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Fighting for the Empire


West Indies and North America

Black and Asian people were an integral part of the British army at the time when most action took place overseas. They served in all major areas of conflict.

Black and Asian involvement in the military was essential to the success of Britain's operations in the Americas. Black people were first incorporated into the British army by Charles II in 1662. James II continued this practice, recruiting both slaves and free men to protect British colonial interests against the Portuguese, Dutch and French.

Chelsea Pensioners reading the Gazette after the Battle of Waterloo (painting) - opens new window
News of Waterloo
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Black and Asian men were recruited into the military because the British thought they were better able to survive than White troops, at a time when many more soldiers were killed by disease than in battle. Malaria and yellow fever were common among the troops, and their diet lacked fruit and vegetables, leaving them vulnerable to illness.

From the late 18th century, regiments of Glossary - opens new window'Mulattoes' and 'free Negroes' were recruited for the defence of the islands. They were a vital human resource for the British because fewer men from Europe were now needed.
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Military drafts proposed on defeat of Tippoo Sultan, 1791 - opens new window
Recruitment of Troops
in India (152KB)
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By the end of the 18th century, the British army had become the biggest single purchaser of African slaves. Over a 12-year period, an estimated 13,000 Africans were purchased to serve the Crown. With revolutions in the air both in France and Saint Domingue (Haiti), the British army was prepared to pay £70 to £80 for a healthy male slave. In December 1795, the tiny island of Tobago alone furnished 395 enslaved men at £80 per head.

Small units of Black soldiers were often identified by the name of their commanding officer. In 1796, the Duke of York requested 5,000 Black troops to be placed under arms in the Leeward Islands; they became known as the York Rangers. As combatants, Black units fought alongside British troops in St Lucia and St Vincent before being assimilated into a British regiment.

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Mulattoes & Negroes to be armed by Great Britain - opens new window
'Mulattoes' and 'Negroes'
to be Armed by
Great Britain (189KB)
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In 1799 all the individual units operating in the West Indies were combined, and called the West India Regiment. It was to become the longest continuously serving Black regiment - existing from then until its first disbandment in 1927.

Enslaved men of African descent who were recruited for the British army in the Caribbean received the same pay, rations and punishments as White soldiers. But they were still enslaved, and subject to local slave laws. This changed in 1807, when the Mutiny Act, which governed the army, was changed to grant freedom to all Black men in the British armed forces. At the same time, it introduced a new form of inequality. Black soldiers of the West India regiments still had to sign up for life, although from the previous year White soldiers had been allowed to join up for seven-year terms.

Even before this, in 1775, enslaved men in North America had been given a compelling reason to bear arms. A proclamation by the Earl of Dunmore promised them freedom in return for joining the British side in the American War of Independence. For more about those who did so, see Black Loyalists.

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Indian Soldiers

The largest of the colonial military forces, however, came from India. The Indian army started life in the 17th century, when the East India Company recruited local personnel to guard its interests. These forces were organised into units in the mid-18th century. Indian military men or 'sepoys' were recruited throughout the subcontinent, mainly in the south and coastal regions, and in 1815 the Indian army began to expand its recruitment base to include Gurkhas from Nepal.

Africans protect the RAC Forts at Goree - opens new window
Africans Protect the
Fort at Gorée
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Recruitment in Britain

Up to the mid-19th century, there was a widespread practice of enlisting Black men in British-raised regiments in barracks such as those at Hounslow, in Middlesex. Muster rolls and pay sheets for various regiments reveal that in these circumstances Black soldiers were trained and paid the same as their White peers. Pension records also show that Black soldiers received the same 'rights' as White enlisted men.

The discharge certificates of two Black soldiers who joined the army in London, George Rose and William Affleck, are shown here.

 

William Affleck's discharge papers - opens new window
A Trumpeter Discharged:
William Affleck (355KB)
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Colonel James Skinner, Indian Army Officer (painting) - opens new window
James Skinner, Indian Army Officer
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Roles

Most Black recruits are described as foot soldiers in their discharge certificates, although a few became sergeants or corporals. The majority were combatants, but some were labourers and a substantial minority belonged to musical corps. According to John Ellis, one of the earliest examples (cited by a Scottish observer in 1714) was a parade where 'six drummers were "mores" [Moors] with "bres" [brass] drums'. Black men engaged in musical corps, often as drummers or trumpeters, were deployed on ceremonial duties. They also accompanied their regiments into battle, sounding orders to the troops.

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Treatment

For both Black and White soldiers, life in the army was hard. They frequently faced harsh conditions and received poor food and medical treatment. But Black and White soldiers weren't always treated equally. Records suggest that they were not always paid the same amount, and that Black soldiers weren't promoted in all regiments. Nevertheless, there are plenty of records of long service, of up to 20 years. These men, like their White counterparts, served until they were completely exhausted, as shown in their medical reports. Black soldiers probably shared feelings of pride and loyalty with their White comrades; a few were awarded medals. One was James Goodwin of the 18th Hussars and 4th Dragoons, who was awarded the General Service Medal and the Waterloo Medal.

We can see that while many Black and Asian men remained on sugar, cotton and cocoa plantations, others played a decisive role in the British army. Black men might enlist, despite the hardships of military life, to escape poverty or as a means of guaranteeing their freedom from slavery. For many former slaves, the issue was the future: joining the armed forces was a fight for their own liberty.

 

George Rose, service record (extract) - opens new window
Sergeant George Rose (265KB)
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References and Further Reading

Buckley, R. N., Slaves in Red Coats: The British West India Regiments 1795-1815, New Haven and London, 1979

Dyde, B., The Empty Sleeve: The story of the West India Regiments of the British Army, Antigua, 1997

Ellis, J., 'Drummers for the Devil? The Black Soldiers of the 29th (Worcestershire) Regiment of Foot 1759-1843', in Journal of Army Historical Research, vol. 80, no. 323, pp. 186-202, Autumn 2002

Ellis, J., 'Distinguished in Action... The Black Soldiers of the 4th Dragoons 1715-1842', Journal of the Queen's Royal Hussars Historical Society, March 2003

Kaplan, S. and Kaplan, E. N., The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution (revised edition), Amherst, 1989


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