A new project investigating the life and experiences of black Bermudian sailor Charles Wotton, who was horrifically murdered in a racially motivated attack in Liverpool in 1919, has recovered the experiences of other black Bermudian sailors. The research led by Dr. Kristy Warren and her Bermudian research team, Seeking Charles Wotton: Before the Liverpool ‘Race Riots’ of 1919, has expanded to include other black Bermudian merchant mariners who, like Wotton, served in the Merchant Navy during the First World War.
These newly recovered stories of black Bermudian merchant mariners provide vital information on the experiences of civilian Bermudian sailors during the early 20th century conflicts and help contextualise the circumstances and events which led them to join the civilian merchant navy.
The familiar and frequently told narratives of Bermudian contributions to the First and Second World Wars tend to focus on the experiences of enlisted Bermudian soldiers in both local and overseas forces. In recent years, however, extensive research has been carried out focusing on civilian experiences and contributions during the conflicts.
While not a military force like the Royal Navy, the Merchant Navy was comprised of repurposed civilian shipping fleets and provided vital support to Britain’s military forces and war effort during the First and Second World Wars. Britain and her territories throughout the empire relied on these fleets to transport food, supplies and troops. Often overlooked, the civilian sailors risked their lives to ensure that their cargo reached its destination. During the First World War alone, over 3,000 British merchant vessels were lost due to enemy action and over 15,000 merchant seamen were lost as well. During the Second World War the minimum casualty rate for merchant seamen was over 25%. Most of the sailors were from across the British empire, including many Bermudian men.
As part of the research team, I have been exploring these stories and the objects in the Museum’s collection connected to them. There is one group of objects, which links the experiences of Bermuda’s merchant marines to those of its enlisted soldiers and highlights a multi-generational family story of maritime heritage and dedicated service.
Born in 1890 in Paget, Bermuda to George Esten Curtis and Jane Susan Curtis (nee Stowe), William Stanley Curtis was the oldest of eight children. From 1906 to 1910 Stanley, as he preferred to be called, trained to become a certified Engine Driver and worked on the Corona, part of the Pearman and Watlington Island Steam Line.
At the age of 23, and six months before the outbreak of the First World War, Stanley married Margaret Tankard Douglas on December 16, 1913. A year after their wedding day, Stanley joined the crew of a war department tender, the Louise. Photographs from the period Stanley was a crewman show the Louise operating as a ferry transporting enlisted Bermudian soldiers likely to awaiting ships destined for Europe.
During the first two years of the war, Stanley and Margaret welcomed two sons, Stanley Douglas Curtis (1914 – 1957) and William Eugene Curtis (1915 – 2006).
In 1918, Stanley transferred to SS Charybdis, and spent a year working as a seaman sailing between New York and Bermuda transporting food, supplies and passengers, including some returning Bermudian soldiers.
German u-boats regularly patrolled the East Coast of the US and in 1918 hundreds of vessels suffered attacks. For his service during the war Stanley was awarded a Mercantile Marine War Medal by the Board of Trade for making one or more voyages through a war or danger zone in the First World War. The green, white, and red stripes on the ribbon represent starboard and port running lights with the masthead steaming light in the center.
While Stanley served the War Department as a crewman with the Louise and later the Charybdis, his younger brother Charles Curtis was on active service in Europe with the Bermuda Contingent Royal Garrison Artillery (BCRGA).
The BCRGA served at the Somme, Marseille, Vimy, Messines Ridge, and at Ypres Salient and were awarded accolades for exemplary service. British commander on the Western Front Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig said of the BCRGA:
“On more than one occasion the [ammunition] dumps at which they were employed were ignited by hostile shellfire, and much of their work was done under shellfire. Their behaviour on all these occasions was excellent, and commanded the admiration of those with whom they were serving.”
While on active service in France, Charles purchased an embroidered card to send to William. With “To my dear brother” embroidered on the front it held a short simple message: “Hoping that you and the family are all well. Write a letter soon”. One can imagine the comfort Stanley may have taken in a seemingly small but powerful object. An object which links two very different experiences of the war and connects two brothers across the Atlantic and through numerous battlefields.
Financial and mechanical difficulties led to a brief stoppage of the Charydbis New York-Bermuda sailings in 1918. Unfortunate though this was, it did mean that Stanley may have been on island when his brother Charles returned home. Having been kept in Europe due to illness, Charles had not been able to return to Bermuda with the rest of the BCRGA in July. Instead Charles took a slightly longer route, returning to Bermuda via the West Indies aboard the oil tanker War Dogra on October 30, 1919. The Royal Gazette reported on the return of the remaining nine men of the BCRGA:
“They landed at Shed No. 5 from one of the Dockyard boats, where a large number of relatives and friends had assembled.”
Though we cannot be certain that Stanley was there that day, it is lovely to picture the two brothers reuniting after years of separation.
After the war, Stanley and Margaret welcomed a third son, Cecil Morris Curtis (1921 – 2003) before Margaret sadly passed away in 1929. In 1934, Stanley married Margaret Irene Smith and later welcomed a daughter, also named Margaret.
At an early age, Cecil displayed an affinity for the sea. He used to jokingly say that he learned to swim when as a young boy his brothers and friends threw him overboard and said “sink or swim”. He swam and this was the beginning of a lifelong love of the sea. Cecil yearned for adventures on the high seas, but his father told him that he would have to wait until he was 21 years old.
His chance came in May 1945 when he and a group of 12 other Bermudians embarked on a journey to take a tugboat, the SS Atoyac, from Bermuda to England for the US Navy. This was war time and like his father before him he faced many dangers at sea. Unfortunately, they were not able to reach England and to make matters worse they lost radio contact and were only able to receive but not relay messages.
Thought to be lost at sea, a memorial service was planned for them in Bermuda. However, these daring and determined young men made their way to the Azores and then onto Naples, Italy. This experience might have been adventure enough for many men but for Cecil, it was only a taste that whetted his appetite. Cecil followed in his father’s footsteps and signed up for a lifetime of adventures as a merchant mariner with the National Maritime Union.
For over 40 years Cecil travelled around the world on ocean liners, freighters and tankers and container ships, finally retiring from his life of adventure at sea in 1985.
Research into these stories and the contributions of black Bermudians is vital to our understanding of the varied experiences of war and provides an exciting opportunity to enhance our knowledge of the objects held in trust at the National Museum of Bermuda.
Thanks to William Stanley Curtis’ daughter, Mrs. Margaret Lee who kindly provided the information about her father as well as the Christmas card, his medals and his Certificate of Discharge to the National Museum of Bermuda.
To learn more about Bermudian Merchant Marines, visit the Defence Heritage exhibit on the bottom floor of the Commissioners House at the National Museum of Bermuda.
To read more about Seeking Charles Wotton: Before the Liverpool ‘Race Riots’ of 1919’ and his family’s response to the research project, visit: https://nmb.bm/research/charles-wotten/
“Arming the Allied War Machine”, https://nmb.bm/history/arming-the-allied-war-machine/
“Those Who Served: Bermuda Contingents in the Great War,” MARITimes. 2006. Vol 19, no 3.
The Royal Gazette, October 30, 1919