Jamaica’s great war

West India Regiment
The West India Regiment at the outbreak of World War I. Photo courtesy of the West India Committee

Jamaica, like other British colonies, could not escape the effects of war whenever the English, as was their wont, got caught up in conflicts.

Not only did Jamaicans provide support and served during World War I, referred to as the Great War and which raged 1914-1918, there was a prisoner of war camp on the island as well. British historian, Jeffrey Green, alleged that German officers captured during the war “were shipped to Jamaica where, with German and Austrian businessmen who had settled on the island, they were interned at the army camp at Up Park Camp near Kingston.”

Green recounted the following related directly to him by Leslie Thompson, a junior bandsman in the British West India Regiment stationed at Up Park Camp barracks, about German and Austrian prisoners of war on the island:

He recalled that there were eight or nine officers there, and they had a piano and a violin. One named Straumann was “a fine violinist” and he helped the Jamaican musicians. “Time was nothing to him.” One or two of the others helped too, surely only too pleased to spend time constructively.

Jamaicans made direct and indirect contributions to the war effort. “A sum of £10,000 was voted for defence purposes and a gift of 1,300 tons or £50,000 worth of sugar was shipped to England in 1915. Jamaica also supplied England with cash to purchase airplanes and motor ambulances,” wrote Dalea Bean of the University of the West Indies. “Through the work of Jamaican women, gifts of cash and kind were shipped to England throughout the war, including more than £80,000 in cash, walking sticks, cigarettes, cases of homemade woollen clothing and bedding and non-perishable food items.”

Thousands of Jamaicans served in the BWIR. Chris Baker indicated that “a total of 397 officers and 15,204 men, representing all Caribbean colonies, served in the BWIR. Of the total, 10,280 (66%) came from Jamaica.” They served both in the Middle East and in Europe.

These soldiers experienced deep racism. In Tracing Your Caribbean Ancestors: A National Archives Guide, Guy Grannum recounted:

Following the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 many West Indians left the colonies to enlist in the army in the UK and were recruited into British regiments. However, the War Office was concerned with the number of black soldiers in the army and tried to prevent any people from the West Indies enlisting. Indeed, the War Office threatened to repatriate any who arrived. Eventually, after much discussion between the Colonial Office and the War Office, and the intervention of King George V, approval to raise a West Indian contingent was given on 19 May 1915. On 26 October 1915 the British West Indies Regiment was established.

According to Andreas Persson, there was great discontent among British forces as the war wore on. “Mutiny was widespread during the final years of the war as the conflict dragged on and then as demobilisation was sluggishly executed.”

Members of the BWIR mutinied as well. Persson said “the war for the Caribbean lasted for three years, and while the home front was sheltered from the worst effects of the conflict, the men on the ground in Europe and the Middle East experienced hardship and injustice. In 1918 the soldiers of the BWIR mutinied.”

James Ferguson, writing in Caribbean Beat, explained that an incident in Italy was pivotal. “Resentment came to a head in a mutiny after Armistice Day in 1918, when eight BWIR battalions in Taranto, Italy, were ordered to unload ships and perform other heavy work. When they refused, fighting broke out, and sixty men were eventually tried for mutiny, with one shot by firing squad.”

Persson said BWIR service men received harsher treatment than white soldiers who also mutinied:

The great difference between the BWIR mutiny and others rest with the repercussions, the actions of the government were drastic. The authorities decided that as an extra punishment, the men would be excluded from the Victory Parade in London and were not allowed to be publicly welcomed on their return to the Colonies. No commemorations at home or abroad, they were to return to the West Indies and back to colonial life.

West India Regiment 2
Jamaican members of the West India Regiment. Photo courtesy of the West India Committee

Caribbean soldiers had paid a heavy price fighting in the war and they felt they did not receive the respect, and more, that they deserved. “Although precise figures are hard to come by, it is thought that about one thousand men from the Caribbean died in the war, with a further three thousand wounded,” Ferguson said.

It was especially galling because Jamaican and other Caribbean young men signed on to serve with great enthusiasm. Simon Rogers asserted that “enthusiasm for the battle was widespread across the Caribbean. While some declared it a white man’s war, leaders and thinkers such as the Jamaican Marcus Garvey said young men from the islands should fight in order to prove their loyalty and to be treated as equals.”

Persson implied that the treatment meted out to Jamaicans and their peers from the Caribbean laid the groundwork for Caribbean struggle for self-determination:

Such a harsh psychological chastisement was indeed severe but so was the resentment that grew in reaction. The mutiny was the culmination of years of mismanagement and mistreatment, but was also the beginning of Caribbean anti-colonial sentiment. The authorities were fearful of the potential destabilisation that emboldened soldiers could bring to the status quo in the region. It was an act of preservation: the stability of the British Empire was paramount.

Ferguson agreed with Persson’s assertion on the longer-term consequences of mistreatment of Caribbean soldiers during the war. “Many returned to the Caribbean, disillusioned and sometimes wounded, thwarted in their attempt to start a new life and escape poverty. This sense of injustice would be a major factor in the growing radicalisation that eventually led to self-rule and independence.”

After expending much blood and sweat, Caribbean soldiers who returned after the war were left stranded with no means of support. Glenford Howe said:

In Jamaica the men were usually given a few shillings, a cheap suit of clothes and free railway transport to their home, but because of transportation problems some had to remain in Kingston for several days. This exhausted their money even before they actually left for home. The situation created major dissatisfaction because many had no other form of support. Having relinquished their jobs to fight for King and Country these men were left to experience destitution and poverty.

The treatment of Caribbean soldiers who fought on the behalf of and in the name of Britain is testament to what neglect does. Not for the first or last time, such neglect and abuse led to resentment, which in turn led to revolution, planting the seed for throwing off imperialistic dominance.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel

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