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?
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.
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.
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