T.W. Paterson: More history in today’s headlines

Hall has also been commemorated by a postage stamp and a highway bears his name

William Nelson Hall is the first black man to win the Victoria Cross. He is commemorated on a stamp, among other things. (submitted)

William Nelson Hall is the first black man to win the Victoria Cross. He is commemorated on a stamp, among other things. (submitted)

Hall has also been commemorated by a postage stamp and a highway bears his name as will one of Canada’s new Harry DeWolf class patrol ships.

Back in March, it was reported that Toronto-area Senator Don Meredith had violated the upper chamber’s code of conduct by using the “weight, prestige and notability of his office” to seduce an underage teen.

It was the reference in the Senate ethics officer’s report to Meredith having promised the girl, among other things, an appointment to a committee “looking at building a memorial to the first black soldier [six] to receive the Victoria Cross” that caught my eye.

I’ve always been interested in the Victoria Cross, Great Britain’s highest honour for gallantry. In fact, I’ve written about several VCs including Cowichan’s own Maj. Charles Hoey numerous times.

So who was the first black man to achieve this great distinction? His name was William Nelson Hall. Born to former slaves in Horton, Nova Scotia in 1821, he worked in local shipyards before going to sea, aged 17. He joined the U.S. Navy then enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1852 and fought in the Crimean War.

That’s not when he earned his VC, though. This came later, during the Indian Mutiny in 1857 when his ship, HMS Shannon, was ordered to Calcutta. Hall was one of the several hundred officers and seamen who fought their way overland to try to relieve the siege of Lucknow.

They intended to do this with the naval guns they’d hauled with them and Able Seaman Hall volunteered to fill in for a missing gunner. He and all the naval crews proceeded to bombard a key rebel position while suffering heavy casualties from small arms fire and grenades.

So devastating was the enemy’s fire that the crews of two guns (including Hall’s 24-pounder) which had moved to within 18 metres (20 yards) for greater effect, were killed or wounded. Only Hall and his commander, Lt. T.J. Young, remained in action.

For such devotion to duty at the risk of their lives both men were recommended for the Victoria Cross, Hall receiving his two years later. He remained with the RN and rose to petty officer first class before retiring in 1876.

Back in Horton Bluff, N.S., he farmed until his death in 1904.

That’s not quite the end of his story, however. (And I don’t mean ex-Senator Meredith.) VC or no, Hall was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave.

This travesty wasn’t corrected until 1954 when he was reinterred in Hantsport, N.S. This time his grave is properly marked with a bronze plaque. In 1967 the Nova Scotian government repatriated Hall’s VC from Britain; it’s now on permanent display in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic, Halifax.

Hall has also been commemorated by a postage stamp and a highway bears his name as will one of Canada’s new Harry DeWolf class patrol ships (all to be named after Canadian heroes).

Yes, better late than never. But why are we Canadians so slow to recognize our heroes? I know, we’re too polite…

On the subject of Canadian honours, the Canadian Press recently reported that Gov.-Gen. David Johnston wants to expand “the reach of the country’s honours system, such as the Order of Canada,” which, incidentally, has its 50th anniversary this year.

I had the pleasure of meeting Gov-Gen. and Mrs. Johnston several years ago when they came to the Cowichan Valley and I was asked to conduct them on a tour of the Kinsol Trestle one wet morning.

From other news reports I know that he’s a pro- and proud Canadian, as shows in his latest comment to the press in this year of Canada’s 150th anniversary:

“Let’s ensure this is a country of both excellence and equality of opportunity for all. Let’s work towards achieving reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples. Let’s continue to celebrate diversity. It’s a strength, one that has allowed us to build a society that is the envy of the world.”

Not a perfect country, by any means, alas, but still pretty damn good. If you don’t think so, just look around you and follow the news.

www.twpaterson.com

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