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.
(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.
(West India Regiment Band at Up Park Camp, National Library of Jamaica)
Melissa Bennett, PhD Candidate