New exhibition highlights crucial role of South Asian sailors in British shipping history

Black and white image of three sailors

Three MA Naval History students have contributed to the exhibition along with Dr Melanie Bassett of the University's Port Towns and Urban Cultures project

  • 12 April 2022
  • 5 min read

A new exhibition, which opens onboard HQS Wellington in London on 17 April, on Sundays and Mondays will shine a light on the significant part played in British maritime history by sailors from South Asia over 400 years, including both world wars.

Three students from the MA Naval History course at the University of Portsmouth have contributed to the exhibition along with Dr Melanie Bassett of the University's Port Towns and Urban Cultures project. They were tasked with bringing this rich, yet often under-reported, area of British history to life.

Formerly known as HMS Wellington, the Grimsby Class Sloop operated as a convoy escort ship in the North Atlantic during the Second World War. It is currently berthed on the River Thames in Westminster. The Wellington Trust that maintains the ship and promotes education wanted to produce an exhibition that helps to show the link through centuries of seafaring to people of South Asian descent living in modern day communities in Britain. To do this it commissioned experts from the University of Portsmouth and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. 

The exhibition showcases the interwoven histories of the British Empire and the sea to explore their work in peace and wartime, and uncovers some of the rich roots that created our present-day society.

Dr Melanie Bassett, Research fellow in Public Engagement

Explaining why this exhibition is so important, Dr Melanie Bassett, research fellow in Public Engagement at the University of Portsmouth, said : “The lives of South Asian seafarers and their contributions to British merchant shipping over the last 400 years is a significant, yet little-known, area of popular maritime history. The exhibition showcases the interwoven histories of the British Empire and the sea to explore their work in peace and wartime, and uncovers some of the rich roots that created our present-day society.”

The students have researched, planned and prepared boards focusing on four different areas, uncovering stories that will be something of a surprise to many. They include the history of the Women’s Royal Indian Naval Service, the East India Company and P&O.  The exhibition also covers conditions on board and a brave rescue at sea involving South Asian seamen, rewarded for their bravery.

Researchers have worked with South Asian families in London to produce a display on the social history of their ancestors arriving in the capital with artefacts on display sharing their family histories

The Wellington Trust has worked closely with the University’s Port Towns and Urban Culture’s group on this exciting exhibition. University staff, and current and alumni MA Naval History students have made a vital contribution to the content.

Alastair Chapman, Chairman of the Wellington Trust

Dr Cathryn Pearce, senior lecturer in naval and maritime history at the University of Portsmouth, said: “I am delighted that our MA Naval History students were invited to participate in creating such a significant public history exhibition. We are proud of their dedication to research in difficult circumstances at the height of the Covid-19 lockdowns, and are thrilled to see the exhibition open to the public. We will be offering our students more collaboration opportunities in the future, thanks to the Wellington Trust.”

Alastair Chapman, Chairman of the Wellington Trust said “The Wellington Trust has worked closely with the University's Port Towns and Urban Culture’s group on this exciting exhibition. University staff, and current and alumni MA Naval History students have made a vital contribution to the content. So it’s been a fruitful partnership, and we hope to have more opportunities of working with the University in future.

The exhibition is open onboard the ship until the end of October. The Wellington Trust then plans to take it to other areas of the country.