skilled labour, and in other superior ratings, are to receive five-pence per day less than the established Pay for such ratings as they may fill; if employed as Carpenters and Coopers, and if they provide themselves with proper Tools, they are to be allowed the Tool Money of those ratings. In the event of the death of a Krooman, his account in the established Form is to be sent for examination and assignment to the Accountant-General, who will order the wages due to such deceased person to be paid to his Widow, Son, Daughter, Father, Mother (being a Widow), or Brother, by the Naval Accountant at Sierra Leone, or other place, if requested.”[2]

Kroomen would sign on for 3 years, and were paid according to Admiralty Regulations. The rate of pay per day for Kroomen in 1879 was “Head Krooman,” 1s 6d (equivalent to Boatswain mate or Gunner’s mate); “2nd Head Krooman,” 1s 4d (equivalent to Able Seaman); “Krooman,” 11d (equivalent to Ordinary 2nd Class).[3]

During the Zulu War there were Kroomen serving on 4 of Her Majesty’s Navy’s ships that participated in that conflict; H.M.S. Active, H.M.S. Tenedos, H.M.S. Boadicea and H.M.S. Forester. H.M.S. Shah was returning to England from her commission in the Pacific when her Captain diverted her to Durban, and therefore, did not have any Kroomen serving aboard, or at least, no one classified as a “Krooman.” None of the Royal Navy Troopships (H.M.S. Euphrates, H.M.S. Orontes, or H.M.S. Tamar) had any Kroomen on their rolls.


“Active” departed England in 1877 for the Cape of Good Hope and West Africa Station. In late July “Active” rendezvoused with H.M.S. Tourmaline at St. Vincent. The “Tourmaline’s” Officers and about 40 Kroomen transferred to “Active.”[4] Most of “Active’s” officers transferred to “Tourmaline” to take her home to England. Having received the Kroomen from “Tourmaline” saved the “Active” from having to call at Sierra Leone to pick up Kroomen from there, and perhaps suffering the same fate that was to befall “Boadicea.”

According to Staff Surgeon Henry F. Norbury, R.N., 23 Kroomen served with “Active’s” Naval Brigade in the wars at the Cape in 1877-78.[5]

On 19 November 1878 H.M.S. Active landed a Naval Brigade at Durban. Among the 174 members of that brigade were 15 Kroomen. While most of the brigade was taken to the docks by one steamer, two officers and the Kroomen accompanied the two 12 pound guns and the Gatling gun on a second steamer.[6] Once ashore they marched to the train station to be taken, by rail, part of the way to the front. The local natives were most surprised to see black men in British Uniforms, and armed, like their white counterparts. One anecdote in “The Glamour and Tragedy of the Zulu War” records “Onlookers during the disembarkation of the Navals were highly amused, when Kroomen (native sailors) came ashore, to note the astonishment of the local natives, who spoke to them in Zulu but elicited only replies in English.”[7]

The 15 Kroomen who served with “Active’s” brigade were Tom Brown(2), Jack Canoe, Tom Cocoa, Jack Davis (2nd Head Krooman), Jack Everyday, King George, Tom Glasgow, Ben Johnson, Jim Kroo, Jack Lewis(1), Jack Lewis(2), Tom Liverpool, Ben Robert, Jack Ropeyarn, Tom Twoglasses.[8]

The 27 other Kroomen who remained onboard the ship were Jack Andrews, Tom Brown(1), Jack Dandy, Jack Dough, Jack Foretop, Ben Freeman, Jim Mannering, Jim Moore (Head Krooman), Robert Moore, Tom Newyork, Tom Peter(1), Tom Peter(2), Tom Peters(1)(Head Krooman), Tom Peters(2), Sunday Ropeyarn, Jack Sampson, Jack Savage, Jack Savey(1)(2nd Head Krooman), Jack Savey(2), Jack Smart, James Smart, Tom Toby, Tonic Water, John Walker, Tom Walker, Tom Whale and Tom Will.[8] Krooman Jack Dough, died on 2 March 1879.[9] The cause of his death was not listed.

When the “Active’s” Naval Brigade reached the front, at the Lower Tugela River, they were attached to Colonel Pearson’s Number One Column.

In a report written by Colonel Pearson to Lord Chelmsford, Pearson credits a Krooman with saving the life of Lieutenant Craigie (R.N.) “Colonel Pearson states that a hawser with anchor was swept away during the night of the 8th instant, down the stream from where it had been deeply buried in the opposite bank, it requiring 500 men to haul it by main force. In laying it across again I regret to say a seaman of the ‘Active’ (name not forwarded in report) was drowned; a boat’s crew nearly shared the same fate, and Lieut. Craigie of the ‘Active’ having been sucked down by the current under the pont which had turned nearly over, was rescued by a Krooman.”[10]

The Kroomen were part of the Naval Brigade accompanying Colonel Pearson, when on 22 January 1879, they fought at the Battle of Inyezane. Here, two of the Kroomen, Jack Lewis (unknown which one) and Jack Ropeyarn were wounded while with the rockets, under the command of Boatswain Cotter. Jack Lewis, who was sometimes reported as “Ducklewis,” was wounded by a gunshot wound in his arm; while Ropeyarn received a gunshot wound to the chest.[11] Both men recovered from their wounds.

Afterward the Battle of Inyezane the Naval Brigade was shut up in Fort Eshowe from 23 January to 3 April, when they were finally relieved. On 16 March 1879, Commander Campbell, H.M.S. Active, writing from Fort Eshowe stated “The conduct of the men is exceptionally good, if the Kroomen are not considered, and seem quite cheerful, notwithstanding the great amount of rain.”[12] Commander Campbell’s statement regarding the Kroomen’s conduct was supported by a report of Captain H. R. Knight, of the “Buffs”, who stated “The Kroomen, some twelve or fourteen of whom were in the Naval Brigade, afforded a good deal of amusement with their quaint names … and their merry ways. They were immensely proud of being entrusted with rifles. The vitality of the negro, as represented by the Krooman, must be very great. Two of them having a slight difference of opinion, one snatched up a chopper and promptly laid the other’s head open. He was carried off insensible to hospital, but much to the astonishment of everyone was walking about again almost well in the course of a couple of days. His assailant, as soon as he was out of danger, was awarded a severe dose of “fum-fum,” which was laid on under the superintendence of the boatswain. From all accounts the rope’s-ending had far more effect on the gentleman than the blow from the chopper had on the other man.”[13]

Upon being relieved, “Active’s” Naval Brigade retired to Fort Pearson to rest before joining General Crealock’s force on its march to Port Durnford. After arriving at Fort Pearson, Krooman Tom Liverpool, who was sick with fever, was transferred to the hospital at Herwin where he died on 3 May 1879.

There is a photograph of the “Active’s” Naval Brigade, taken in 1879, by a photographer from Durban, named Lloyd, which includes the Kroomen on the far left.

42 kroomen of “Active” were entitled to the South African Medal; 13 with “1877-8” clasp, 10 with “1877-8-9” clasp, 5 with “1879” clasp and 14 with no clasp.


In late December 1878 H.M.S. Tenedos arrived at Durban. She carried onboard only 4 Kroomen. On 1 January 1879 H.M.S. Tenedos landed a Naval Brigade of 3 officers and 47 men, followed by an additional 11 men at a later date. One of the “Tenedos” brigade was Head Krooman Benjamin Roberts. The 3 Kroomen who remained onboard the ship were Tom Newman, John Sambo and Tom Walker.[14]

Head Krooman Benjamin Roberts served first at Fort Pearson, and later at Fort Tenedos, until late March when the brigade from “Tenedos” joined in Lord Chelmsford’s Eshowe Relief Column; and he would have been with the Naval Brigade at the Battle of Gingindlovu.

There is a photograph of the Naval Brigade of H.M.S. Tenedos taken in 1879. In the center of the back row there is a man who appears to be a Krooman; if so, this is Roberts.

4 kroomen of “Tenedos” were entitled to the South African Medal; 1 with “1879” clasp and 3 with no clasp.


In December 1878 H.M.S. Boadicea took on 37 Kroomen at Sierra Leone. On 2 January 1879 the first case of small pox broke out in a Krooman on “Boadicea.”[15] On 28 January 1879 “Boadicea” arrived at Simon’s Bay with 14 cases of small pox among her Kroomen.

There were 11 Kroomen of “Boadicea” who died of small pox in January and early February 1879; Tom Glasgow, Tom Cockroach, Henry Hazleburg, Jack Ropeyarn, Tom Sharp, Tom Newman, Jim Weller, John Smith, Bottle of Beer, Blackwhale, and Jim Manney.[16]

There were 4 kroomen who recovered from the small pox. These were Jim Crow, Tom Newman, George Smith and Tom Poorfellow.[17]

In March H.M.S. Boadicea arrived at Durban. Here she put ashore a Naval Brigade of 10 officers and 218 men.

It is interesting to note that no Kroomen are listed on the Medal Roll for “Boadicea”. Is it possible that after the scare from the small pox outbreak, that the surviving kroomen were all left behind at Simon’s Bay on H.M.S. Flora, and therefore had no participation in the Zulu War? This letter from Commodore Richards, writing from his Flagship H.M.S. Boadicea, off Natal, to the Admiralty in May 1879, may shed some light on their whereabouts. “I propose to retain the "Tenedos" until about the 10th proximo, by which time the pressure of work at Simon's Bay will have been somewhat relieved. The arrival of so many colliers together has been unfortunate, as demurrage to a considerable extent has been unavoidable, though every available man (including the kroomen of the "Boadicea") has been employed on these vessels, as well as all the hired labour procurable at Simon's Bay; the resources at command were insufficient.”[18]

In a later letter written by Commodore Richards, regarding the return of the naval brigades to their ships, he says “On the withdrawal of the “Boadicea’s” men, I have directed the principal transport officer to send Commander Davis up to Port Durnford to act on shore with the military commandant and direct operations. Lieutenant Caffin acts afloat. I have left with Commander Davis two signalmen to keep up communication, four seamen to assist on the beach, and the kroomen of the “Boadicea.”[19] Aren’t these Kroomen entitled to the South African Medal with “1879” clasp?

In October 1879 four more of “Boadicea’s” Kroomen, suffering from various ailments, were transferred to the Naval Hospital at Simonstown, or were invalided out of the service. These four were Jack Lewis, Tim Doubleblock, Tom Peter, and Tim Sampson.[20]

Between the deceased, and others who were mentioned in the Medical Journals of “Boadicea,” there are 19 Kroomen whose names are known, out of the original 37 who signed on at Sierra Leone.

Those who lost their lives during “Boadicea’s” commission are remembered on the Memorial at Gosport, and on a plaque in St. Frances Church in Simonstown.[21]


In April 1879 H.M.S. Forester arrived at Durban. The Medal Roll shows 35 Kroomen serving on board. Of this number, 10 were classified as “Permanent Supernumaries – borne in addition to the complement.” Their names were John Bull, Jack Everyday(1), Jim Flow, Tom Freeman, Jim George(1)(Head Krooman), Elijah Joseph, Tom Lewis(1), Tom Richards, Jack Ropeyarn(2nd Head Krooman) and Tom Toby.[22]

The remaining 25 were classified as “Supernumeraries lent from other Ships for special Service and Supernumeraries on passage borne for Wages.” These men were Tom Coffee, William Cole, Jack Danae, John Davis, Jim Do(also called Jim Davis), DoubleBlock, Jack Everyday(2), Flying Jib(also called Jim Crow), Jack Foreman, Jim Freeman, Joseph Gabbidon, Jim George(2)(2nd Head Krooman), Jacob Johnson, Tom Lewis(2), Henry MacFoy, Peasoup, Tom Peter, Tom Poorfellow, Prince of Wales, Tom Punch, Jim Robert, Samson(also called Jim George), Jack Smart, Tom Tree and John Wilson.[23]

The extra 25 Kroomen were lent to “Forester” for their skill in working small boats close in to the shore, and would be useful along the coastline of Zululand during exploration for a suitable “port”, and the landing of men and supplies.

An article in “The Graphic” reported “On July 3, the day after H.M.S. Shah arrived at Port Durnford, an attempt was made to land; but the surf proved too high, and the general very reluctantly consented to go back to Durban and make his way overland towards the army in the field. Sir Garnet Wolseley and his Staff left the Shah, which lay at anchor about a mile and a half from the shore in less than seven fathoms, and went on board the tug Koodoo, which was commanded by Captain Twiss, the surf-master. In this vessel they made their way through the rolling billows to one of the surf-boats, a strongly-built flat-bottomed lighter, to which they were with great difficulty transferred, each passenger having to jump from one vessel to the other, where he was caught in the arms of the Kroomen, lest he should tumble overboard after having accomplished the feat.”[24]

35 Kroomen of “Forester” were entitled to the South African Medal, with “1879” clasp.

During the Zulu War, the Kroomen served with, and fought alongside, Her Majesty’s blue jackets and marines. They received wounds in combat, suffered from fevers and disease, and some died. For their contribution they were awarded medals. Their names were recorded on the rolls. Their faces captured for all time in the photographs of the Naval Brigades, and they are still, today, remembered on monuments and memorials.


[1] “Black Liberators: The Role of Africans & Arabs sailors in the Royal Navy within the Indian Ocean 1841-1941”, Clifford Pereira, Geographical Society, London, United Kingdom
[2] The Queen’s Regulations and Admiralty Instructions for The Government of Her Majesty’s Naval Service, 1879
[3] The Navy List 1879
[4] Diary of John Carroll, Gunner, RMA
[5] “The Naval Brigade in South Africa During The Years 1877-78-79,” Fleet Surgeon Henry F. Norbury, C.B., R.N.
[6] “The War Correspondents, The Anglo Zulu War,” John Laband and Ian Knight
[7] “The Glamour and Tragedy of the Zulu War,” W. H. Clements
[8] The South African Medal Roll 1877-1879 (HMS Active)
[9] Ibid (HMS Active)
[10] The London Gazette, 21 February 1879
[11] Letter of Henry F. Norbury, Staff Surgeon, RN to Director-General, Medical Department of the Navy, 24 January 1879.
[12] Letter of Commander Campbell to Commodore Sullivan 16 Mar 1879
[13] “Reminiscences of Etshowe”, Captain H. R. Knight, The United Service Magazine
[14] The South African Medal Roll, 1877-1879 (HMS Tenedos)
[15] Transactions of the Epidemiological Society of London, New Series, Vol XIV, Session 1894-95
[16] Medical and surgical Journal of Her Majesty's flag ship Boadicea for 1 January to 31 December 1879 by James P. O'Malley, Fleet Surgeon.
[17] Ibid
[18] Letter of Commodore Richards to the Secretary of the Admiralty 9 May 1879
[19] Letter from Commodore Richard to the Secretary of the Admiralty after the return of the Boadicea’s Naval Brigade
[20] Medical and surgical Journal of Her Majesty's flag ship Boadicea
[21] “The Mariner’s Mirror,” Volumes 50 – 51
[22] The South African Medal Roll, 1877-1879 (HMS Forester)
[23] Ibid (HMS Forester)
[24] “The Graphic,” Saturday, August 16, 1879; Issue 507
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