William Hall: First Black Recipient Of The Victoria Cross

The highest military decoration for bravery and valor

William Nelson Edward Hall (1827 – 1904) was the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian, and one of the first Canadians to receive the Victoria Cross.

The Victoria Cross is the highest military decoration awarded by the British Military. It is given for bravery, daring, and valour in the face of an enemy. The first medals were handed out in 1856, going back to deeds from 1854.

A Brief History Of William Edward Hall

William Edward Hall was born to Jacob and Lucy Hall in Horton, Nova Scotia. His parents had previously been enslaved in America and moved to Canada as a result of the War of 1812.

Hall grew up on the family farm and as a young man, he worked in shipyards at Hantsport. In 1844, when he was 17, he began seafaring. His first position was as a merchant seaman on an American trading vessel. In 1852, he joined the Royal Navy in Liverpool, England as an Able Seaman and received multiple medals for his service in the Crimean War.

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Hall Stands Alone Until Relief Comes

By 1857 he was serving on HMS Shannon as Captain of the Foretop. (He was responsible for the crew climbing and rigging the sails on the foremast.) During this time, Hall volunteered to be sent to Lucknow, India with a relief force. A small British garrison was under siege by a sepoy army and needed aid. 

Hall was one of about 400 seamen, marines, captains, and officers to make their way to the garrison. Fighting all the way, they joined a second relief force in Cawnpore before making their way to Lucknow. Once there, the entire Shannon crew fell except for Lieutenant Thomas Young and Hall. Despite the situation, Hall continued to fight until relief came. 

It was this display of bravery that earned him the Victoria Cross on October 28, 1859.

“I remember 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.” — Willam Edward Hall

His naval career continued until 1876. By this time he was a Quartermaster. Following his discharge, he moved back to Nova Scotia, where he lived with his sister and farmed until he passed away in 1904.

Today, his grave can be found at the Hantsport Baptist Church marked by a monument, and his medal is displayed at the Nova Scotia Museum.

William Edward Hall is just one example of the many contributions of Black people in Canada’s history. Despite the racism of the time, he was able to distinguish himself through his bravery, determination, and courage.

Featured Image – SourceThe Canadian Encyclopedia; image resized and cropped