Slaves in red coats: The West India Regiment

Private of the 5th West India Regiment, c1800

Why slaves?

As the British Empire grew, more soldiers were needed to garrison new territories coming under British control. The need for men was also increased by the wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France (1793-1815), which soon spread to the Caribbean colonies of European powers. 

Unfortunately, the tropical climate of the Caribbean took it's toll on European soldiers. Around 90 per cent of the 45,000 white troops who died there during the wars were killed by disease rather than the enemy. 

The high mortality rate led the army in 1795 to raise the West India Regiments of black soldiers for service in the region. It was believed that they would be better suited to the climate. Many of the first recruits were escaped American slaves who had fought for the British during the American War of Independence (1775-83). Men were also recruited locally in the Caribbean, but they were not enough to defend the British territories from the enemy. 

The ranks of the new regiments were swelled with Creole and African slaves, purchased specifically from West Indian sugar plantations or from newly-arrived slave ships. Between 1795 and 1807 estimates suggest 13,400 slaves were purchased for the West India Regiments.

The venture was deemed so successful that between 1798 and 1806 the army bought seven per cent of all slaves sold in the British West Indies.

Most slave soldiers considered themselves superior to slaves who worked on plantations.

One contemporary noted the soldiers ‘carry themselves proudly and call themselves "The Queen's Gentleman".’

Account detailing the cost of buying and clothing 272 African slaves, 1801

Slave soldiers did not come cheap. An account in the papers of the Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica details the cost of buying and clothing 272 African slaves for service in the West India Regiments. The price listed on this account was over £32,600 - more than £1 million in today’'s money. 

Some argue that the reliance on slave conscripts by the British Army helped prolong the slave trade until 1807.

Centre of the Regimental Colour of the 4th West India Regiment, c1800

Abolition

In 1807 the British Empire abolished the slave trade. All serving black soldiers recruited as slaves were freed under the 1807 Mutiny Act. After this, West India Regiment recruits included men liberated from illegal slave ships, as well as black soldiers captured from enemy French and Dutch colonies.

Former slave soldiers were increasingly given the same rights as white soldiers. Significantly, they were recognised as a formal part of the British Army - unlike their counterparts in India and other British colonies.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the soldiers of the West Indian Regiments were volunteers recruited from the Caribbean and West Africa. But black soldiers could not be officers. 

Army Gold Medal for Guadeloupe awarded to Major Francis Browne, 6th West India Regiment, 1810

On active service

Initially, the West India Regiments were used to protect Britain's economic interests in the Caribbean. But they also took part in the wars against France and helped seize enemy colonies. They also served in America during the the War of 1812. Their numbers were steadily reduced shortly after these conflicts ended.

For most of the 19th century, the regiments were based in Trinidad and Jamaica. But after taking part in the Second Ashanti War (1873-74) in West Africa, they established a base in Sierra Leone for recruitment and training. 

An officer and soldier of the 1st West India Regiment, 1876

Uniform

Until 1858 soldiers of the West India Regiments wore similar uniforms to the rest of the British Army. But Queen Victoria instructed them to adopt the elaborate Zouave uniform, because she was impressed by the exotic appearance of the French North African Zouave infantry.

The uniform was only worn by black soldiers who were not permitted to rise beyond non-commissioned rank. It remained a part of the regiment's Dress Uniform until 1914, and was worn by the band until disbandment. 

Pugri belonging to Captain James Coulton of the West India Regiment, 1886

Attitudes

Black recruits were generally perceived as good soldiers during the 19th century. But for many white British officers, serving with the West India Regiments was undesirable. While fear of tropical diseases played a part, the attitudes of the time also meant that serving with black men was unpopular.

‘When I was last in the West Indies, the 8th West India regiment, composed entirely of native Africans rescued in the middle passage, exhibited as fine a military corps… as ever was seen of any colour… As marksmen they were superior to the ordinary run of white soldiers; and when Fort Bourbon, Martinique… came to be stormed, they went to the breach with European courage.’

Surgeon William Fergusson on the 8th West India Regiment, 1846

The West India Regiments also took part in the First World War (1914-18), mostly in the campaigns in East and West Africa. But, despite manpower demands, the War Office was hesitant to recruit more Caribbean men into the army, subscribing to racial stereotypes that they lacked 'martial spirit'.

Nevertheless a second West Indian unit was formed in 1915. Volunteers to this new British West Indies Regiment did not take part in much fighting. There was an official reluctance to deploy its men in front-line positions. Instead they were mainly used as labourers in the rear.

Members of the British West Indies Regiment observe aircraft above their camp near Amiens, 1918

Workshop participants with their replica of the 4th West India Regiment flag

Workshop participants with their replica of the 4th West India Regiment flag

A modern perspective

We have worked closely with British Caribbean communities to re-examine the contributions of West Indian soldiers to British military history. 

We showed a 200-year-old regimental colour of the 4th West India Regiment to one of our community workshops. A 'colour' is a flag in which the spirit and honour of a regiment is symbolised. Now on display in the Army gallery, the 4th West India colour is also one of the first ever official representations of black soldiers in the British Army.

Workshop participants found this object very powerful, and felt the symbolism shown in it linked to the sense of 'Britishness' felt by many West Indians today. The participants created a modern replica, allowing us to compare the original with what it might have looked like when carried into battle.

Community workshop participants exploring the history of West Indian soldiers

Community workshop participants exploring the history of West Indian soldiers

Legacy

In 1927 the West India Regiments were disbanded. The British West Indies Regiment had already been disbanded in 1921. But the British Army continues to recruit in the West Indies today. 

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