The first African Canadian to receive the Victoria Cross for bravery during combat has been honoured with a Canada Post commemorative stamp.
Nova Scotia-born William Hall, who was also the first Canadian sailor and just the third soldier in this country to be awarded the highest military decoration, was presented with the Victoria Cross by the British Royal Navy on October 28, 1859 after he valiantly defended a British garrison in Lucknow, India.
Canada Post Corporation director of delivery and retail operations (West) Wayne Beckles, Her Majesty Canadian Ship (HMCS) York executive officer Tim O’Leary and Ontario Black History Society president Rosemary Sadlier unveiled the stamp last week.
“When it comes to our nation’s history, there is no denying the contributions of people of African descent,” said Beckles, a former Royal Barbados police officer. “They played an important role in early exploration, helped to find and build many of our earlier settlements and created flourishing communities from coast to coast. To recognize the important contributions of African Canadians to our culture and history, Canada Post is proud to issue a stamp that honours the achievement of an outstanding Canadian.
“Through our stamp program, we attempt to capture Canada and what it means to be Canadian and showcase it to the world. The stamp that we unveil today does just that. It celebrates the accomplishments of an influential and valiant Black hero and helps seal his incredible place in Canadian history. As a pioneering African Canadian, he will continue to be an enduring role model for today’s youth and future generations of African Canadians. We believe the stamp we unveil today captures the essence of who William Hall was…brave, adventurous and a source of pride for Canadians.”
Born in 1825 to American parents liberated from the U.S. slave trade, Hall built wooden ships for the merchant marine and was a crew member on a trading vessel. He enlisted in the Royal Navy in Liverpool in 1852 and served as a naval brigade member on the HMS Rodney during the Crimean War. The Canadian soldier received British and Turkish medals for his combat service during the three-year war that ended in1856.
A year later, Hall – as Captain of the Foretop of the HMS Shannon – led the successful British Naval guns charge in Lucknow during the Indian mutiny.
“He set an example that many of us in uniform are proud of,” said Lieutenant Commander O’Leary. “There is a reason that his Victoria Cross award is for valour and not fearlessness. Valour is recognizing the fear and pushing through it and that is what we take from Hall.”
Hall retired as Quartermaster in 1876 and moved back to Nova Scotia to live with his sisters on a farm in Avonport overlooking the Minas Basin. He lived and farmed without recognition until 1901 when the Duke of Cornwall and York, who was later to become King George V, noticed Hall and his medals during a British Veterans parade in Nova Scotia.
The highly decorated soldier succumbed at home to paralysis in 1904 at age 75 and was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave.
“He received the highest medal for bravery granted in the British Commonwealth, yet he went without significant recognition for many years in his own country,” said Sadlier. “That we now, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Navy, honour him with this commemorative stamp is long overdue. It’s about time.”
Hall was reburied on the grounds of the Hantsport Baptist Church in 1945, eight years after a local campaign was launched to have the Canadian Legion recognize his valour. A monument erected near his grave bears an enlarged replica of the Victoria Cross and a plaque describing his courage and devotion to duty.
A Canadian Legion branch in Halifax was renamed after Hall and a Cornwallis gym, the DaCosta-Hall Educational Program for Black students in Montreal and the annual Halifax International Tattoo gun run, perpetuate his name.
In 1967, his medals were returned from England to Canada to be displayed at Expo ’67 in Montreal. They are now preserved in the Nova Scotia Museum.
Hall is the fifth African-Canadian to be recognized with a Canada Post commemorative stamp.
A millennium stamp bearing the image of Portia White – considered one of Canada’s greatest vocalists – was issued in 1999 while Canada Post issued a domestic stamp to mark Oscar Peterson’s 80th birthday on August 15, 2005.
Last year, Abraham Shadd and Rosemary Brown were honoured with commemorative stamps.
Peterson, who died in December 2007, was the first living Canadian to be honoured with a stamp for his lifetime work.