‘We are a Coloured Empire’

On 12 August 1914, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers in uniforms of blue jackets and red trousers surged across the German border. To their north, in Belgium, German cuirassiers launched a thunderous cavalry attack on the little town of Haelen. Three thousand miles away, little noticed or commented upon at the time, a small British force headed through the African bush towards Lomé, the capital of the German colony of Togoland. That day, far from the battlefields of France and Belgium, Lance Corporal Alhaji Grunshi of the British West African Frontier Force became the first soldier in British service to fire a shot in the land war. Ten days later Edward Thomas, of the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, became the first white British soldier to fire his rifle in anger in Europe. The First World War began in Africa and it was to end there on 14 November 1918, when the last German units surrendered, three days after the armistice in Europe.

For black people in Britain and many other parts of the empire, the First World War changed their understanding of the empire and their place within it. It was during wartime that black people from parts of Africa and the West Indies gained new and first-hand experience of the racism and racial hierarchies that both informed and, for many, justified colonial rule. In ways that were not easily foreseeable when the armies marched to battle in the summer of 1914, the First World War led to the temporary lowering of the physical, cultural and legal barriers that had been erected between the races and between the subject peoples of the empire. During the war one million Africans were recruited to work as carriers in Africa. At least a hundred thousand of them died; some suspect the actual figure is at least double that. Thousands of men from modern Ghana were recruited for the Gold Coast Regiment; they were sent to fight the Germans in East Africa, alongside four regiments of the West African Frontier Force, men from British Nigeria. Africans from Sudan, Rhodesia, Ethiopia and Nyasaland were recruited into the King’s African Rifles and shipped across eastern Africa in pursuit of the German forces. These men encountered soldiers from the West Indian islands who served in the specially formed British West Indies Regiment. Fifteen thousand West Indians served in the war, labouring on the Western Front and fighting in the Middle East as well as in Africa. When these black subjects of the empire encountered one another, and other non-white peoples in the hyper-globalized military zones that existed behind the lines, in port cities of the Allied nations and on board the ships that linked Britain to her empire, they were able to discuss their experiences and gain a new, deeper understanding of the inner workings of empire. This, combined with deep resentment at the unequal and unjust treatment black soldiers and sailors experienced during the conflict, ensured that many returned to their homes profoundly disillusioned. Just as disenchanted were those who had been victims of the violence that erupted in numerous British cities in the months after the war. Yet at the outbreak of hostilities, what is striking is how little of this was foreseen and how strong the sense of unity within the empire was, even across the barriers of race. Also unanticipated was just how much enthusiasm there was for the war among black people in both African and West Indian colonies.

Few parts of the empire greeted the outbreak of war with such passion as the islands of the British West Indies. In the Bahamas, Grenada, British Honduras (now Belize), British Guiana (now Guyana), the Leeward Islands, St Vincent, St Lucia, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and most of all in Jamaica there was a feeling that the people of the West Indies had to do their bit in the impending struggle. The ‘war fever’ that took hold of the West Indies in 1914 and 1915 was as contagious and as virulent a strain as that which swept through the industrial towns of Edwardian Britain. In Jamaica, public meetings and open-air rallies in support of the war were held in Kingston and a number of smaller towns. The threat of German invasion, a rather far-fetched notion, was debated in the newspapers and patriotic, pro-imperial euphoria gripped the island. This great surge of affection for the ‘mother country’ stemmed from the regard in which many older Jamaicans had held Queen Victoria, the monarch whose coronation had been celebrated just weeks before Emancipation in 1838 and to whom the poor of St Ann’s parish had written their appeal in 1865. This bond of loyalty and respect had survived Victoria’s death in 1902 and had – to a certain extent – been transferred to her successors Edward VII and then George V.

In both public meetings and in the press the British Empire was presented in Jamaica as a paragon of morality and virtue. A highly idealized interpretation of the British ‘civilizing mission’ was contrasted with the unwavering and unreasoning brutality of ‘Prussian militarism’ and ‘German tyranny’. Repeatedly in 1914 and 1915, the British Empire was portrayed in the local newspapers and in rallies held in support of the war as an empire of emancipation, a commonwealth of justice, freedom, and even equality. Jamaica, the former slave colony, had been the crucible of the great experiment of emancipation. The island and her free, if largely impoverished, people were cited as living proof of British virtue, as they had been between 1838 and the outbreak of the Morant Bay Rebellion in 1865. In the patriotic mood of 1914 the memory of abolition was repeatedly underscored and the story of slavery consistently obscured. Jamaica’s terrible history of slavery, rebellion and repression was for the moment set aside and the descendants of the enslaved encouraged to imagine themselves members of an imaginary British Empire of sympathetic paternalism and racial equality.

Soon after hostilities commenced there were calls from colonial governors and the public at large for a new regiment of the British army made up of islanders who were willing to fight in France. At war rallies, unofficial self-appointed recruiting sergeants challenged young Jamaican men to commit themselves to the defence of the nation and called upon them to fight for the empire that had emancipated their ancestors. At one rally, Brigadier General Blackden, general officer in command of local forces in Jamaica, asked, with remarkable tactlessness, if the men in the audience – the grand-children and great-grandchildren of slaves – were willing to fight for freedom and liberty, or were going ‘to sit down and be slaves’1. A letter from a Jamaican patriot that appeared in the Jamaica Times on 5 September 1914 read,

As a British subject, I feel called upon to express myself . . . we as loyal citizens, for the love that we hold for the British flag, should be so patriotically inspired as to stand beside her if need be. We should fight as brave men and die as heroes. So that the enemy may see that we are not made of common stuff or are in any way inferior to those who have already sacrificed their lives in this appalling struggle . . . Men of the island of Jamaica . . . be honourable; be not branded as cowards if you’re needed for active service. Be courageous, be firm, be resolute, prepared to defend your country with your life’s blood.2

Responding to the popular mood, colonial administrators across the West Indies, and elsewhere in the empire, transmitted offers of service to the Colonial Office – the government department that administered the huge sprawling empire – and to the War Office, then rapidly expanding: but the clamour among West Indian men to serve in the British army at the very moment it faced a German army vastly superior in numbers and, as it turned out, also in tactics and leadership, was greeted with deep alarm. On 28 August 1914, just three weeks after the war began, officials from the Colonial Office asked their colleagues in the War Office to consider the possibility that a contingent of troops raised in the British West Indies might be permitted to serve abroad. The War Office responded first by questioning the fighting quality of black West Indian men, suggesting they would be ineffectual in the cold of a European winter, and then by proposing that they might be put to better use ‘maintaining order if necessary, in the islands’ of the West Indies.3

Popular support for the war cannot be explained only as a temporary outbreak of ‘war fever’. Since the end in the 1840s of the protective sugar tariffs, the West Indies had been blighted by suffocating poverty. That poverty had been the underlying cause of the Morant Bay uprising. In 1914, war was understood as both a chance for the islands to demonstrate their loyalty to the empire and as an employment opportunity for their unemployed and underemployed men. In such an atmosphere there was inevitably a clamour among young West Indians to join up and get to France before the Germans were defeated – as most people blithely agreed that they soon would be. Some West Indians, fearing they would miss their chance to be part of the great adventure, sold their belongings to buy tickets to Britain or stowed away on ships bound for British ports, aiming to enlist in the British army immediately upon their arrival in the ‘mother country’. The War Office regarded West Indians in the British army as highly undesirable and in late 1914 they called upon the Colonial Office to discourage volunteers from believing that if they travelled to Britain they would be welcomed into the army.

From the very start of the conflict there was the view in Britain and the ‘white dominions’ of the empire (Australia, Canada, New Zealand and especially South Africa) that this was to be a ‘white man’s’ war – a European conflict from which the non-white subject peoples were to be excluded. The great exception was the British Indian Army, an institution that had emerged out of the lessons learnt from the Indian Mutiny of the 1850s and that occupied a unique place in the empire. There was a determination within the War Office, and among white settlers in Africa, that black Africans and black West Indians were not to be permitted to fight against white men, as this, it was feared, would undermine white racial prestige, and threaten the security of white settlers in the colonies. For decades colonial administrators had striven to ensure that modern weapons were kept out of the hands of their black subjects, and it was impressed upon them that the lives of white men (and even more so white women) were sacrosanct. Violence against white people in the empire elicited extraordinarily violent responses – punitive raids and exemplary punishments. The informal rules of imperial government determined that black men were armed only when formed into colonial regiments (often known as askari) and used to fight Africans, under the guidance and watchful eyes of white officers.

At the Colonial Office, the rejection of the proposal for the formation of a black West Indian regiment was regarded with deep concern. It was feared that the War Office’s high-handed dismissal of earnest offers of service would be deeply resented by the patriotically minded people of the West Indies and other rejected proposals would equally offend the coastal elites of West Africa. A number of colonial governments expressed similar alarm at the decision. This led to a long and protracted series of discussions between the War Office and the Colonial Office. King George V took an early and genuine interest in the issue and probably did most to force a change of policy. On 22 April 1915 he met Lord Kitchener, Secretary for War, who, when pressed, expressed his support for the creation of a West Indian unit, so long as there were restrictions imposed upon where it could be deployed. Further wrangling between the War Office and Colonial Office followed but on 19 May approval was finally given for a new West Indian regiment.

That same day, nine men from the West Indies who had stowed away on the SS Danube landed at the docks of the East End. They had planned to volunteer for the British army upon arrival but were promptly arrested and taken to the West Ham Police Court, charged with being stowaways, to which they all pleaded guilty, and detained in the warren of cells beneath the building. Their names appear grouped together as ‘stowaways’ in the court registers: Thomas Bayley, thirty-six; Sidney Redmond, just nineteen; Alan Thornhill, Leo Yarwood, George Cousins, and Eric Blakely, twenty; Albert Goppy, twenty-one, and Arthur Ford and George Walker, twenty-three.4 A newspaper report describing their appearance in court reveals that the nine were charged by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Mr J. W. Richards, prosecuting on behalf of the company, told the court that ‘the day after leaving Trinidad the ship called at Barbados. It was presumed that the men came aboard there for the day.’ When Richards said that the West Indians were ‘found on the vessel’ the magistrate Mr Gillespie interjected, ‘In a dark corner, I suppose?’ – to which there was laughter in the court. Mr Richards then explained that after their discovery ‘the men were put to work, and they did not cause any trouble’. They were, he noted, ‘desirous of enlisting in the army’. At which point Mr Gillespie quipped, ‘What, do they want to enlist in the Black Guards?’ Again, the court erupted into laughter. Local police officer Detective Sergeant Holby informed the court that ‘he had made enquiries at the local recruiting office, and they told him they [the stowaways] could not enlist there because of their colour, but if application was made to the War office, no doubt they would be enlisted in some regiment of black men’.5 Mr Gillespie then ordered the nine stowaways be detained for a week.

On 24 May the stowaways were brought before a second hearing. Under the headline ‘The Docks – Spoiling for a Fight’, the Stratford Express reported that the court clerk Mr Jackson informed the men that he had heard a ‘coloured Battalion’ was being formed in Cardiff.6 The article carried a comment by Sir Algernon Edward Aspinall, secretary to the West India Committee, an organization of businessmen that had emerged from the London Society of West India planters and merchants and the eighteenth-century lobby group that had defended slavery and fought to secure compensation for the slave owners in 1834. Aspinall said that ‘he would send them back to the West Indies. The men, however, said they would not go. They had come to fight, and they were going to fight.’ At this hearing, the men were discharged. What became of them afterwards is difficult to ascertain, but for three of them we have Royal Navy service records. They tell us that Eric Blakely from Trinidad survived the war. The last record of him was in April 1920. Arthur Ford, another Trinidadian, also survived and at the end of the war both he and Blakely received the Mercantile Marine Medal, awarded for service in hostile waters. Albert Goppy also made it through, but died young, at only thirty-two. He had been living in Manhattan. Whether any of the West Ham stowaways were permitted to enlist in the British army, which had been their ambition, is not known.

When Mr Jackson, the West Ham court clerk, had heard that a ‘coloured Battalion’ was being formed in Cardiff he was probably reporting inaccurate rumours. However, on 26 October, a supplement to the London Gazette carried an announcement of the formation of a new unit in which black men from the West Indies would be permitted to serve. It was to be known as the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) – not to be confused with the West India Regiment, into which men liberated from slave ships by the West Africa Squadron had been conscripted in the nineteenth century. That same week King George V, who had played so critical a role in the creation of the BWIR, issued an Appeal to the Empire, which on Sunday 31 October was read out in church services in the West Indies.

At this grave moment in the struggle between my people and a highly organized enemy who has transgressed the Laws of Nations and changed the ordinance that binds civilized Europe together, I appeal to you. I rejoice in my Empire’s effort, and I feel pride in the voluntary response from my Subjects all over the world who have sacrificed home, fortune, and life itself, in order that another may not inherit the free Empire which their ancestors and mine have built. I ask you to make good those sacrifices. The end is not in sight. More men and yet more are wanted to keep my Armies in the Field, and through them to secure Victory and enduring Peace. In ancient days the darkest moment has ever produced in men of our race the sternest resolve. I ask you, men of all classes, to come forward voluntarily and take your share in the fight. In freely responding to my appeal, you will be giving your support to our brothers, who, for long months, have nobly upheld Britain’s past traditions, and the glory of her Arms.7

The notion of a ‘free empire’, forged through the sacrifices of many generations, was a vision of the past that was blind to the memory of slavery and ignored racial hierarchies but was taken by many to imply that those who came ‘forward voluntarily’ and took a ‘share in the fight’ would be treated equally, irrespective of race. Yet even those who had supported the creation of a West Indian regiment, and pushed the reluctant War Office in that direction, had never intended that the black volunteers be treated equally or permitted to fight in France alongside white soldiers and against a white enemy. While the Colonial Office had worried that the rejection of West Indian volunteers would damage morale in the colonies they too saw the conflict in Europe as a ‘white man’s war’, and envisaged West Indian volunteers serving elsewhere in the empire. On this the two government departments were united, black men were not to be permitted to fight and kill white men.

Over the course of the First World War twelve battalions of the BWIR were raised, consisting of 397 officers and 15,204 men. The first battalions began their training in October 1915, at the Seaford army camp in Sussex. The recruits came from across the West Indies but the majority, 10,280 (66 per cent) were Jamaicans.8 In all, 26,637 Jamaican men volunteered to serve in the new regiment but 13,940 were rejected on medical grounds, testimony to the hardship and poverty that blighted that island in the early twentieth century. Brigadier General Blackden, who had called upon the men of Jamaica to meet the challenge of their times, now grumbled about the physical health of the soldiers he had encouraged to enlist, complaining that too many of the volunteers were an ‘undersized, ragged, bare-footed set of fellows, who came forward probably to get a meal’.9 The British public and the press, however, were impressed with the health and vigour of the men of the regiment when they had finished their training. When the BWIR were invited to march in the Lord Mayor’s Show in London in November 1915, the Daily Chronicle reported that ‘a very special cheer greeted the appearance of the small detachment of the British West Indies Regiment. And the pleasure of the occasion was reciprocal. The dusky faces of the smiling West Indians made one forget that colour had ever been a racial barrier.’10 The Belfast Evening Telegraphdescribed the BWIR as ‘sturdy West Indian troops’ and the Daily News plumped for ‘huge and mighty men of valor’.11

Once trained all four of the initial BWIR battalions were deployed to Egypt, as it was presumed that men from the West Indies would be able to cope with the heat more easily than soldiers from Britain. Units of the BWIR served in Egypt and the Middle East until the end of the war, and fought in the Palestine campaign. The machine-gun section of the BWIR took part in a series of raids on Turkish trenches in July 1917. However when the 3rd and 4th Battalions were transferred to France in 1916 they arrived expecting to fight. Instead they were largely segregated from white British troops and became – in practice if not in name – a labour battalion. They dug, repaired, and worked in the munitions depots; critical work but not what they had been trained to do and not what they had hoped for. The men of the BWIR were also subjected to racial taunts from white troops. A BWIR soldier from Trinidad complained that he and his comrades were ‘treated neither as Christians nor as British citizens, but as West Indian “Niggers”, without anybody to be interested in or look after us.’12

It was at this point that the men from the West Indies were drawn into the wider logic of imperial racial politics. Enormous efforts were made to maintain the men in their lowly position at the foot of the imagined hierarchy of races. Only in the unique conditions of the African theatre of operations were black British soldiers – both African troops and units of the BWIR – put into combat against the Germans. The German forces in Africa consisted of local African recruits and thousands of press-ganged carriers, who outnumbered the German colonial troops. Even when faced with an acute manpower shortage the British, unlike their French allies, put racial considerations above all other factors, and refused to recruit black Africans and West Indians for combat service in Europe, to the outraged opposition of one small section of the political elite. The policy was that black men would serve as labourers or in other support roles, a policy in stark contrast to that adopted towards their Indian soldiers who arrived in France in the autumn of 1914, even before the inception of the Western Front, where they were tolerated and even welcomed. However, by the end of 1915 the Indian infantry had been redeployed outside of Europe, although the cavalry remained in France – the 20th Deccan Horse famously charged the German lines during the Battle of the Somme. Despite relying so heavily upon Indian soldiers in 1914 and 1915 and despite having at their disposal vast reservoirs of potential manpower from Africa and the West Indies, the generals and politicians remained determined that war on the Western Front was to be ‘a white man’s war’. That determination, confidently expressed in the early stages of the conflict, was more difficult to adhere to and harder to explain as the horrific scale and murderous nature of the conflict became apparent.

As losses on the Western Front began to mount alarmingly in 1915, it was proposed in the House of Commons that a regiment of Zulu men (who were still famed as great warriors and remembered for the battles they had fought against the British during the Scramble for Africa) from southern Africa be raised and deployed in Europe. The War Office blocked this proposal. Even before the war there had been those within colonial circles who had proposed that units of new black African troops could be formed for colonial service in Africa, and perhaps elsewhere in the empire. The British Empire in Africa, far more populous than those of France or Germany, was home to a number of African peoples, in particular the Zulu and the Hausa of northern Nigeria, regarded as ‘martial races’ by various colonial ‘experts’. Indeed, France’s policy of mass recruitment of men from her West and North African colonies, in accordance with a military and demographic theory known as the ‘Force Noir’ principle, was looked upon by British advocates of African recruitment as irrefutable evidence of the potential of the African soldier. Despite recruiting from her more sparsely populated African territories France, by 1916, had raised seventeen battalions of Tirailleurs Sénégalais, who served on the Western Front. By 1918 ninety-two African battalions had been deployed in Europe, taking part in the French attacks during the Battle of the Somme and fighting in the Battle of Verdun.

However in 1915 Andrew Bonar Law, Secretary of State for the Colonies, wrote a secret memorandum in which he concluded that the recruitment of Africans would pose too great a threat to British rule in Africa after the war – particularly in South Africa as there ‘a large body of trained and disciplined black men would create obvious difficulties, and might seriously menace the supremacy of the white.’13 Like many others Bonar Law was also convinced that ‘no South African native could stand a European winter’. This refrain – that was to be constantly repeated by British politicians and colonial administrators right up until the 1940s – grew harder to sustain over time as the black soldiers of France, the Tirailleurs Sénégalais, proved themselves as capable as any other troops of weathering the most terrible winters of the war – albeit with appalling casualties.

By the end of 1916, theoretic musings as to the potential military capacities of Africans and vague proposals for recruitment of men from that continent gave way to urgent political debate. During the six terrible months of the Battle of the Somme, engagement after engagement generated casualty lists far longer than the General Staff had expected or prepared for. After just the first day of fighting, sixty thousand of Lord Kitchener’s eager volunteers were killed, wounded or missing. The Battle of the Somme was to rage on for another hundred and forty days. The volunteers who had swelled the ranks of Britain’s army in 1915 had been decimated and new levies were required. Although the Indian Army had already served courageously, and despite the acute manpower crisis, neither the War Office nor the Chief of Staff were yet willing to consider the recruitment of Africans into the army for service on the Western Front.

In the face of shocking British losses, those who believed that the recruitment and perhaps even conscription of Africans into the ranks of the British army was a matter of urgency, and perhaps even national survival, found their voice. As did those among the elites of British West Africa, who were largely in favour of local recruitment, hoping it would allow them to negotiate a better deal in the post-war empire, and presuming, perhaps, that it would be the sons of the poor and not their own young men who would be sent to the battlefields. In December 1916, the Lagos Weekly Record encouraged the British to adopt French methods of recruitment in Africa.14 ‘What France has done on such an appreciable scale, Great Britain could do on a more extensive scale’, the paper suggested in an editorial.15

The loudest voice in Britain was that of Major Darnley Stuart-Stephens, a former commander of the Lagos Battalion who had served in Nigeria during the Scramble for Africa and penned a controversial article for the English Review. In ‘Our Million Black Army’, Stuart-Stephens presented the continent as an ‘almost unlimited reservoir of African man-power’, from which twenty thousand men could be drawn almost immediately. In northern Nigeria he suggested were more than seven hundred thousand martial warriors. These ‘bonny fetchers’, he wrote, ‘are now engaged in the pastoral arts of peace. But I would make bold to assert that a couple of hundred thousand could, after six months’ training, be usefully employed in daredevil charges into German trenches.’ In what to the modern reader is extraordinary language he advocated ‘placing at once in the trenches . . . 70,000 big, lusty coal-black devils, the time of whose life is the wielding of the bayonet, and whose advent would not be regarded by the Boches as a pleasing omen of more to come of the same sort.’16

In the minds of some observers the portrait of the African soldier that Major Stuart-Stephens painted, of a muscular warrior-athlete, made their potential deployment in Europe more, not less, problematic. This popular and highly racialized image of the black African or West Indian man as a child of nature, unencumbered by the burdens of civilization or intellect and endowed with natural strength and innate health stood in stark contrast to the picture emerging from the front and from the recruiting offices of Britain. Thousands of British men who volunteered for service in 1914 and 1915 were underweight, physically frail and in general poor health. These men, many of whom had been happy to abandon the damp terraces of the industrial cities, bore the bodily stamp of intergenerational malnutrition and were afflicted by various diseases and conditions that blighted Britain’s poorest urban communities in the early twentieth century. Captain J. C. Dunn, a medical officer and Boer War veteran, whose memoir The War the Infantry Knew is one of the great social histories of the trenches, lamented the ‘astonishing number of men whose narrow and misshapen chests, and other deformities or defects, unfitted them to stay the more exacting requirements of service in the field’.17 And Captain Dunn was speaking only of men who had been passed fit for service. A shocking number of would-be British recruits had failed the rudimentary medical examination that was undertaken in the recruiting offices. The poor health of so many British men had been similarly exposed fifteen years earlier in a recruitment crisis during the Boer War, when it had been estimated that 60 per cent of the male population were unfit for active military service. In 1914 and 1915 the authorities discovered that little had changed, despite the work of eight separate Royal Commissions between 1904 and 1914, all of which had been tasked with investigating these issues.18

The formation in November 1914 of the first ‘bantam’ battalions was indicative of the malnutrition and sickliness that had blighted the health and development of millions of Britons. These were units made up of men under five feet three inches, the minimum height for a soldier at the start of the war. The bantam battalions were even issued with a special version of the standard-issue Lee Enfield rifle that had a shorter stock. Over the six terrible months of the Battle of the Somme the physical frailties of many British soldiers was made bleakly apparent, as was their psychological vulnerability. By the end of 1916, fifty thousand British troops were being treated for shell-shock. These rates were no higher than those experienced by other armies but the Australians, alongside whom the Tommies had fought at Gallipoli and on the Somme, had come to regard the British as poor fighters, generally lacking in courage and deficient in manliness. Thus in 1916, at the very moment when the recruitment of black men from the West Indies and Africa for deployment on the Western Front would have been most advantageous and most militarily appropriate, there was something approaching a crisis of British masculinity. Black men, while regarded by many to be intellectually inferior and therefore unsuited to modern technological warfare, were at the same time viewed by others as potentially physically superior to the malnourished and diminutive British men from the industrial cities. There was, in certain circles, a fear that if the black troops were deployed on the Western Front, their supposed primitive vitality would be set alongside the emasculated sickliness of many British recruits in a way that would damage white racial prestige. Thus national paranoia and long-established racial stereotypes conspired to form new, if largely unspoken, justifications for the exclusion of black men from the European theatre. In this atmosphere the imperial authorities went so far as to ensure that sporting competitions held behind the lines, in which black men took on their white compatriots, were not played before a civilian public. While victories by black men on the field of sport could and often were explained away by reference to their much-purported animalistic strength and natural vigour, The Timescautioned that ‘the black man’s victory’ would be ‘hailed as proof that the hegemony of the white race is approaching the end.’19

Yet Stuart-Stephens’ article of 1916 not only reignited the debates of the previous year, it spawned a ‘Million Black Army’ movement. Among its supporters were a number of men with experience in the colonies.20 One of the most vocal and significant of them was Sir Harry Johnston, the explorer and former associate of Cecil Rhodes, who was to later pen The Backward Peoples and Our Relations with Them, a dispiritingly racist and ceaselessly patronizing tract which included a map of Africa shaded to convey the degree to which Johnston believed the local people were ‘backwards’. Sir Harry accepted an invitation from the French government to visit the camps of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais. He came away convinced that the men of Britain’s African Empire could be formed into just as effective a fighting force.21 Many others agreed with his assessment. From July 1917, the parliamentary campaign for the ‘Million Black Army’ movement was led by the Liberal MP Josiah Wedgwood, the great-great-grandson of Josiah Wedgwood I, who in the eighteenth century had been a key member of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade. It was the elder Wedgwood who had had his Staffordshire potteries produce the famous abolitionist medal bearing the figure of the kneeling slave and the slogan ‘Am I Not a Man and a Brother?’. Having served in the Dardanelles Campaign and recently returned from active service in East Africa the younger Wedgwood presented himself in 1917 as a man of authority on military matters. Addressing Parliament, he too advocated the adoption of the French system to raise black soldiers for European service. This should be done, he stated with shocking candour, ‘because we do not want all the whites killed – to put it bluntly. To slow down the rate of killing of our men and to eke out the finest race on earth’.22 He went on to explain that his support of African recruitment stemmed from his wish ‘to see the coloured man gets his due honour, and that self-esteem and self-respect which comes from overcoming fear . . . They want to show themselves the equal in courage to the white – to break once for all the colour bar. Comradeship in danger will do what the education of centuries would never effect.’23

The most strident and inevitably the most eloquent supporter of the ‘Million Black Army’ movement was yet another old colonial soldier – Winston Churchill. In May 1916, before the Battle of the Somme had begun, Churchill spoke in Parliament. ‘What part is Africa going to play in the present struggle?’ he asked. ‘The French African Empire is much smaller than that over which we rule . . . yet I am told – of course, it is a purely unofficial figure – that the French are employing, or intend to employ, in the line in France nearly 100,000 men from Africa. What the French can do,’ he argued, ‘we can do.’24 Speaking like the historian he was, Churchill called upon MPs to imagine posterity’s judgement. ‘Let us project our minds ahead and think what historians of the future would write if they were writing a history of the present time and had to record that Great Britain was forced to make an inconclusive peace because she forgot Africa; that at a time when every man counted, when every man was needed and the greatest hardships were imposed, the Government of Great Britain was unable to make any use of a mighty continent which sea power had placed at the disposal of herself and her Allies.’ Churchill offered a vision for how the manpower of Africa might be tapped at source and history’s judgement averted: ‘Imagine a great place of arms being created in Egypt,’ he explained, ‘where the climate is suitable, where African troops raised in various parts of the Continent would be assembled, drilled and trained, and then passed into the war as individuals or as units in whatever capacity they were best fitted for, and in whatever theatre of war and against whatever enemies the climate and their religion rendered it most suitable for them to be employed.’ These measures were necessary, Churchill reasoned, because of ‘the grave situation’ facing the nation. ‘What is going on while we sit here, while we go away to dinner, or home to bed? Nearly 1,000 men – Englishmen, Britishers, men of our own race – are knocked into bundles of bloody rags every twenty-four hours, and carried away to hasty graves or to field ambulances . . . every measure must be considered, and none put aside while there is hope of obtaining something from it’.25 Supporters of the ‘Million Black Army’ movement proposed that another fact-finding mission be sent to determine how the French Army managed its recruitment polices in Africa in order to learn from their experiences.

Opposition came from multiple directions. Firstly from a number of serving and former colonial officers who strongly disagreed with their colleagues. One wrote, ‘It must not be forgotten that a West African native trained to use of arms and filled with a new degree of self-confidence by successful encounters with forces armed and led by Europeans was not likely to be more amenable to discipline in peace time.’26 Almost every pretext and plausible argument was employed to counter the suggestion that the wartime manpower shortage necessitated the recruitment of black soldiers to fight against a white enemy on European soil. It was suggested – yet again – that Africans could not endure or even perhaps survive European winters and it was claimed that they were intellectually incapable of using of complicated modern weapons and would be unable to grasp contemporary military tactics. Another argument argument against African recruitment was that there were said to be an insufficient supply of white officers fluent in their languages. The government of the Union of South Africa consistently reiterated their view that training black soldiers to fight against a white enemy would, in the longer term, threaten white dominance in Southern Africa.27 From June 1917 onwards, the President of the Union of South Africa, Jan Smuts, sat as a member of the Imperial War Cabinet and from that position was able to block the ‘Million Black Army’ concept. Resistance from the Colonial Office also remained steadfast. So resolute was this wall of opposition that in May 1918 – when there were few signs that the war had entered its final year – an interdepartmental conference that agreed to the formation of a West African Service Brigade for deployment in the Middle East or Africa added the stipulation, ‘but not against Germans in Europe’.28

Despite vociferous opposition there were black men who outmanoeuvred the colour bar and fought on the Western Front. A number of men from the West Indies made their way to Britain and – unlike the West Ham stowaways of 1915 – successfully enlisted in British army units. Among them was Lionel Fitz Herbert Turpin from British Guyana, who rejected the opportunity to serve with the BWIR and joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Turpin fought in France and survived the war, although had to endure the effects of exposure to poison gas for the rest of his life.29Another group who were even better placed were West Indians and Africans who were resident in Britain at the outbreak of the conflict. When the mixed-race Jamaican brothers Roy and Norman Manley, who were studying in Britain in 1915, attempted to join the Royal Flying Corps, they were refused. However, both were later accepted into the Royal Field Artillery. An Oxford Rhodes scholar, Norman Manley manned guns on the Somme and was promoted during the war. He was, however, appalled by the routine racism and prejudice. Roy Manley was killed near Ypres in 1917. Norman went on to become Jamaica’s first chief minister and never forgot his experiences during the war. He is recognized today as one of the National Heroes of Jamaica.

The other group able to cross the colour line to service in the regular army were men from Britain’s pre-war black population, many of whom had been born in Britain. The number of black people in Britain before the First World War was very small, probably just a few thousand, and a fraction of the size of the eighteenth-century black population that had been constantly refreshed by the ceaseless arrival of enslaved African servants. In 1914 there was a tiny black middle class mainly living in London, many of whom had connections to Sierra Leone. Most of the rest were African and West Indian sailors in Liverpool, Cardiff and London. Finally there were smaller clusters elsewhere and an unknown number of black and mixed-race families descended from individuals who had found themselves in Britain and settled down. Their status, when it came to military recruitment, was something of a quandary. This was in part because there existed a great deal of confusion among recruiting officers as to the status and rights of black residents of Britain but also because the acceptability or otherwise of a young man presenting himself at the recruiting office was determined not solely by military regulations, but by the opinions of the recruiting officer who processed his application. Between 1914 and 1918 there were recruiting officers who refused to admit black men into the British army. There were others, evidently, who disregarded the issue of race. Just as there were recruiters who accepted men who were below the minimum height and boys who were under age, there were those who believed that race should be no bar to military service. Furthermore the recruiting sergeants, just as much as the men stood in front of them, were at times swept up in ‘war fever’, and regarded it as their patriotic duty to accept as many volunteers as possible. Gilbert Grindle, a principal clerk at the Colonial Office, wrote in December 1914, ‘I hear privately that some recruiting officers will pass coloureds. Others, will not, and we must discourage coloured volunteers.’30

Ernest Marke, who left his native Sierra Leone during the war and worked on merchant ships, recalled in his autobiography that he and another man from Sierra Leone were accepted into the army without any difficulties at a Liverpool recruiting office in 1918.31 Marke’s acceptance was all the more remarkable given that in 1918 he was not only a black African but just fifteen years old.

So confused were recruiting officers by the question of race that some black British men who had been conscripted into the army, after the 1916 Military Service Act, were rejected from service, or prevented from gaining admission to recruiting offices even though they had their call-up papers in their hands.32 Some black Britons were posted to the BWIR, and served with that unit for the duration of the war, while others were placed within the Royal Engineers (Coloured Section), which had been specially created to receive them. However some did serve in regular units, training and fighting alongside white recruits. It was largely a matter of chance as to which type of unit a black soldier was dispatched.

The most celebrated of the black Britons who fought on the Western Front is Walter Tull. The mixed-race son of the son of a slave, he was three generations away from the plantations of Barbados. At the outbreak of war, Tull was a professional footballer playing in the midfield for Northampton Town FC. In the first weeks of the war he was considering a transfer offer from Glasgow Rangers but instead, on 14 December, presented himself at the army recruiting office in Holborn in London, and joined the Middlesex Regiment. Tull’s unit was known as the 1st Footballers’ Battalion, as it was made up of players and fans. His commanding officer, Major Frank Buckley, was a former Manchester United player and veteran of the Boer War. When he presented himself to the recruiting sergeant, there could have been little doubt that this twenty-six-year-old professional football player was fit for active service. He was also famous, having appeared in the newspapers and in front of huge football crowds. Tull was rapidly promoted to sergeant and – in a concession granted to the footballers’ battalion – travelled across the country at weekends playing for his club until the end of the professional season. Then, in November 1915, the battalion headed for France.

In 1916, he became one of the fifty thousand British men to be treated that year alone for what was then called ‘acute mania’ and would today be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. After a short recuperation in England he returned to the front in September and took part in the later offences of the Battle of the Somme. In February 1917, however, he travelled to Scotland and there began training to become an officer, after having been recommended for officer training the previous November. This, in theory, should have been impossible and under normal circumstances would almost certainly not have been allowed. The 1914 Manual of Military Law prohibited what it termed ‘alien soldiers’ from ‘exercising any actual command or power’, stipulating that ‘Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent’, a vague term (perhaps deliberately so) that was often taken to mean individuals who appeared to be Caucasian.33 Another army document, the Short Guide to Obtaining a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers, published by HM Stationery Office in 1912, reiterated that all candidates ‘must be of pure European descent’. Nevertheless, Tull was recommended by his commanding officers. The manpower crisis of 1917, after the disastrous losses of the Somme, was not deemed severe enough for recommendations of the ‘Million Black Army’ movement to be put into operation but it did encourage the army to waive or suspend some of its rules and regulations regarding the race of officers and men, regulations that in many cases had always been open to some degree of interpretation and discretion. In May 1917, Walter Tull won his commission as second lieutenant. Not only had he been permitted to fight in Europe against a European enemy, he was now to lead white British troops into action. Later, in 1917, Second Lieutenant Tull took part in operations on the Italian Front, for which he was mentioned in dispatches. He was also recommended for the Military Cross. In March 1918, during the German spring offensive, he was killed in action near the French village of Favreuil. His body was never recovered from the battlefield, despite attempts by men of his unit to do so. He is listed as one of the missing, among the 34,785 names engraved into the Arras Memorial in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

The opponents of the ‘Million Black Army’ movement, having largely succeeded in preventing the deployment of black men on the European battlefield, were equally determined to ensure that the role Africans and West Indians had played in the war was airbrushed out of the developing national memory of the conflict. On the morning of Saturday 19 July 1919, a month after the Treaty of Versailles was signed by the reluctant German delegation, an official Victory Parade was held in London. The parade was the sombre centrepiece of a whole programme of official celebrations and London was fittingly bedecked with bunting and the flags of the victorious Allied nations. Military bands played across the city and in London’s parks performers entertained the huge crowds. It was for these celebrations that Sir Edwin Lutyens designed the Cenotaph, which, as it had been originally envisaged as a temporary structure, had been erected on Whitehall in wood and plaster rather than Portland limestone. When the Allied troops selected to take part in the parade marched past the Cenotaph they saluted in memory of their fallen comrades – around a million of them from Britain and the empire. But by the summer of 1919 the memory of the black men from Africa and the West Indies who had fought or laboured in the war was already being expunged from the official record and popular memory. The Victory Parade was part of that process of conscious and deliberate forgetting.

Fifteen thousand soldiers, sailors and airmen took part. Each of the Allied commanders, General Pershing, who had led the US Expeditionary Force, Marshal Foch, the supreme Allied commander, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the British commander-in-chief, had led armies that were multi-racial. Each of the generals saluted their fallen comrades in the London Victory Parade at the head of columns from which all black men had been excluded. Within the British columns were men from Canada, Australia, South Africa and India. No troops from the West Indies were permitted to march; neither were any black African units. When asked to explain why the Nigeria Regiment, which had fought against German forces in the East African campaign, had not been invited to take part in any of the official victory celebrations the Colonial Office responded by suggesting that it would be ‘impolitic to bring [to England] coloured detachments to participate in the peace processions’.34 This was later said to have been because the cost of their transportation to London would have been prohibitive, despite the fact that Indian troops had been shipped to London specifically to take part in the celebrations. Just six years earlier, the organizers of the Royal and Military Tournament of 1908 had not found the cost of shipping a hundred soldiers of the West African Regiment to Britain from Sierra Leone to be an impediment to their commercial plans. An African correspondent who wrote to West Africa, the Lagos-based newspaper, found that explanation unbelievable.

In your issue published the week after the Victory march in London, you asserted that Africans could not be in the march because there was no time to get them to England owing to lack of transport. You do not mean to say that Great Britain could not afford to send out two men-of-war to bring them if they had been wanted? . . . They were fit to assist in breaking the aggression of Germany but they were not fit to be in the Victory march . . . 35

The determination of the authorities to write the role of black sailors and soldiers out of the official memory and memorialization of the war was noticed by black people living in Britain as much as by those in the colonies. In London, the Society of Peoples of African Origin (SPAO), in its newspaper the African Telegraph, wrote ‘we can only conclude that it is the policy of His Majesty’s Ministers to ignore the services of the black subjects of the Empire.’36 Not only were the Africans and West Indians excluded from the Victory Parade of 19 May, they were also excluded from another Victory Parade for dominion troops held on 3 May. The exemplary service and heavy sacrifice of the Nigerian and other African units was recalled in the war memoirs of their white officers, but not in the official celebrations. Likewise, the hundreds of thousands of Africans who had laboured in the Carrier Corps were largely forgotten. In Jamaica and the other West Indian islands the mistreatment of the men of the BWIR, the refusal to permit them to fight on the Western Front and the slights and abuses that were poured upon them, led to considerable bitterness.

In 1919, most units of the BWIR were concentrated in an army camp near the coastal Italian city of Taranto. There around eight thousand soldiers awaited demobilization. After four years of mistreatment it was in Italy that the humiliation of the men of the BWIR was the most systematic and deliberate. The sense of joint enterprise that had, to some extent, eased racial tensions during the war disappeared, and any lingering sense of comradeship evaporated. Gershom Browne, a Guyanese soldier who served in ‘C’ Company of the 1st BWIR recalled, ‘Since we came here, we couldn’t understand why these British soldiers they didn’t seem to want any attachment with us. We had always seemed to get on good together in Egypt.’37 BWIR troops reported being ostracized and segregated from white soldiers. When a pay rise was given to other imperial troops, it was denied to the West Indians on the grounds that they were ‘natives’. In December 1918, the West Indians, who had volunteered to fight and seen action in the Middle East, were ordered to do the laundry of both white British troops and civilian Italian labourers, and then to clean the latrines of the white troops. Once again, they were tacitly and deliberately demoted from soldiers to labourers. Their dissatisfaction eventually tipped over into a refusal to carry out orders, and then a full-blown mutiny, the leaders of which were sentenced to between three and five years’ imprisonment. Another was sentenced to twenty-one years and one man was executed by firing squad. After the mutiny the army relented and awarded the black troops the pay increase that had been denied to them. During the war, 185 soldiers from the BWIR died in action or of wounds and 1,071 fell prey to disease. The Colonial Office rightly observed that the troops who returned to Jamaica from Taranto were politicized and disillusioned. Two generations on from Morant Bay, the mistreatment of the men of the BWIR starkly demonstrated to the people of the West Indies the reality of their place in the empire, and exactly where they stood in the racial hierarchy.

In 1919, the American race theorist Madison Grant published his now infamous book The Passing of the Great Race, a clarion call for the isolation and preservation of what he called the ‘Nordic Race’. The Nordic, Aryan or Anglo-Saxon peoples were to be further purified, in Grant’s vision, by a rigid programme of eugenics. As the soldiers of Britain, India and the white dominions marched through London, the American journalist Lothrop Stoddard was busy drafting The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, in which he lambasted those in Europe who had permitted black men to serve in the war in any capacity. Grant and Stoddard had discussed their ideas while writing their respective tomes. In Stoddard’s view, the war had represented an egregious breach in the barriers that separated the races and kept the dark-skinned peoples of the world in a subservient position. ‘White solidarity’, he wrote, had been ‘literally blown from the muzzles of the guns.’ The great betrayal of the white race had come when ‘The Allies poured into white Europe colored hordes of every pigment under the sun.’ Stoddard criticized Major Darnley Stuart-Stephens and his ‘Million Black Army’ concept and believed that the war in Africa had been just as dangerous. ‘Far and wide over the Dark Continent,’ he wrote, ‘black armies fought for their respective masters – and learned the hidden weakness of the white man’s power . . . The psychological effect of these colored auxiliaries in deepening the hatred of the white combatants was deplorable.’38 In the view of race theorists like Stoddard the use of black soldiers during the war had undermined the security of the white race, and it was therefore critical in the post-war period for black men and other non-whites to be put back in their proper place and more firmly segregated. Grant and Stoddard spoke for many in 1919 who surveyed the world and were appalled by the emergence of new black communities in the cities of Europe and the Northern states of the US. Just as disturbing was the sight of black men and women in relatively well-paid industrial jobs. Most outrageous of all were the mixed relationships and marriages between black men and white women.

At around ten o’clock on the evening of 5 June 1919, a month before the Victory Parade snaked its way through the broad boulevards of central London, a twenty-four-year-old sailor from Bermuda, who had served in the Royal Navy during the war, was chased through the streets of Liverpool. He was pursued by a mob that was between two and three hundred strong. His name was Charles Wootton and he was eventually chased down to the Queen’s Dock and surrounded on the water’s edge by a hostile crowd. One of the police officers on the scene estimated that by this point the crowd was about two thousand strong. In the chaos that followed Wootton was at one point seized by a policeman, but was ripped out of the officer’s grasp by the mob. Stones were thrown, driving Wootton into the water. Some reports say that members of the crowd, at this point, shouted, ‘Let him drown.’39 The Liverpool Echo reported that as Wootton floundered in the water, ‘a detective climbed down a ship’s rope and was about to pull the man out of the water when a stone thrown from the middle of the crowd struck Wootton on the head and he sank. His body was later recovered by means of grappling irons.’40

Although a number of police officers were at the scene on the night of the murder of Charles Wootton no arrests were made. The Liverpool Evening Express informed its readers that the coroner’s inquest determined that there was insufficient evidence to determine how ‘he got into the Queen’s Dock’. Yet the report carried statements from a number of witnesses and a police officer who had all been present that evening.41 Wootton had died publicly, in front of perhaps as many as two thousand people, yet no one could ‘positively say whether the negro was thrown into the dock or jumped in’.42 The inquest returned the near-meaningless verdict of ‘Found drowned’.43 Various terms have been used to describe the killing of Charles Wootton, in the heart of a British city a century ago. But the most appropriate term is also the most disturbing – his death was a lynching.44

1919 had been welcomed in as the first year of peace after four years of terrible conflict, but the year was anything but peaceful. Overshadowed by the memory of the war, it was one of the most febrile and violent years of the twentieth century. In Britain, there were riots and violent disturbances in nine cities as returning soldiers and local men turned upon the country’s black population, which had considerably increased in size during the war years. Five people were killed in the riots of 1919, including Charles Wootton. Hundreds were injured and around two hundred and fifty arrested.

At the end of the war there were probably around twenty thousand black people living in Britain. Most could be found in the major port towns – Liverpool, Glasgow, Cardiff and London’s East End. But there were also clusters in Barry and Newport in Wales, Hull, Manchester and South Shields in the North-East. The war years and the immediate post-war period were perhaps the first time in British history in which the majority of black Britons lived outside the capital. Liverpool’s black population stood at around five thousand at the end of the war and was unusually diverse, consisting of men from across the West Indies as well as a large number from West Africa – a reflection of the city’s role in shipping and the palm-oil trade that had been so energetically promoted by the British at the height of their nineteenth-century anti-slave-trade crusade.

The size and make-up of black Britain in 1919 was a reflection of centuries of contact between Britain and Africa but also of the global nature of the conflict the nation had just endured. Although Britain’s arsenals and munitions factories had risen to the challenge, the nation had also relied upon imported weapons and munitions. Imported food had helped nourish the population, sparing them the terrible privations that befell German civilians during the so-called ‘hunger blockade’. The merchant shipping that had been Britain’s lifeline and the fleet that had enforced the blockade of her enemies had been manned by seamen from across the empire, including Africa and the West Indies. Men from those regions had also come to Britain in search of work in the booming wartime factories, and in doing so became part of the great engine of industrial war that had made victory possible. Black sailors landed in war-time Britain and, on discovering that work was available in such abundance in the factories and ports, decided to stay rather than sign on to a new ship. Other black sailors ended up in Britain because the ships they were on in 1914 were requisitioned by the government and put to war service. Britain’s expanded black population was disproportionately male, as had been the black British population during the age of Atlantic slavery in the eighteenth century. Although thousands of Africans and West Indians had settled in the country, or found themselves there at the end of the conflict, they represented only a small fraction of the vast international army of workers and sailors from across the world who had come to Britain to find work in the booming war economy. As well as men from the British Empire, thousands of Europeans had also arrived. Particularly well represented were Danes, Swedes, Poles and Russians, many of whom had been working on British ships, and between periods of shipboard employment they settled in the poorer districts around the ports, often near the clusters of black populations. Men of African descent from the Caribbean and from West Africa were therefore merely the most visible of the new immigrants. The colour of their skin made them an easy and obvious target for resentment and ultimately violence.

The end of the war marked the end of the labour emergency. Peace brought with it sudden and severe competition for work. Two million soldiers, sailors and airmen were rapidly demobilized in the months after November 1918. British men returned home to discover that the country’s economy could find no place for them. The ‘Land fit for Heroes’ that the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, had promised had failed to materialize and the lack of work was aggravated by an acute housing shortage. Huge numbers of white British workers and former soldiers – men who only months earlier had risked their lives in the name of their country – felt a powerful sense of economic betrayal. Some, perhaps only a minority, were on the lookout for a scapegoat.

During the conflict, the colonial authorities, the British army, Royal Navy, merchant navy and innumerable private firms had been willing to employ black men. At the cessation of hostilities there was a demand, from labour and the unions, that Africans and West Indians hired during the war be dismissed to make way for demobilized white men. Similar demands were made with regards to women who had been brought into the factories and the trades during the war years, and were now expected to return to their pre-war domestic roles. Within weeks of the end of the war white sailors who had served alongside black seamen during the conflict had begun to inform their employers that they were now unwilling to work with them. Ship-masters and factory managers tended to respond by dismissing the black men. The Liverpool Courier reported, in June 1919, that one hundred and twenty black men who worked in the sugar refineries and making oilcake (a form of cattle feed) were dismissed over the space of a week when white colleagues refused to work beside them.45 Ernest Marke, the Sierra Leonean teenager who had managed join the British army in 1918, noted that in Liverpool ‘things became different with the demobilisation of thousands of men from the armed forces and the closing down of munitions factories. It now became scarcity of jobs, not men, with the demobbed men wanting their old jobs back and Negroes being sacked to make room for them.’46

A profound divergence developed between how black people regarded themselves and how they came to be seen by sections of the public. Black men who had volunteered for military service had done so in the firm belief that they were members of the empire and British subjects – not aliens. They had joined up to defend the empire but also to ensure their position within it by demonstrating loyalty and competence. Black men who had fought for Britain in the First World War were also aware of the fact that they had fought as volunteers and not conscripts. Conscription had never been introduced into Africa or the West Indies and this reinforced their sense of commitment to the national cause. There were reports from 1919 and into the early 1920s of black men wearing their uniforms or their medal ribbons to prove that they had shared in the dangers and privations of the conflict.

The colonial soldiers and sailors who lived in Britain did so alongside members of longer established and more settled black communities, who had even greater reason to consider themselves British, but in 1919, both the more recent arrivals and the black Edwardians discovered that they were all viewed with suspicion and considered, by some, as aliens. The existence of black communities was suddenly regarded as evidence for the existence, in Britain, of a ‘colour problem’.

The racial tensions of 1919 first metastasized into violence in Glasgow. On 23 January, both black and white sailors assembled in the yard of Glasgow’s mercantile marine office hoping to be signed on to ships. Gathered together, and in direct competition for the same limited supply of jobs, groups of white sailors who resented the presence of black colonial seamen began to shout abuse. This led to scuffles and eventually to an eruption of serious fighting.47 The white sailors were joined by locals who together pursued and attacked the black seamen, thirty of whom were taken into protective custody by the police. Pistols, knives and improvised weapons were used and three people were seriously injured – two white sailors and one black. No charges were brought.

The next to be attacked were a community of Arab sailors – men mostly from Yemen and Somalia – who had settled in South Shields by the Tyne, and whose descendants still live in the same Tyneside terraces. Their numbers had quadrupled during the war years when employment had been plentiful. Within months of the end of the war the Arab sailors, despite being British subjects and union members, were abruptly refused work on British ships. They then became the focus of an attack by a white mob that included a number of white sailors from other European nations. After a chase through the town, the Arab seamen and their pursuers confronted one another in the Holborn district. The homes of the Arab men were attacked and in the chaos revolvers were fired over the heads of the mob by some of the Arabs, who then chased their attackers back to the shipping office where the trouble had begun. Bitterness over relations between white women and Arab men was said to have been one of the causes of the riot.

Two months later there were riots in London’s dockland when black sailors were attacked on Cable Street, later the site of a much more famous riot in the 1930s, fought against Sir Oswald Mosley’s black-shirted fascists. The following month, hostels housing black sailors were attacked in Limehouse, a part of the capital in which there had been an intermittent black population since the eighteenth century. The police estimated that between three and five thousand people took part in those riots.48 In May, Asian and Chinese communities were also targeted, as were white women who lived with or who had married black men. The next month there was an incident involving black sailors by the docks at Hull, and violence erupted in Newport, in Wales, with black men targeted in the wake of a meeting by one of the seamen’s unions. Once again, black men’s hostels and black families’ homes were attacked and ransacked. Racial violence next exploded in the Welsh port of Barry, and by 11 June, the disturbances had spread to Tiger Bay in Cardiff. The riots in Cardiff lasted a week and cost three men their lives. Troops were secretly put on standby as huge gangs patrolled the streets on the hunt for black men and Arabs. The Cardiff riots were as ferocious, if shorter in duration, as those that took place in Liverpool.

The events that led up to the death of Charles Wootton in Liverpool began in May, when it was estimated that between five and six hundred black men in Liverpool were out of work and on the bread-line. Many were former soldiers or sailors and some actively wanted to return to their homelands in the West Indies and Africa, but could find no ship on which they could work their passage and had no money to pay for a journey home. They were stranded in a country in which they could no longer find employment and in which – despite their war service – they were unwanted and increasingly resented. The army’s decision to demobilize a number of men from the British West Indies Regiment in Britain rather than in their home islands exacerbated the problem in Liverpool. The city’s Head Constable, Francis Caldwell, told the local council that ‘Since the Armistice the demobilisation of so many negroes into Liverpool has caused this feeling to develop more rapidly.’49 The Liverpool Ethiopian Association, a Pan-Africanist self-help group dedicated to defending the interests of Africans in Britain, suggested to the Lord Mayor of Liverpool that the Colonial Office should come to the assistance of the stranded men, and pay them £5 as a bounty, in recognition of their war service and for their repatriation. This was relayed by the Mayor to the Colonial Office but abruptly dismissed as a ‘bribe’. That said, if the Colonial Office had agreed to the £5 bounty it would have been too late to prevent disaster; even as the proposal was being debated the situation had begun to spiral out of control.

In a move that in the circumstances was probably ill advised, the Liverpool police had, in May, attempted to close down an illegal gaming house run by black men. The result was a pitched battle in the streets. However, the real violence erupted in June, when disturbances broke out between black sailors and a group of white men that included locals and a number of foreign sailors, many of them Scandinavians. On the 4th, the night before the murder of Charles Wootton, a West Indian sailor named John Johnson was stabbed by group of Scandinavian sailors for refusing them a cigarette, or at least that was the pretext for the assault. The victim’s wounds were severe and news of his condition sparked anger. The following night, a group of black sailors, associates of Johnson, threw beer over a group of Scandinavian sailors in a bar. According to the Liverpool Daily Post, the Scandinavians were then ‘assailed by the coloured men with sticks, knives, razors and pieces of iron taken from lampposts; eight Scandinavians were taken to hospital and the coloureds headed for the Scandinavians’ home in Great George Square.’50

The violence continued the next night. There were reports of disturbances in Great George Square where both Scandinavians and black sailors lodged. When the police arrived at the scene they decided that the correct course of action was to raid a boarding house where a number of black men were living at 18 Upper Pitt Street, which formed the western side of the square. With an angry crowd gathered in the square the police entered the hostel but encountered considerable resistance. Four policemen were injured; two sustained gunshot wounds, apparently struck by the same glancing bullet, for after four years of war Britain in 1919 was awash with illegally held firearms. During the raid, six black seamen were arrested but Charles Wootton (also known as Wootten) escaped through a rear entrance, before being spotted by the crowd. Wootton was then chased for over half a mile and finally caught and murdered at the Queen’s Dock. His lynching was, however, not the end of the 1919 riots in Liverpool. In no other city was the violence so sustained. Black men were also attacked in Stanhope and Hill Streets, where they lived in a huge boarding house run by the Elder Dempster Shipping Company. This facility, large enough to house between three and four hundred men, was destroyed. Across the city the homes of black men and black families were targeted by the mob. Many were ransacked, their contents dragged out into the street and set on fire. Ernest Marke, the young Sierra Leonean, recalled encountering a mob of men on Brownlow Hill.

They started chasing us the moment we were spotted, shouting, ‘Niggers, niggers, stop them niggers.’ A lady heard the shout, looked through her window and saw the mob after us. She beckoned to us, ran downstairs and opened the door to us and then let us out quickly into the back alley, from where we maneuvered ourselves through other back lanes to the bottom of the hill by the Adelphi hotel. No sooner had we reach the main thoroughfare when we were spotted by another mob. A tram car was going southward where we lived; we ran for it, the mob on our heels. I caught it but my friend was unlucky. That was the last time I saw him. I learned later that he was beaten unconscious and left for dead.51

The violence in Liverpool was orchestrated by well-organized gangs, hundreds and sometimes thousands strong, who hunted black men on the streets. On 8 June, three days after Charles Wootton was murdered, three West African men were stabbed in Liverpool. By 10 June, around seven hundred black people were sheltering from white gangs in the local bridewells (petty offenders’ prisons). Others took refuge in the Ethiopian Hall, the headquarters of the Liverpool Ethiopian Society. That day in Liverpool, reported The Times, ‘White men appeared determined to clear out the blacks who have been advised to stay indoors. This counsel many of them disregarded . . . Whenever a negro was seen he was chased and if caught severely beaten.’52 The Liverpool Evening Express described the situation the following day:

Wrecked houses, despoiled of their furniture, gaping holes in plate glass windows, shops which have been broken open by hooligans and emptied of their contents by thieves, and charred patches on the road to donate a bonfire made by some innocent person’s furniture are visible evidence of the result of rioting in the negro colony of Liverpool last night . . . The Negroes by their hundred have thrown themselves upon the mercy of the authorities. In dozens they presented themselves at the bridewell yesterday afternoon and evening, and before today’s dawn broke there were between 600 and 700 Black men safely housed at their own request in the main bridewell at Cheapside. During the day this number has been considerably increased. Four hundred were marched through the streets by the police.53

Alongside the lynching of Charles Wootton, this was perhaps the most heartrending of the many tragic spectacles of 1919; the sight of four hundred black people, men, women and children, being marched through the streets of Liverpool under police escort – some of them made refugees in their own city. To make matters even worse in August, in the latter stages of Liverpool’s summer of riots, the men tasked with defending the city and – in theory at least – its black residents went on strike. The Liverpool police strike of 1919 was only ended when three battalions of soldiers, supported by tanks, were deployed in the city and a battleship accompanied by destroyers sailed up the Mersey – an overreaction by a British government grown twitchy and paranoid in the aftermath of the Russian Bolshevik revolution of 1917.54

The factors that in 1919 induced thousands of men in the port towns of Britain to turn upon local black communities were numerous and complex. There is no question that profound anxieties over the scarcity of work were critical. Some of the opposition towards black seamen stemmed from the simple fact that they were perceived as unwelcome competition for work, but an old colonial practice aggravated the situation. Black seamen who signed on to work on ships in Africa or the Caribbean had customarily been paid at lower rates than British sailors. Indeed, whole communities had developed in West Africa that were reliant upon employment on British ships, and who were regarded by the shipping companies as reservoirs of cheap maritime labour. The Kru community of Freetown, Sierra Leone, was seen as one such reservoir, and in the early twentieth century there was a transient community of Kru men resident in Liverpool.55 Africans were recruited to work in the boiler rooms of steamships in the latter half of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in part because it was believed they could better withstand the heat, rather as it had been believed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that they were uniquely capable of withstanding the heat of the West Indian plantations. Drawn to work on ships by tradition and to the sea by ceaseless poverty, in both the West Indies and West Africa thousands of the black men who found themselves in Britain in 1919 stood accused of competing unfairly for maritime work and driving down wages. These tensions had long existed but they were amplified by the war, as the number of black seamen in Britain and on British ships increased enormously.

Another resentment that fuelled the racism behind the violence of 1919 was opposition to inter-racial relationships and marriages. The Times reported that ‘In the post war situation many [blacks] married Liverpool women and while it is admitted that some of them made good husbands the intermarriage of black men and white women, not to mention other relationships, has excited much feeling.’56 In a far less sober editorial the Liverpool Courier maintained that ‘one of the chief reasons of popular anger behind the present disturbances lies in the fact that the average negro is closer to the animal than is the average white man, and that there are women in Liverpool who had no self-respect.’58 In another near-hysterical and racially charged article the newspaper suggested that the heightened opposition to racial mixing was, somehow, the work of enemy agents, ‘dangerous foreigners . . . plotting the break up of the British empire . . . They believe that if only they can stir up British men by showing up in the most disgusting fashion all intercourse between black men and white women, then they will be on a fair road to accomplishing their objects.’58The same month, the Morning Post published an article entitled ‘The Negro Riots. A Lesson for England’, that demonstrated the extent to which scientific racism, with its emphasis on notions of racial purity, pollution and degeneration, had diverted Britain from the idealism that had been expressed (though not always believed) by the abolitionists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Paraphrasing Josiah Wedgwood I’s great abolitionist slogan ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother’, the Post warned that Britain ‘cannot give full privileges as “a man and a brother” to other racial types without accepting them also as brothers-in-law; and that path leads to racial degeneration’.59

Sir Ralph Williams, the former Resident Commissioner in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, a man who had had considerable dealings with King Khama and who regarded himself as an expert on colonial matters, explained to The Times that inter-racial marriages were bound to lead to social tensions, as in the minds of most Britons such unions were repugnant. ‘Every one of us’, he wrote, ‘has, probably, many friends among the coloured people, whom we bear in our kindliest remembrance . . . [hostility to inter-racial relations] does not, either, I think, arise from any feeling of social superiority. The cause is far deeper. It is an instinctive certainty that sexual relations between white women and coloured men revolts our very nature.’60 Rather typically for a former colonial administrator, Williams offered no opinions upon morality or social desirability of relationships between white men and black women, for which he was criticized by F. E. M. Hercules, the General Secretary of the Society of Peoples of African Origin. By the early twentieth century, black people in Britain had their own organizations and spokespeople who were able to counter the racial attacks that were poured upon them, not that such voices were heard above the clamour of racial denouncement and victim-blaming that characterized much of 1919.

It was in the midst of the Liverpool riots and while the press was in this agitated mood that F. E. M. Hercules received the news that no black soldiers were to be permitted to march in the London Victory Parade of July. He caught the resulting tone of anger and betrayal in an article for the Africa Telegraph. He wrote:

Every ounce of strength was put into the struggle by the black man . . . He fought with the white man to save the white man’s home and the war was won. Black men all the world over are asking to-day: ‘What have we got? What are we going to get out of it all?’ The answer, in effect, comes clear, convincing and conclusive: ‘Get back to your kennel you damned dog of a nigger!’61

Underlying the hostility towards inter-racial relations in 1919 was a deeper sense of racial superiority in Britain that had arisen out of the Scramble for Africa and the growth and propagation of Victorian racial science. Decades of colonial propaganda had conditioned many people in Britain to view men and women of African descent as lesser peoples who had been defeated and subdued by British power. The war had increased the size of the black population at the very moment in which forms of racism that affirmed and celebrated white, Anglo-Saxon racial supremacy were on the rise. Regurgitating the mantra of white racial supremacy that had emerged from the era of the Scramble for Africa, the Liverpool Courier reminded its readers that ‘The white man . . . regards [the black] as part child, part animal and part savage’.62

There was also a view among the mobs that patrolled the streets of Liverpool that blackness and Britishness were mutually exclusive. To them, black people were both aliens and racial inferiors; they should therefore be at the very back of the queues for jobs and homes and be regarded as legitimate targets for violent assault. Yet newspaper reports of the Liverpool and Cardiff disturbances repeatedly make mention of the fact that among the black victims of the attacks were veterans who had served in France or on Atlantic convoys. Of the seven hundred black people who were forced to take shelter from white mobs in the Liverpool bridewells in the summer of 1919, around eighty were soldiers or sailors recently discharged from their war service.63 Many of these black men were viewed by the mobs as foreigners with no legitimate claims to Britishness or British residency, but were nothing of the sort: they were men who had volunteered for service and put themselves at risk of injury or death only to find themselves assaulted on the streets and in their homes by other Britons who regarded their skin colour as incontrovertible evidence that they were not and could never be British. Those who were British-born were also notionally stripped of their nationality and identity by the racial thinking that informed and fuelled the indiscriminate racial violence of 1919.

On 23 June, three weeks after the murder of Charles Wootton, the Colonial Secretary, Lord Milner, issued a ‘Memorandum on the Repatriation of Coloured Men’. It read:

I am seriously concerned at the continued disturbances due to racial ill feeling against coloured men in our large sea ports. These riots are serious enough from the point of view of the maintenance of order in this country, but they are even more serious in regard to their possible effect in the colonies . . . I have every reason to fear that when these men get back to their own colonies they might be tempted to revenge themselves on the white minorities there, unless we can do something to show that His Majesty’s Government is not insensible to their complaints . . . I am convinced that if we wish to get rid of the coloured population whose presence here is causing so much trouble we must pay the expense of doing so ourselves. It will not be great.64

The Lord Mayor of Liverpool, together with the Chief Constable and officials from the Ministry of Labour, began to draw up plans for the evacuation of the entire black population of the city to abandoned army camps outside the city. There they would be interned while a scheme for their repatriation to their homelands in Africa and the West Indies could be worked out and put into action. The fact that many of the black people driven from their homes were black Britons with no other homeland to which they might be repatriated was just one of the flaws in the scheme. Another was that a proportion of those who might feasibly be returned to their countries of origin were married with British wives, and in many cases mixed-race children. Repatriation under those circumstances would have entailed the break-up of British families and in the impoverishment of women and children. Ultimately this plan to intern and repatriate black Liverpudlians was recognized as impractical and incendiary and nothing came of it.

Surveying the global picture, the Colonial Office noted that across the world racial tensions, heightened by the dislocations of the war years and by the spread of new forms of racism, had sparked terrible outbreaks of violence in 1919. While white gangs patrolled the streets of Liverpool, black men were murdered and lynched in the United States. In what James Weldon Johnson, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), called the Red Summer, attacks on black people took place in twenty-five American cities. Twenty-three black Americans were killed in Chicago, hunted down and murdered by white gangs. Perhaps as many as two hundred black people died in the Elaine, Arkansas massacre in September and October 1919. A further six black people were killed in Washington DC while the death toll among the black community of Knoxville, Tennessee still remains unknown, with estimates ranging from twenty-five to a hundred people. As in Britain during that terrible summer, tensions over employment were a major underlying cause as poorer white Northerners resented the influx of black people from the South who had moved north to find jobs in the factories producing war materials.

In Britain, a large number of black men did voluntarily return to their homes in the West Indies and West Africa, taking with them eyewitness accounts of the riots and racial attacks of 1919. They were joined by others who had grievances arising from their mistreatment while serving in the BWIR or the navy during the war. The Colonial Office was conscious of the levels of disillusionment among black servicemen and aware that there would be outrage when news of the riots and the murder of Charles Wootton reached the colonies.

On 18 July, exactly at the moment that thousands of white soldiers in London were gathering for the London Victory Parade, making their last-minute preparations in the vast tented village that had been set up to accommodate them in Kensington Gardens, there was a riot in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The immediate targets were Syrian and Lebanese immigrants who had built their businesses there.65 Black residents of Freetown were enraged at the imposition of a colour bar in the colony which prevented them gaining access to civil service positions and posts in British companies. Soldiers and sailors who had served in the war found, like their comrades in Britain, that they had been discharged and effectively discarded at the coming of peace. They were also deeply affronted when the government refused to pay war gratuities that had been promised to returning soldiers. But the violence was also linked to the riots in Britain. Members of Freetown’s Krio community, the descendants of the Nova Scotian settlers and the liberated Africans who had passed through the gates of the King’s Yard, organized a petition in which one of the signatories complained that ‘there was considerable indignation in some parts of the city at the report of racial disturbances in Liverpool, Cardiff and a few other places in England and Wales which gave rise to considerable apprehension that the “sea-boys” repatriated from those places with a deep sense of injury would instigate reprisals in Sierra Leone against the white residents’.66

Just four days later, riots broke out in British Honduras, now Belize. There, the sudden and unexpected increases in the price of food brought people out onto the streets. Former soldiers, the most notable of whom was Samuel Haynes, who had served in the BWIR, led the riots. A poet and founder of the local branch of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, Haynes later wrote ‘Land of the Free’, the national anthem of independent Belize. One of the slogans used by the rioters in Belize was ‘This is our country and we want to get the white man out. The white man has no right here’.67 There were further riots and disturbances during 1919 in Trinidad and Guyana.68 Beyond the British Empire and United States, disturbances occurred in the Belgian Congo, Panama and Costa Rica.

Among those who commented upon the events of 1919 was Mr John Hobbis Harris, a Baptist missionary who had lived in the Congo Free State. Harris was the secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, an organization that could trace its roots back to the British and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, the body that had called the World Anti-Slavery Convention of 1840. In June 1919, before the murder of Charles Wootton and before it had been announced that black soldiers would be excluded from the London Victory Parade, Harris was interviewed about the riots, and the predicament in which black Britons and former servicemen from the West Indies and Africa had been placed:

The mass of the British public are intensely appreciative of all the coloured races have done in the war – and that is the story yet to be told in full – that they will insist on justice, which is all that the black man wants. It is well to recognise, however that the question of the colour bar is going to be the great post-war problem in all the overseas territories. The thing the British public does not realise adequately is that we are a coloured empire . . .We are an Empire of 435,000,000, and 350,000,000 are coloured. What we have got to make our mind up on is whether we’re going to solidify our empire or disrupt it. Ours being a coloured Empire, legislation resting solely on colour is unthinkable except at the risk of dissolution of the Empire . . . You cannot prevent the black man from coming here, because this is the centre of his Empire. You could no more tell him that he must not come to London, Liverpool or Cardiff than he has the right to tell you that you must not go to Lagos or Durban or Johannesburg. After many years’ study of this difficult question, I have definitively come to the conclusion that colour in itself must be no bar in any sphere of human activity . . . The colour bar is the last rampart of slavery.69

After 1919, and for much of the rest of the twentieth century, Britain struggled with exactly these questions. How was it possible to be a ‘coloured Empire’, ruling over tens of millions of black people on West Indian islands and across great swathes of Africa, while at the same time seeking to prevent people from those regions from visiting the nation that they were told was their ‘mother country’ and the centre of their empire? How could Britain call upon black men and women from the West Indies and Africa to fight and labour in war and then exclude them from the fruits of victory – such as they were? Irrespective of these questions, in the inter-war years legislation based on colour was passed into law and pre-existing ordinances were subverted and targeted against black seamen and their families.

During the riots of 1919, the police undertook interviews with the black people who had been sheltered in the Liverpool bridewells. They and other members of the black community were registered, their details recorded, to produce a relatively detailed picture of the black population of the city, with the origins, trades and family backgrounds of hundreds of people. This was used after the riots to develop a system of observation and monitoring in Liverpool. Black seamen were issued with registration cards that contained photographs and fingerprints that had to be produced to sign on for ships, a system copied and adopted by other ports. The Aliens Order of 1920 and Special Restrictions (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order of 1925 further required all black seamen domiciled in Britain, including British subjects, to register with the police and then prove their nationality. An initiative of the Home Office Aliens Department, this legislation has been described as ‘the first instance of state-sanctioned race discrimination inside Britain to come to widespread notice’.70 The 1925 order gave the police powers to stop black seamen as they landed in British ports and demand to see their documentation. However, sailors did not always carry passports and were not required to and so many black seamen had no means of proving their nationality. Those unable to demonstrate their status as British subjects, and those whose documentation was regarded by the police as unsatisfactory, were required to register as aliens, which made their potential deportation a far simpler process. Black British subjects, along with Indians and Arabs from the empire, were in this way exposed to the threat of deportation under a legislation that had been intended to control and limit the numbers of aliens.71 In Cardiff in the 1920s, men with passports, discharge papers from war service in the army or navy and even birth certificates, all demonstrating their status as British subjects, were forced by the police to register as aliens. One seaman who had his passport confiscated and issued with an Aliens Card was threatened with arrest when he refused to accept it.72 These restrictions and the spread of a colour bar in inter-war Britain meant that in one narrow sense the mobs of 1919 had succeeded in their efforts to strip black people of their status as full British citizens.

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