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Black History Month: William Hall

Photo courtesy of Maritime Museum of the Atlantic.

On February 18, 2021, the official keel ceremony at the Halifax shipyard was held for the HMCS William Hall, Canada’s fourth Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship and first Royal Canadian Navy ship to be named after a Black Canadian. Hall was known for a lot of firsts.

Petty Officer William Hall enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy in 1852, becoming the first Black Canadian and first Nova Scotian to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest honour for bravery.

Born to escaped enslaved Americans, Hall began his military career in the United States, fighting in the Mexican-American War. When he switched allegiances to the British Crown, Hall would first serve aboard the HMS Rodney during the Crimean War, but it wasn’t until the Indian Mutiny of May 1857, after Hall had been transferred to the HMS Shannon, that his notable act of bravery would occur. 

During the fighting, Hall took over for a fallen gunman and, with Able Seaman Thomas Young, was one of the last two men standing on the HMS Shannon. In “recognition of his gallant conduct at a 24-pounder gun,” both Hall and Young received the Victoria Cross. The siege at Lucknow is known for being awarded the greatest number of Crosses in a single day, with 23 given for deeds performed on the 16th of November.

Hall continued to serve in the Royal Canadian Navy until his retirement in 1876 under the rank of Quartermaster. He lived a quiet farming life with his sisters in Nova Scotia until 1901, when HRH the Duke of Cornwall and York visited the province. During a parade for British veterans, the Duke, later King George V, would ask Hall about his Cross.

Despite the brief attention given to his military service, Hall would be buried in an unmarked grave three years later, without military honours. It wasn’t until 1937 that a local campaign to restore Hall’s name was launched that his place in Canadian history was finally rightfully anointed.

Hall is emblematic of many Black Canadian soldiers who were left forgotten about in history books and popular media for a long period before receiving their due attention later (and usually posthumously). Hall’s life also ties into the history of Black Nova Scotians, many of whom escaped enslavement in colonial America and formed a sizable community in Halifax. 

Kenny Hedges | Contributing Writer

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