Black Canadian Profile: William Hall (VC) 1827 to 1904
It is only fitting that the first Black Canadian Profile I write for my blog be that of the first Black Canadian I ever read about with any interest. During my Grade 10 history class, which I had with a wonderful visiting teacher who was originally from Scotland, I learned about William Hall (VC), the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian, and the first Canadian sailor to be honoured with a Victoria Cross.
William Hall was born in 1827 in Horton Bluff, on the Minas Basin, in Nova Scotia. He was the son of former American slaves Jacob and Lucy Hall who had fled to Halifax as refugees of the War of 1812. . He grew up in Hansport which was a thriving wooden shipbuilding area. Hall began his career building wooden ships but eventually joined the American merchant navy, then the British Royal Navy. His first service was a Able Seamen with the HMS Rodney. He spent two years in the Mediterranean and Black Seas during the Crimean War, during which he took an active part in a gun crew during the bombardment of Sebastopol (in present day Ukraine) and was captain of one of the Lancaster Guns on Green Hill. He received both British and Turkish medals for his efforts during this campaign.
Hall went on to join the crew of the HMS Shannon as Captain of the Foretop. Indian regiments with the British Army mutinied violently in resistance to the British occupation. In 1857, Hall volunteer to accompany a relief force bound for Lucknow where mutineers were besieging a British garrison. The army was required to breach the inner wall of the Shah Najaf mosque that was being used as a fortress by the mutineers.
According to the biography of William Hall written for the Nova Scotia Museum:
William Hall volunteered to replace a missing man in the crew of a twentyfour- pounder. The walls were thick, and by late afternoon the 30,000 sepoy defenders had inflicted heavy casualties from their protected positions. The bombardment guns from Shannon were dragged still closer to the walls and a bayonet attack was ordered, but to little effect. Captain Peel ordered two guns to within 20 yards (18 m) of the wall. The enemy concentrated its fire on these gun crews until one was totally annihilated. Of the Shannon crew, only Hall and one officer, Lieutenant Thomas Young, were left standing. Young was badly injured, but he and Hall continued working the gun, firing, reloading, and firing again until they finally triggered the charge that opened the walls. “I remember,” Hall is quoted as saying, “that after each round we ran our gun forward, until at last my gun’s crew were actually in danger of being hurt by splinters of brick and stone torn by the round shot from the walls we were bombarding.”
For this act of bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross on October 28th, 1859. The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded to those who have shown valour “in the face of the enemy”. It was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 to award soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.
William Hall (VC) retired from the navy in 1876, having reached the rank of Quartermaster. He went to live with his two sisters, managing a farm in Avonsport. He died of paralysis and was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave, His grave was neglected for some time until local community members launched a campaign in 1937 to have his valour recognized by the Canadian Legion. In 1945, his was reburied in a special plot in the cemetery of a Baptist Church in Hansport and in 1947 a memorial cairn was erected on ground obtained by the Hansport Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. The inscription on the memorial reads as follows:
William Hall V.C. the first Nova Scotian, and the First Man of colour to win the Empire’s highest award for valour
A branch of the Canadian Legion in Halifax was also named in his honour.
William Hall’s medals were returned to Canada from England and were put on display during Expo ’67 in Montreal. They are now property of the province of Nova Scotia and are kept at the Nova Scotia Museum. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp of William Hall in time for Black History Month in February 2010.
When I first learned about William Hall (VC), I remember feeling surprised, surprised that a Black person had been able to achieve what William Hall had achieved in the 19th Century. As a Black person, I feel that I have a complicated relationship with history. So much of the history that directly relates to my ancestors is not accessible to me and/or is deemed unimportant within mainstream Canadian society because it is considered to not be of any significant consequence to the more important history of Western Civilization. William Hall’s achievement of the Victoria Cross places him within the “important history of Western Civilization”. Both his involvement in the Crimean War and the Siege of Lucknow place him at key moments in the development and expansion of the British Empire. As Black people, we are often made to feel, or are even bluntly told, that we have not contributed anything of worth to Western Civilization. The life of a Black person like William Hall (VC) contradicts this belief and can be used effectively to help Black Canadian students feel that Black people like them have played a significant role in Canadian as well as British and Western history.
However, does celebrating the life of the first Black person to be awarded a Victoria Cross necessarily mean we need to celebrate his role in the expansion of the British Empire? You see, as I have grown older and learned more history, although I don’t doubt the heroism involved in William Hall’s actions during the Siege of Lucknow, I can’t agree that the British were right to be attempting to occupy India. Although British History often portrays the British army as victims of this mutiny, Indian history sees the mutiny as a struggle of resistance against Britain’s colonial ambitions and expanding occupation of the Indian sub-continent. Although there is no doubt that some of the mutineers were involved in unspeakable crimes against humanity, particularly the butchering of the families, mainly women and children, of British soldiers and settlers, Britain’s subsequent colonial take-over and occupation of the subcontinent could hardly be expected to be accepted without serious resistance from the Indians.
Much like African Americans who celebrate the history and achievements of Buffalo Soldiers as somehow “upping the race”, while ignorning that fact that many Native Americans and Filipinos may see these men as agents of American colonialism, we need to look at the achievements of William Hall (VC) as Indians might see them. We live in a very multicultural country and an increasingly globalized world. Far too often, we limit ourselves to seeing our achievements as Black people only in a Western, often North American context. This must change.
Nova Scotia Museum Biography of William Hall (VC)
Black History Canada: William Hall Profile
Canada Post Profile of Willam Hall (VC) and his Commemorative Stamp