Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series rounding off V.I. Women and History Month.
Enslaved and free black soldiers played a prominent and often distinguished role in Britain’s military history within the Caribbean, including being part of the occupation army on Hassel Island during British occupation. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, they played an active role through World War I in many of the British Empires world skirmishes.
The raising of black regiments to be a part of the British Army establishment was originally proposed by Lt. Gen. Sir John Vaughan in a letter to the Home Secretary on December 22, 1794. This was, however, preceded by an earlier proposal, apparently from the government offices in Jamaica, and the later use of freed blacks recruited from the Carolinas at the end of the American Revolutionary War.
The record of this first proposal from Jamaica consists of three pages, with no signature page and no date, although it is collated with documents for the year 1779. The surviving part of the letter suggests the raising of regiments to serve in the West Indies for three years, or during the war. These regiments were apparently envisioned primarily as a self-defense force for the island of Jamaica. They were to be recruited only from “free people” — no enlistment of slaves was contemplated. This was probably in recognition of the deep-seated fears of the white population of the potential for rebellion of armed slaves.
Officers would be nominated by the governor of Jamaica, and each officer would be required to raise the men for their commissions at their own expense. Each regiment was to be divided into 10 companies and each company would consist of a captain, a lieutenant, an ensign, three sergeants, three corporals, two drummers and 50 men. The regiment was to be commanded by a major or lieutenant colonel. The officers were to hold rank in the West Indies only, and not become part of the regular British Army establishment. It was proposed that Britain pay, clothe and arm these regiments — the justification being that many fewer men would be required from Europe, and “of course, many lives saved to the mother country.” These proposals were never implemented.
Another early instance of the actual use of slaves as a regular part of the British Army, as noted above, was the Carolina Black Corps. It was organized in the Carolinas and in 1782 moved to St. Lucia rather than being disbanded at the end of the war. They were basically used as an adjunct to white troops for construction, not in combat.
General Vaughan was anxious to overcome the severe losses to European soldiers that he was experiencing in the West Indies, the majority of whom were being killed by the environment. In 1795, the governors of colonies in the West Indies were instructed to prepare proposals for raising five black regiments, which was implemented. The principal barrier to the raising of regiments of armed slaves as part of the British Army was the strong resistance by colonial planters to the concept of armed slaves. Despite the order from Britain to raise five regiments in 1796, the assemblies of Barbados and Jamaica saw nothing but “ruin and death” in the proposal.
The author was able to locate only two recorded instances of mutinous slave soldiers. On April 9, 1802, the 8th West India Regiment mutinied, killing some officers and non-commissioned officers. The mutiny was suppressed after nearly 100 of the mutineers were killed. In the subsequent investigation, it was discovered that the black soldiers had been severely abused, and Colonel Johnstone, their commander, was blamed for the mutiny and suspended. In 1808, some of the black soldiers of the 2nd West India Regiment mutinied and killed two officers. They were subsequently overcome by loyal soldiers of the regiment, and seven leaders were executed.
The principal justification for using slaves and free blacks for the proposed regiments was the extremely high mortality rate of European soldiers in the West Indies. A concomitant problem was that assignment to the West Indies was extremely unpopular with the British Army, leading to a refusal to serve, as with Lt. Hector MacDonald who was superseded for failing to report for duty with the 4th West India Regiment. A posting to the West Indies also caused sudden rises in the sick lists and even mutinies in the army in Britain. Assignment to the West Indies became a form of punishment. Knowledge of the health hazards in the West Indies were widely known but poorly understood. The primary causes of death were disease and alcoholism. The diseases were variously described, including remitting fever, consumption, dysentery or “bloody flux” and yellow fever.
There was a conflict in medical opinion about the causes of diseases. What is described as “remitting fever” was probably malaria, and it and yellow fever were both caused by the bite of infected female mosquitoes. This disease vector was not yet recognized as the cause. As late as the middle of the 19th century, the source of malaria was poorly understood, although the efficacy of quinine as a preventive and cure was being recognized. In 1832, approximately 83% of the crew of an expedition up the Niger River were killed or invalidated.
It was also recognized that forts constructed at a higher altitude in the tropics were generally healthier, hence the construction of the barracks and officers’ quarters on Hassel Island. Between 1796 and 1802, on an annual average, white soldiers in the West Indies suffered a mortality rate of 41%, while black soldiers suffered only a 6% mortality rate.
Alcoholism apparently arose as a problem through sheer boredom and inactivity on the parts of both officers and men. The Royals at Demerara, generally healthy otherwise, lost a great number by their own intemperance, indulging too freely in the “vile beverage” rum. It was observed that “It has frequently happened that a widow has buried four husbands, but it is rare to meet a man who has survived one wife.”
From 1759 to 1830 in North America, and the Caribbean as well, rum was a standard item of issue to British Army soldiers, in the amount of 1 gill (4 ounces) daily. It was a common practice to dilute the rum with three parts of water, and issue one half of the ration before duty and one half after. It seems probable that enterprising soldiers, especially in a busy trade center such as St. Thomas, would be able to supplement this through buying, begging or otherwise procuring as much additional rum as they might desire.
— Charles Consolvo, St. Thomas, is a former chairman of the Hassel Island Task Force and a member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust.