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Africa's Sons Under Arms: The Role of the West India Regiments

The BBC’s ‘Black and British season’ promised to take Black history outside of confines of ‘Black History Month’. The season, which ran throughout November 2016, included a four part landmark history season which saw the BBC working with partners including the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Black Cultural Archive.

The series, ‘Black and British: A Forgotten History’, allowed BBC viewers to take a fresh look at Britain’s past – through the lens of Black history. This feature looks at how AHRC-funded academics shared their research with the BBC.

Britain’s Black history does not always make for comfortable reading and is seldom less than complex, but the AHRC-funded Africa’s Sons Under Arms (ASUA) project has produced one of the most tangled tales yet. Professor David Lambert, who is lead researcher on the project, recently presented the to-date findings of the four-year project to producers of the BBC’s Black and British season, although it may need a whole new series to untangle its details.

Painting depicting Samuel Hodge, the first non-white soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross
'The Capture of Tubabakalong, Gambia, 1866', oil painting by Chevalier Louis William Desanges (1866), Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance

The History of the West India Regiments

ASUA’s study of the British West India Regiments (WIR) began in October 2014, with a brief to explore the arming of people of African descent and its impact on the changing nature of racial thought from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. The WIR were established in 1795 and would go on serve in World War I, although their formation was more about the need for numbers than a desire for progress.

“Britain was fighting a deadly war with France at the time,” says Lambert. “This was following the French Revolution. One-third of the British Army was based in the Caribbean, but British soldiers were dying of malaria and yellow fever in their droves. The French Republic abolished slavery and suddenly formerly-enslaved men flocked to the Tricolour to fight for freedom.”

British commanders in the region came up with the idea of doing likewise and arming enslaved people, as had been done to some extent in the American War of Independence. But slave holders in Jamaica and Barbados did not wish to ‘patriotically’ give over their slaves.

The British Army and Slavery

“The British Army spent a lot actually buying slaves direct from Africa,” says Lambert. “For a time, the British Army becomes the biggest purchaser of slaves in the region. They’d buy them and stick them straight in uniform, where they were treated pretty much as British soldiers. They were then used to capture Martinique and put down unrest on the islands.”

As the slave trade drew to an end, this method of recruiting became impossible. But that did not stop British Army chiefs thinking of a way around the situation, sending the Royal Navy to capture illegal slave ships and then enlisting those they liberated. These troops were then used to expand the British Empire in West Africa, as well as defending the Caribbean and suppressing colonial unrest.

“These soldiers were fighting for Britain against other people of African descent,” says Lambert. “A few mutinies took place, but usually when soldiers think they are starting to be treated as slaves, clearing land with machetes.”

To say the politics surrounding the WIR were knotty is an understatement. Military top brass were impressed by the regiments, whereas planters and merchants were critical and enslaved rebels in Barbados assumed WIR troops would join their side. WIR soldiers were largely looked down upon by middle-ranking officers and couldn’t rise past Non-Commissioned Officer roles themselves, although their acts of bravery are marked in military history.

A Hero Emerges from the Ranks

“Private Samuel Hodge, born in Tortola in the Caribbean, was the first non-white soldier in history to be given the Victoria Cross,” says Lambert. “He’s depicted in a painting ‘The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866’ by Louis William Desanges, who painted a series of Victoria Cross winners. He basically takes to a gate with an axe, so the rest of the soldiers can go in. Hodge is shot and wounded, but able to help his Commanding Officer, who leads the attack on the gate. Unfortunately, he doesn’t recover from his wounds and dies two years later in Belize.”

Lambert hopes that the ASUA project will make the WIR as much a part of black British history as this soldier is a part of military history. He also believes that the project can help to change the way we look at what Black British history means.

“We have to understand that Black British history includes the history of Africa and the Caribbean,” says Lambert. “What it was to be British wasn’t just limited to these islands that we’re in now and it’s important to provide much longer and wider stories for people of African and African-Caribbean descent. It’s essential to expand the imagined map of Black Britishness.”

There are lots more case studies and programmes available on the BBC’s Black History website

See more on Africa’s Sons Under Arms

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