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 European powers' Caribbean colonies.
Unfortunately, the tropical climate of the Caribbean took its 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.
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.
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.
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, helped seize enemy colonies, and 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.
Until 1858, soldiers of the West India Regiments wore similar uniforms to the rest of the British Army. But Queen Victoria, impressed by the exotic appearance of the French North African Zouave infantry, instructed them to adopt the elaborate Zouave uniform.
The uniform was only worn by black soldiers, who were not permitted to rise beyond non-commissioned rank. It remained a part of the West India Regiment Dress Uniform until 1914, and was worn by the band until disbandment.
During the 19th century, black recruits were generally perceived as good soldiers. 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 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 much part in the fighting. There was an official reluctance to deploy its men in front-line positions. Instead, they were mainly used as labourers in the rear.
The National Army Museum has worked closely with British Caribbean communities to re-examine the contributions of West Indian soldiers to British military history.
At one of our community workshops, we showed a 200-year-old regimental colour of the 4th West India Regiment. Now on display in Army gallery, the colour is also one of the first ever official representations of black soldiers in the British Army.
A 'colour' is a flag in which the spirit and honour of a regiment is symbolised. Workshop participants found this object very powerful. The symbolism shown in it was felt to connect closely to the sense of 'Britishness' felt by many West Indians today.
They had even created a modern replica, allowing us to compare the original colour with how it might have looked like when carried into battle 200 years ago.
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.