Editor’s note: This is the last 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 British West India Regiments were established along the lines of the traditional British regiment with eight battalion or line companies and two flank companies for a total of one thousand men, for the 1804 establishment. Since the French and Indian War in North America, the left flank company would have been designated as Light Infantry, and such a company would have been useful in what frequently amounted to jungle warfare on some of the Caribbean Islands.
It was expected initially that these regiments would be formed by enlisting free colored and purchasing additional slaves from plantation owners to complete the manning requirements. This did not prove feasible, in part from the high prices the plantation owners demanded for their slaves. The difficulty in procuring slaves from planters led to the direct purchase of slaves, both from ships and from Africa. From 1797 to 1807, when Great Britain abolished the slave trade, the British Army was the single largest purchaser of slaves in the West Indies.
A statement of account dated 31 March 1801 shows the purchase of 272 new negro men for His Majesty’s 5th and 6th WIRs, showed a cost of about £114 per man, together with £771 for clothing and £270 for inoculation against smallpox.
On March 10, 1801, the sum of £115 per man was expended for 40 Eboe negroes. Eight West India Regiments were commissioned between April 24 and September 1, 1795. In addition to incorporating into the 1st West India Regiment the Carolina Corps that had been in existence since 1779, the original intention was both to recruit free blacks from the West Indian population and to purchase slaves from the West Indian plantations. The eighth of the newly raised regiments was disbanded the following year, but the quality of the new corps led to five more West India Regiments being raised in 1798.
In 1801 Britain, as a reaction to the League of Armed Neutrality — formed by Denmark, Sweden, Prussia and Russia — declared war on Denmark and Sweden. Proceeding from Martinique, a major sea and land force invaded and captured St. Bartholomew, St. Martin/St. Maarten and the Danish West Indies. The BWIR soldiers were cited for their bravery during the battle for St. Maarten by their commanding general.
Arriving at St. Thomas at the end of March 1801, with 29 ships and more than 4,00 troops, the Governor of the Danish West Indies surrendered the islands without a shot being fired. The British then proceeded to fortify Hassel Island, building two gun batteries — Cowell’s on the south end and Shipley’s on the north end — as well as barracks for the troops, officers’ quarters and a hospital.
The pay register for March 25, 1802, for the 8th West India Regiment shows the following troops stationed on St. Thomas:
Capt. Davies’ Company:
1 Captain, 3 Sergeants, 3 Corporals, 2 Drummers, 42 privates, 1 Ensign.
Capt. Arbuthnot’s Company:
2 Sergeants, 1 Lieutenant, 3 Corporals, 1 Drummer, 47 Privates.
A formal peace treaty was signed in 1803 and the islands were returned to Denmark.
In 1807, war was again declared with Denmark. Early in September 1807, Britain sent out orders to the Commander of the Forces in the West Indies to reduce the Danish islands of St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix, and the 1st British West India Regiment, with the other troops stationed at Barbados, embarked in men-of-war under General Bowyer on December 15 to proceed on this duty. On December 19, the expedition reached Sandy Point, Saint Christopher’s (St. Kitts), and receiving some troops from that garrison, sailed again the same day — arriving at St. Thomas, where it was joined by reinforcements from Antigua and Grenada, on December 21.
A summons to surrender was at once sent to Gov. Peter Von Scholten, the terms of which he accepted the next day, and surrendered the islands of St. Thomas and St. John with their dependencies. A small garrison of the 70th Regiment was left at St. Thomas and the 1st division of the troops, in which was included the 1st West India Regiment, sailed on the evening of the 23rd for St. Croix.
The expedition arrived off the town of Frederiksted on the 24th and the governor capitulated on the 25th. The troops were landed, the forts and batteries seized, and a royal salute was fired as the British colors were hoisted. The next night, the garrison and town of Christiansted on the other end of the island were also occupied.
The 1st West India Regiment during this expedition was commanded by Maj. Nathaniel Blackwell and, after the surrender of St. Croix, it at once returned to Barbados. In January 1808, three companies were detached from Barbados to Antigua, and one to Tobago; the detachment at Antigua rejoining headquarters in October of the same year.
In 1807, all serving black soldiers recruited as slaves in the West India Regiments of the British Army were freed under the Mutiny Act passed by the British parliament that same year. Before this Act, slave soldiers received the same pay, medical care and benefits as other enlisted men. After being freed, they were still committed to a lifetime enlistment, while European soldiers committed only for seven years.
In 1812, a West African recruiting depot was established on Bance Island in Sierre Leone to train West African volunteers for the West India regiments. By 1816, the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the reduction of the West India regiments to six led to the closure of this depot.
The BWIR soldiers became a valued part of the British forces garrisoning the West Indies, where losses from disease and climate were heavy amongst white troops. The black Caribbean soldiers by contrast proved better adapted to tropical service. They served against locally-recruited French units that had been formed for the same reasons. Free black Caribbean soldiers played a prominent and often distinguished role in the military history of Latin America and the Caribbean.
The new British West India Regiments saw considerable service during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. In 1800, there were 12 battalion-sized regiments which were seen as valuable also for dealing with slave revolt in the West Indies colonies.
Three companies of the First BWIR repulsed a French attempt to recapture the island of Marie-Galante in August–September 1808, together with members of the first Corps of Colonial Marines recruited from local refugees from slavery.
The Regiments were later involved in the War of 1812, both on the Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, taking part in the British attack on New Orleans. In 1800 there were 12 battalion-sized regiments which were seen as valuable also for dealing with slave revolts in the West Indies colonies. After the Slave Trade Act of 1807, there was a shortfall of around 5,000 members at the start of the War of 1812, and the war offered hope of new recruitment from slaves fleeing the United States. However, only eight joined the regiments from the Chesapeake Bay area in 1814, and a further 13 refugees who were offered military service preferring the newly formed Corps of Colonial Marines, who later rejected British government orders for transfer to the Regiments.
Following the end of the War of 1812, numbers were progressively reduced. Members of two of the disbanded regiments were settled in the eastern part of Trinidad, the 6th in 1817 and the 3rd in 1819, forming the main Muslim population in Trinidad before the first arrival of indentured Indian immigrants in 1845. During most of the remainder of the 19th century, there were never less than two West India Regiments. The 1st West India Regiment from Jamaica went to the Gold Coast of Africa to fight in the Ashanti War of 1873.
Following WWI, the BWIR was consolidated into a single regiment, and finally disbanded in 1927 after a long and honorable service to the British Empire.
— Charles Consolvo, St. Thomas, is a former chairman of the Hassel Island Task Force and a member of the St. Thomas Historical Trust.