Jeffrey Green is

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

065: The sinking of the “Falaba”, March 1915

Launched 1906, capacity 190 passengers

Launched 1906, capacity 190 passengers

Roll of Elder Dempster staff who died on the Falaba
Roll of Elder Dempster staff who died on the Falaba

The Falaba of the Elder Dempster Co of Liverpool was bound for Sierra Leone via the Canary Islands when she sailed on 27 March 1915. Early afternoon on 28 March, fifty miles west of St David’s Head in southwest Wales, where St George’s Channel meets the Atlantic, the Falaba was torpedoed by U28. Of the 145 passengers and 95 crew, 104 lives were lost. One was the American mining engineer Leon Thraser, who was returning to the Gold Coast (today: Ghana). The U.S.A. was a neutral country, submarine attacks on non-military shipping was a new facet of war, and his death created illwill towards Germany in the U.S.A. The New York World described the sinking of the Falaba as “Not War but Murder”.

The Roll of Honour published in The Elder Dempster Fleet in the War (1921) names 53 crew who died. The Times (31 March) listed the dead, including two doctors. Later studies including websites have centred on the political impact in America because of Thraser’s death, and the career of the U28 (which was sunk, at sea, by a truck – it was lifted into the air when U28‘s gunfire hit a cargo of ammunition in the Olive Branch in September 1917 – and landed on the submarine).

What has been overlooked is the number of Africans on the Falaba. The crew names E. Johnson, C. Acquah, G. Coffier, J. Myers, J. Aliom, J. Wyse, J. Freeman, the fireman (working the engines) Small Boy, and trimmer (cleaning the engines) T. Freeman were far from rare in West Africa, and others notably trimmers and firemen, have African-style names of a century ago. Elder Dempster had African crew members on its ships, and had been praised for issuing clear instructions that African passengers were not to be treated in any way different to whites. One or two of the passengers who died, as listed in The Times, have names that were held by Africans in Sierra Leone.

These names are on the Merchant Navy memorial near Tower Hill, London, listed under the name of their ship. Of those thousands of names, the “Lascar” sailors with Moslem names are the easiest to identify as possessors of a dark skin who died at work, at sea, during the world wars.

Thanks to Roger Lambo who long ago told me that his father, the future Dr Thomas Lambo of Ibadan University, arrived in England in 1943 just owning the pajamas he had on when his ship was sunk – and to shipping expert Charles Kay who supplied copies of the postcard and the roll of honour.

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