October 25, 2017

Why is Black History Month Still Relevant?

Every year, throughout the year, new black histories are uncovered and shared with the public through books, films, television programmes, and talks. Being a researcher has allowed me to witness and be a part of the unveiling of such stories at conferences and in archives, and ensuring that these stories reach the public is an important responsibility of the academic community.

The past year provided us with numerous brilliant examples of black history reaching the public, most notably the BBC’s Black and British season. Black and British: A Forgotten History showed the nation that Black History was British history. Black Romans were deployed to the region near Hadrian’s Wall, black people served in the court of Henry VIII, and were key figures in the abolitionist movement. Black Midwives highlighted the important contribution of the women who responded to the call of the mother country at the founding of the NHS and have remained a key part of our health service ever since.


(ASUA PhD Student Melissa Bennett filming part of Black and British at the Black Cultural Archives in October 2016)

Outside of our television screens Black History has also been broadcast through museums, galleries, and public spaces. Soul of a Nation has showcased powerful artwork from the Black Power movement to a British audience at a time when the Black Lives Matter campaign is steadily growing. At Portchester Castle in Hampshire, a fascinating exhibition has revealed that the castle housed 2,000 African-Caribbean prisoners of war who were transported from St Lucia in 1796 after fighting for the French, who had freed them from slavery, against the British who hoped to claim the island and its slaves. Such stories complicate traditional narratives about Britain’s status as pioneers of the anti-slavery movement.


(The WIR at the Queen's Jubilee in 1897, including one of their Victoria Cross winners)

This story is complicated further by the fact that between 1795 and 1808 the British government brought an estimated 13,400 slaves to form the West India Regiment, the first official predominantly black unit in the British Army. My own research project on the West India Regiment has unearthed numerous photographs of the black men who fought to maintain and expand Britain’s colonial empire, and discovered the fascinating stories behind them. It forms part of the AHRC funded Africa’s Sons Under Arms project that focuses on numerous aspects of the West India Regiment’s history and this November we too will share our findings with the public through an exhibition at the Museum of London Docklands.


(A panel event at the Black Cultural Archives, including David Olusoga, S.I. Martin, Angelina Osbourne, Onyeka Nubia, and Patrick Vernon, and ASUA PhD student Melissa Bennett along with Paul Reid, Director of the BCA)

If Black History Month had not provided incentives for bringing these kinds of histories into the public realm for the past thirty years, it is unlikely that such research would receive funding, that exhibitions like the ones mentioned would take place, and that Black History would be brought to our televisions. What started thirty years ago as a movement to ensure this history reached the public for just one month, has slowly evolved to ensure that it is something that touches us all year round. This does not mean that Black History Month has lost its relevance, it increases its importance as a showcase for the kind of work that goes on 365 days a year and the kind of stories that can be found across our country every day in museums and galleries, on our streets, and in our homes. Long may it continue to spark interest and wet appetites!

bhm 30

(ASUA PhD student Melissa Bennett at the Black History Month 30th Anniversary Celebration at the House of Lords, this article was also printed in BHM magazine)

This article originally appeared in Black History Month Magazine

For more information on ASUA's involvement with the BBC's Black and British see this AHRC article.

September 19, 2016

Cricket, Marching Bands and Empire

Of late, I have been scouring newspapers, travel accounts, photos and prints in search of the public performative and recreational life of the West India Regiment – in particular cricket and military bands.

The raising and activity of the West India Regiment coincided with the evolution of Caribbean cricket and incipient nationalist movements. Indeed, by the end of 19th century cricket became one of the most significant expressions of Caribbean popular culture. As Rex Nettleford has argued, “Cricket culture is the vehicle on which West Indians journeyed deepest into modernity,” (As quoted in Hilary Beckles, The Development of West Indies of Cricket Vol.1.).

It is thought that the first public cricket game held in the Caribbean was in 1806 at the St. Ann’s Garrison in Barbados – and the 4th West India Regiment had a role in the game (interestingly only 4 years after the 1802 mutiny of the WIR).

I am also looking for evidence of the role of disbanded soldiers and officers of the West India Regiment in the rise of cricket across the region. Bridget Berenton has noted in Trinidad that disbanded members of the WIR after 1815 played a key role in the emerging middle class.

The only known depiction of a slave playing cricket, and the oldest image of cricket played outside of the British Isles, is from Barbados. The image appears on a belt buckle and, though little is certain about the provenance of the buckle, it is thought to be linked to 1st Baron Hotham who was Governor of Barbados in the late 18th century.

19th century newspapers in Barbados consistently advertised the sale of cricket bats and balls. As well as cricket matches held at the St. Ann’s Garrison in Bridgetown. One description of a match at the Garrison involving the 4th West India Regiment in August of 1868 states, “The match attracted a large number of visitors, all of whom were met with the utmost hospitality at the hands of the military,” (Barbados Agricultural Reporter, August 18, 1868).

Sources on the WIR bands thus far have revealed a consistent and significant presence in Caribbean daily life. The bands would drill, march and play for a wide range of events – not only military campaigns – including funerals, religious masses, as well as political rallies. Photographs and post cards also reveal that the marching bands were a key element of colonial imagination and myth.


("Band of the West India Regiment Playing on the Park", illustration of article "Cast-away in Jamaica" by W.E. Sewell, 1861)

The military bands were iconic images of empire that combined both the idea of colonial subjection and order, with the spread of British culture across the world.


(Image from author’s personal collection)

One of the arguments put forth for the raising of the West India Regiment was that it would serve as a civilising force among enslaved and free Africans in the Caribbean. And the coverage of the WIR bands in the great exhibits of the 19th century sheds light on one way the ‘work’ of empire was promoted.

The press both in the UK and the Caribbean gave extensive coverage of the bands’ performances. The 1st West India Regiment band performed at the Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851. A caption to a photo of the band taken after their performance reads, “The Band of the 1st West India Regiment. Whose excellent performances proved such an attraction at the Crystal Palace” (Black Cultural Archives, Photos/105).

The Pictorial World of London published images and descriptions of the West India Regiment Band performing at the “Colonial and India Exhibition” of South Kensington in 1886. It was noted in particular that members of the band were “all Christians” and “all spoke English.” The description of the event includes a discussion of the military successes of the WIR, in particular the campaign against the Ashanti in 1872-3.

Yet, if cricket and marching bands have proven to be pillars of post-colonial Caribbean popular culture – and, moreover, embody the social tensions of colonialism andpost-colonial society – what, if any, ‘proto-nationalist’ connections can be drawn between the WIR and these fundamental cultural elements of Caribbean society?

My search for evidence and historical surprises continue!


May 02, 2016

In the Footsteps of the West India Regiment: Castries, St. Lucia

When visiting St. Lucia last year I was able to visit the sprawling garrison site in the capital city, Castries, that formerly housed the West India Regiment. I was shown around by local historian Gregor Williams, who has served as Chair of the St. Lucia National Trust and is an authority of the garrison site including its buildings, its armaments, and its past inhabitants.


The West India Regiment were stationed in St. Lucia throughout their history. In fact, as early as 1794, a Company of the Carolina Corps (who were later amalgamated into the West India Regiment) were sent to capture St. Lucia from the French. There are also a number of photographs in a photograph album held at Yale's Beinecke Library of the 1st West India Regiment during their stay in St. Lucia in in the early 1860s.

However, it was in the late 1880s that the garrison site at Castries was massively expanded, following a decision that Castries Harbour would become a major coaling station. In December 1888, a detachment of soldiers was transferred to St Lucia to help protect the newly reovated harbour. By 1890 this improved garrison consisted of two battalions of infantry, one white British and one black West India Regiment, companies of artillery and of engineers (including a submarine mining detachment), and medical and other staffs. This gave rise to the impressive barracks on Morne Fortuné and at Vigie to accommodate them. By 1899, there were 295 black soldiers of the West India Regiment stationed in St Lucia. They lived in barracks like the ones pictured below which now form part of the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College.


(The Barracks on Morne Fortuné)

The West India Regiment's time as a permanent garrison in Castries was brief, with the Entente Cordiale of 1906 meaning that France was no longer perceived as a threat to British interests in the region. By 1907 the structure of defence for Castries had been abandoned and the imperial garrison was withdrawn. The soldiers' permanent presence on the island was eventful despite its brevity. On a late August evening in 1891 a large disturbance broke out that led to fighting and rock throwing. It involved several black soldiers, local St Lucian women, and a few of the police constables who had been imported to St Lucia from Barbados. This kind of fracas was common according to historian Bonham C Richardson, who writes that 'soldiers of the West India Regiment were involved in an endless series of scuffles and disturbances after dark' (Richardson, 1997, p39). Soldiers involved in such breaches of discipline were held in the jail cells pictured below.

(The jail cells at Morne Fortuné)

In 1901 and 1902 authorities in St. Lucia were forced to deny an outbreak of yellow fever among soldiers of the West India Regiment stationed at Castries. Admitting the outbreak would have led neighbouring islands to impose a quarantine and would therefore have threatened shipping traffic from the new coaling station. Even in leaving St. Lucia the soldiers of the Regiment did not escape contoversy. When plans were finalised about their withdrawal from the garrison, the island's Governor made arrangements for a British Navy ship to be nearby fearing that some members of the local West India Regiment might attempt to "pay off old scores" before they left for West Africa (Richardson, 1997, p231).

After 1907, the buildings of the old garrison were put to various other uses ranging from secondary schools to the police training academy. Two of the old soldiers' barracks at Vigie have even been utilised as the Mexican and Venezuelan Embassies (see below). Although in St. Lucia many of the sites formerly inhabited and used by the Regiment are not marked as such, the Regiment have left a clear footprint on the island's landscape. Even the current Prime Minister's residence was formerly a building that was part of the garrison. Their connection to the island's present is therefore inescapable, and it would be great to see this rich heritage made clearer to the local population and tourists. The postcard pictured below from the 1890s shows that these sites and their soldiers were definitely appreciated in the past.

Vigie barracks and postcard

(Top: a postcard of the West India Regiment at Vigie Barracks c.1890, Bottom: the barracks today)

March 07, 2016

The Forgotten Black History of Gibraltar. Prof. Tim Lockley

The military history of Gibraltar is hard to avoid. At almost every turn there is a reminder that for most of its existence Gibraltar was a fortress and a garrison, a vital projection of British power in the Mediterranean.


Yet a small part of Gibraltar’s military history is almost entirely unknown, and certainly unnoticed by visitors and residents alike. For two years, between 14 March 1817 and 9 March 1819, a thousand African-born soldiers, members of the 4th West India Regiment, formed more than a quarter of the resident garrison.

The 4th WIR was formed in the Caribbean in the late 1790s but the vast majority of rank and file soldiers were born in Africa and either purchased from slave ships by the army or, after the closing of the British transatlantic slave trade in 1807, recruited from the slave ships of other nations intercepted by the British.


The decision to send the 4th WIR to Gibraltar is not readily explained as this is the only instance of any of the West India regiments serving in Europe.The most plausible reason was the high degree of resistance possessed by black troops to tropical diseases, particularly yellow fever. Gibraltar was prone to periodic epidemics of yellow fever that severely weakened the garrison. The epidemic of 1804 killed 894 soldiers, about a third of those serving in Gibraltar. A further 384 soldiers died in an 1813 outbreak and 78 in a smaller recurrence in 1814 Those born in West Africa were known to have immunity to yellow fever, indeed preserving the health and lives of European soldiers was the primary reason for raising these regiments in the Caribbean in the first place.


[A military grave for a victim of the 1804 epidemic in the King's Chapel]

The 4th WIR disembarked at the New Mole in Gibraltar on 14 March 1817 and were quartered in Rosia Barracks, with smaller numbers at Europa Pass and Buena Vista. Rosia Barracks was adjacent to the Naval Victualling station at Rosia Bay, and had been a warehouse consisting “of one stone building of two stories and one of wood of the same height” before being converted into barracks specially for the arrival of the 4th WIR in 1817. The area around Rosia was acknowledged to be one of the least healthy parts of Gibraltar, which is perhaps why the regiment was quartered there. By summer 1817 four companies were moved to occupy Cooperage Barracks in the town (part of the Casemates barracks).


[The warehouse before conversion is labelled "K" in this map (top right)]

Rosia barracks

[Rosia barracks is the smaller of the two buildings in the middle of the picture]

There is almost no information on the duties the men of the 4th WIR were required to perform while in Gibraltar, though one might reasonably expect them to have undertaken sentry duty and manned defensive positions. Some of the soldiers had families with them: 75 women and 60 children arrived with the regiment in 1817. Regimental court martial records also reveal that some men stole from each other and from the regimental supplies, others drank or gambled too much, failed to turn up for duty on time, or got into arguments with their superior officers. The court martial records of white regiments are full of similar minor offences and nearly everyone was punished by a set number of lashes up to a maximum of 300. By far the most serious case was that of Private Richard Greenville, convicted of the murder of a fellow soldier. Greenville's death sentence was commuted by the Governor, most probably because he was only 17 or 18 years old at the time, and he was discharged and transported back to the West Indies.

The soldiers of the 4th WIR complained of the cold as soon as they arrived. Coming from a Caribbean climate where temperatures rarely dropped below 20 degrees Celsius, even at night, Gibraltar in late February was a shock. For long periods a ‘cold easterly’ wind accentuated the difference between tropical and temperate climates to men dressed “according to the West India fashion”. Extra clothing was distributed, “to an extent that would have been burthensome to others.”

If the hope had been that African soldiers would prove more robust than their European counterparts in Gibraltar it was quickly dashed. The men fell ill in large numbers, not from fever but from a variety of chest complaints, the most serious of which was consumption, or tuberculosis. On 26 May Major Nixon reported that 74 of the men were sick, while a further 65 were ‘invalids.’ Sixteen soldiers had already died in the 10 weeks since the regiment arrived. Physicians who had served in Gibraltar were well aware of the high incidence of pulmonary complaintsin the garrison. John Hennen, who was stationed in Gibraltar in 1809 and 1810, described “pulmonary affections” as the “true epidemic of the rock.”

By the end of 1817 the impact of the move to Gibraltar on the health of the men of the 4th WIR was becoming clear to all. The number of sick had declined to 43 but the number of ‘invalids’ – men who would never return to soldiering had climbed to 112. In early January 1818 sixty-seven of these ‘invalids’ boarded a transport ship for Barbados. During 1818 the number of sick gradually declined, but the death toll continued to mount, reaching 75 in December 1817. Most died of lung complaints: tuberculosis spreads easily via coughing in poorly ventilated spaces containing large numbers of people. Gibraltar's barracks easily met this criteria. When the regiment finally left Gibraltar on March 9th 1819, heading for disbandment in Sierra Leone, 120 soldiers had perished.Thirteen sick men were left behind in Gibraltar, to be absorbed into the white regiments when, or if, they recovered.


[The Royal Naval Hospital where the sick of the 4th WIR would have been treated]

There is no memorial to the men of the 4th WIR who served in Gibraltar. The dead might have been buried in Witham’s cemetery, the closest to Rosia Barracks, but there are no gravestones to confirm it. Costly stone memorials would have been far beyond the means of private soldiers. The only evidence the regiment was ever in Gibraltar lies in obscure files in the National Archives in London. Yet the story of the 4th WIR in Gibraltar is a reminder that for most of the nineteenth century black soldiers played a important part in the expansion and defence of the British Empire. The remaining West India Regiments would go on to serve in the West Indies, central and south America and in Africa.

February 22, 2016

'Am I Not a Man and a Soldier?' Samuel Hodge, VC, in ‘The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866’

Professor David Lambert

Louis William Desanges,

Louis William Desanges (1822-87) was an English artist of French aristocratic background, best known as the creator of the Victoria Cross Gallery, a series of fifty oil paintings executed between 1859 and 1862. The Victoria Cross had been introduced in 1856 to honour acts of valour by men and junior officers during the Crimean War, and Desanges’ paintings were based on the action that had led to the award. The series was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in the 1860s and 1870s. As a result, the paintings must have been the most familiar representations of contemporary war for many, especially as there were circulated as photographs and appeared as illustrations in Samuel Beeton’s book Our Heroes of the Victorian Cross.

Beyond this series, Desanges also produced other works of figures who were awarded the Victoria Cross, one of which is ‘The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866’, which is held at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance. It depicts Private Samuel Hodge (c.1840–1868) of the 4th West India regiment who was born on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

Louis William Desanges,

In June 1866, Hodge was a private in the 4th West India Regiment, serving in the Gambia. Following a rebellion by a Marabout leader, Amar Faal, the British governor, Colonel George D’Arcy, marched on the centre of the rebellion, a stockaded town on the northern bank of the River Gambia with some 270 officers and men of the 4th West India Regiment. On arriving, D’Arcy called for volunteers to help him breach the town’s defences. Two officers and 15 men, including Hodge, came forward. Most were killed almost immediately by the defenders’ fire until only D’Arcy and Hodge were left alive. Yet, after hacking his way through the stockade with an axe, Hodge was able open the gates before being shot down. British troops poured in and the Marabouts were defeated. Though seriously wounded, Hodge survived. He was promoted to the rank of Lance-corporal, and was presented with the Victoria Cross. However, he never fully recovered, and died of fever less in January 1868 while serving in back in Belize. Hodge was the first non-white soldier to be awarded the VC.

I have much more work to do on this painting and how it relates to Desanges’ other Victoria Cross works, but I want to offer some initial observations. What strikes me, particularly in contrast with some of Desanges other works – for example, this of ‘Private John Sims, 34th Regiment, winning the V.C. at Sebastopol, 18 June 1854’ – is the portrayal of Hodge, who while appearing in the foreground is somewhat marginalised.

William Louis Desanges,

Note, for example, that although Hodge’s role in breaching the stockade is denoted by the axe he holds, we do not actually see this action. Instead, Desanges focuses on D’Arcy’s role in maintaining the breach while other troops come up – a task that Hodge only assists with. The most dramatic action actually depicted in the painting is the death of the marabout chief that D’Arcy has just killed. Indeed these two figures, framing the breach, mirror one another – each the leader of their forces, as well as light versus dark; pain versus self-control. Thus, the two elements central to the awarding of the VC – Hodge and the breach – are marignalised despite being in the foreground and centre respectively. This is reinforced by the painting’s inscription:

‘Samuel Hodge, serving with the 4th West India regiment obtained the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in effecting a breach in the stockade. He was badly wounded, but continued to assist the Governor, Colonel D’Arcy, by handing to him the rifles of his poor companions, with which the colonel kept the enemy at bay while the supports were coming up. In the breach are seen the prostrate body of Lieutenant Jenkins and Ensign Kelly, mortally wounded. The marabout chief who is seen with arms extended is mortally wounded by the rifle which Colonel D’Arcy is about to drop. The chief has just descended from the vantage tower represented a short distance behind him and had discharged his musket within a few feet of the Governor, fortunately missing his aim. Poor Hodge who has since died received his cross at the recommendation of Colonel D’Arcy. It is regrettable that, by the rules of service, a similar honour could not be bestowed on the latter brave soldier through whose courage and skill on that eventful day the main success of the enterprise depended.’

The painting’s inscription rapidly passes over Hodge, returning only to mention his death. Instead, he is subordinated to the recommender and this marginalisation reinforced by centring D’Arcy and regretting that he could not get a VC. (It is perhaps worth noting that the painting was in the possession of George D’Arcy – and may have been originally commissioned for him. Hence, we have a focus on D’Arcy in painting and text. In that sense, one is left with the impression that Hodge is rather incidental to the whole thing.)

Hodge’s marginalisation in a painting that supposedly celebrates his valour is compounded by his posture, of course, face in profile and in a kneeling stance as he looks up to D’Arcy. Indeed, I do not think it goes too far to note that Hodge’s posture is remarkably reminiscent of the famous abolitionist icon, which first appeared in Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion of 1787, with its image ‘of an African in Chains in a Supplicating Posture’.

Joshia Wedgwood,

While the abolitionist campaign was long finished, this remained a staple of the mid-Victorian imagination of emancipation. This figure implores the viewers for mercy, begging for the chains to be broken, haltingly suggesting a sense of equality with the presumed white audience that is partial at best. Whether Desanges was consciously evoking the Wedgwood icon or not, it was usual for the black soldiers of the West India Regiments to be visually depicted as passive figures, often shown ready for inspection and almost never in action. As such, Desanges’ painting captures the somewhat ambivalent status of the West India Regiment soldier in the British military-imperial imagination, a martial figure for sure, but one rarely depicted fighting and having to be constantly scrutinised and inspected.

Professor David Lambert

January 03, 2016

Africa’s Sons Under Arms: Fear of the Armed Black Man in the Antebellum South

Rosalyn Narayan- PhD Student, Warwick University

What is my research about?

During the Antebellum period, many white slaveholders and their families in the southern USA were fearful of armed black men- both enslaved and free black men. The fear that a 'race war' might break out at any moment was a source of great psychological trauma. My PhD will consider the influences that affected this white fear.


Despite a large historiography of slavery in the antebellum South the significance of fear in white psychology is comparatively understudied. In analysing how slaveholders reacted to news and rumours of the activities of armed black men in both the near vicinity and further afield (both nationally and elsewhere in the Atlantic world), my project will examine reactions to the perceived threat of the black ‘other,’ the particular construction of a black masculinity to be feared, and the significance of this fear in white psychology.

Of particular interest to my research as part of the wider Africa’s Sons Under Arms project is the representation of black men who were armed in the British West India Regiments, stationed in the Caribbean and how news of the regiments influenced the fears of the southern white elite. An analysis of local southern newspapers and slaveholder diaries can help us understand how the real or imagined image of the soldiers of the West India Regiments fed into a stereotype of the ‘armed black man’ who was to be feared.


My PhD will consider three important wider interrelated components:

Slave Revolts

My research will advance work on both imagined and real slave rebellions, and examine how the cultural construction of the ‘armed black man to be feared’ in minds of white elites may have been informed by slave revolts internationally, nationally and at a local level.


This PhD project will build on recent research on maroons (fugitive slaves) in the US. It will examine how the existence of maroons in both urban and rural areas may have affected experiences of fear. I will analyse how slaveholders reacted to news and rumours of maroon activity in both the near vicinity and further afield (both nationally and elsewhere in the Atlantic world), and will examine what these reactions tell us about the perceived threat of the black ‘other’ and the significance of fear in the minds of white elites.


Black Soldiers in the Civil War

White fear of armed black men became reality during the Civil War with the arrival of northern troops drawn from the free black community. My study will conclude with the impact these soldiers had on the southern white mind.

Civil War

September 03, 2015

Picturing the West India Regiments

My project focuses on images captured by, and of, the soldiers of the West India Regiments with the aim of discovering how these images reflected and shaped ideas about race in the Caribbean. I am particularly interested in what the images can reveal about how the physical ability and intelligence of black males were viewed by their white colonial rulers in everyday, military, and tourist situations. My research will focus first on the Regiments as black military bodies and the importance of photography in spreading and generating ideas about race, then on photographs of the Regiments putting down unrest in Jamaica and West Africa, before looking at their less aggressive role in creating and maintaining the Caribbean's tourist image.

As well as studying the content of the photographs I will look into how they were produced, reproduced, collected and displayed, and how this has affected their meaning.


The racial backgrounds of the soldiers of the West India Regiment were extremely important. Within the regiments, racial distinctions were made. Only white soldiers could be promoted to officer ranks and had access to better facilities, accommodation, wages and social status. However, some black soldiers were able reach the rank of NCO and have command over white rank and file.

As well as their interaction with white Europeans, military combat against people of African descent in Sierra Leone and Gambia, and Ycaiché Indians in British Honduras will be important to study to discover more about the WIR’s impact on ideas about race.

Aside from images of the WIR or other uniformed men (policemen and postmen), those circulated of the island’s local inhabitants presented them as lagging behind white Britons and reinforced ideas of black people as unintelligent and un-industrious.

WIR Signalling

(West India Regiment in Sierra Leone, National Library of Jamaica)


In 1865, the Morant Bay Rebellion caused shock and fear and was reported worldwide. In Jamaica, photo cards of some of the principal protagonists were produced or reproduced for sale. Prints of the rebellion’s white victims and main protagonists, as well as views of the scenes where the violence and subsequent punishments had taken place were advertised for sale.

The Alexander Dudgeon Gulland Album, held at Princeton, contains 59 photographs of the Rebellion in Jamaica. Among them are a page of portraits of “The Victims of the Jamaica Rebellion of 1865” and of British Army officers and WI soldiers. Held at Yale, the William Walker Whitehall Johnston album contains images of the 1st West India Regiment around the time of the rebellion.


(From the William Walker Whitehall Johnston album, Beinecke Library, Yale)


From the 1880s British and American interest groups embarked on campaigns to refashion the islands as “tropical” paradises. For many years the islands had been stigmatized as breeding grounds for diseases and natural disasters. Volcanic eruptions in St. Vincent and Martinique in 1902, and the earthquake in Jamaica in 1907, made the job of those promoting tourism more difficult. Images portraying a peaceful and tranquil landscape were essential in countering images and memories of these events.

Crucial to portraying the region as safe were images of civilised and disciplined black population. Images of black people themselves maintaining order (such as policemen and military figures) were key to demonstrating this. The WIR band entertained tourists in Jamaica, performing on a music stand at the Myrtle Bank Hotel twice weekly.

WIR Band

(West India Regiment Band at Up Park Camp, National Library of Jamaica)

Melissa Bennett, PhD Candidate

July 21, 2015

Differential Mortality

One of the main reasons for recruiting slaves and later Africans to serve in the West India Regiments was their ability to resist disease.The data collected by the War Office proves they were correct in this assessment. In 1838 the government published a Statistical Report on the Sickness, Mortality, & Invaliding among the troops in the West Indies prepared from the records of the Army Medical Department and War-Office Returns (London: W. Clowes & Sons, 1838). It conclusively showed that average mortality for black troops in all British West Indian possessions was only 4% per year between 1816 and 1836. Among white soldiers mortality varied between islands: 8.4% in Guiana, 10.6% in Trinidad, 12.2% in St. Lucia, 14.3 % in Jamaica, and 15.2% in Tobago, but was consistently higher than among black troops. In epidemic years it could reach 30%.

doc re-sized

The biggest killers of white troops were the tropical diseases (malaria and yellow fever) to which black troops had either partial or total immunity. Governor of Tobago, Sir William Young, was therefore justified when he observed ‘that negro soldiers, under a climate natural and congenial to their temperament and habits, will go through the fatigues of service in the West Indies with less liability to sufferance, disease, and premature death, than Europeans.’[1]

[1] Sir William Young, The West-India Common-Place book (London: Richard Phillips, 1807), 214

July 01, 2015

Slaves to Soldiers: The Image of the West India Regiments in Britain and the Empire, 1795–1914

The ‘Africa’s Sons Under Arms’ project is sub-divided a number of components. My part, ‘Slave to Soldiers’, examines the textual and visual representation of the West India Regiments in Britain and the British Empire in order to understand changing ideas about race, masculinity, the military and empire.

As soon as men of African and African-Caribbean descent joined the West India Regiments of the British army from the end of the eighteenth century, they were depicted in paintings, engravings and, later, photographs. These joined other images of black people, including of enslaved people toiling on Caribbean plantations and Maroons who had run away from the estates to become rebels. Most of these images were made by white men and their depictions of people of African and African-Caribbean descent were often crude, caricatured and racist. So, did images of black soldiers serving in the British army challenge or perpetuate such stereotypes?

Racist Stereotypes


Figure 1 was made during the Napoleonic Wars (1799-1815), a global conflict in which the West India Regiments were highly active. The image was intended to show the contrast between the British and their French enemies. While the diminutive figure of the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte can be seen to the left ordering the death of captives, British officers in the right panel try to stop a black man from killing his French prisoners. This man was a Haitian soldier from the former colony of Saint-Domingue. The colony had rebelled against the French and overthrown slavery. The image also captured the racist idea, held by many Europeans at the time, that men of African descent were prone to violence, which made some wary about the recruitment of black soldiers. Fears that the arming of men of African and African-Caribbean descent was dangerous were particularly pronounced among Caribbean slaveholders and stemmed from racist ideas about their supposedly inherent brutality. For this reason, supporters of the West India Regiments worked hard to emphasise the discipline and bravery demonstrated by the soldiers in battle and to depict them in positive ways.

Disciplined Bodies

Figure 2, of a private serving in the West India Regiment in Jamaica, is one such image. It shows a black man dressed as a regular British infantryman (as they were until the 1850s). In the background, a second West India Regiment soldier can be seen facing an enslaved man. This soldier’s commanding stance, contrasting with the less confident posture of the barefoot man, perhaps suggests that military service could be a means of self-advancement, a way out of slavery and even a ‘civilising’ influence more broadly on people of African descent.

Absent Figures

The British Invasion of Martinique in 1809

Figure 3 depicts the British invasion of the French Caribbean island of Martinique in 1809. The mission was a success and the capture of Martinique was widely celebrated in Britain and displayed in images like this. More than 10,000 soldiers were involved, including those from the 1st West India Regiment, which was awarded battle honours for its role. Yet, these black troops were not shown in this image. Their absence shows how the contribution of men of African and African-Caribbean descent to the British army – and British Empire – has often been overlooked, downplayed and forgotten. One of the aims of ’Africa’s Sons Under Arms’ is to reverse this absence.

Professor David Lambert
Department of History

February 05, 2015

ASUA Launch Event at the British Library

On Tuesday 20th January the British Library hosted the Africa’s Sons Under Arms official launch. The event was opened by Kristian Jensen, the Library’s Head of Collections and Curation. Following on from this the project team (David Lambert and Tim Lockley from the University of Warwick, Phil Hatfield and Beth Cooper from the British Library, together with PhD students Melissa Bennett and Rosalyn Narayan from Warwick) outlined their various research projects as well as plans for wider public engagement; such as events for community groups in London and the West Midlands, public exhibitions, and the production of a KS3 teaching resource.

Phil Hatfield and Beth Cooper kindly arranged some archival material from the British Library’s Caribbean Collections for attendees to view to get a feel for the kinds of source material the various research strands of the project will be using. These materials included J.E. Caulfield’s One Hundred Years’ History of the 2nd West India Regiment and A. Duperly’s Daguerian Excursions in Jamaica.


Attendees at the launch included Her Excellency the High Commissioner for Jamaica, community organisations with an interest in the Caribbean, academics and students from a number of universities, and British Library staff.

The launch was very well attended and there was widespread enthusiasm for the project. It became apparent to everyone on the project team that there are a number of potentially exciting avenues for future collaboration that we will certainly follow up on.


The team would like to thank everyone who came and showed their interest and support, and all the staff at the British Library who helped to ensure that the event was a success.

Over the coming weeks we shall each be blogging about our separate projects- so stay tuned to hear more!

October 2023

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Sep |  Today  |
2 3 4 5 6 7 8
9 10 11 12 13 14 15
16 17 18 19 20 21 22
23 24 25 26 27 28 29
30 31               

Search this blog



Blog archive

RSS2.0 Atom
Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder