The British Empire in 1914 covered almost 12 million square miles and included 421 million people. Of the 59 million who were not in India (including modern Pakistan and Bangladesh) and the UK, 1.7 million were in the British West Indies. This consisted of the colonies of: the Bahamas, Barbados, British Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica (including the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Cayman Islands), Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands and the Leeward Islands. The vast majority of these British subjects in the West Indies were of African descent, with only 35,000 white people among them.
A secret colonial memo from 1919, uncovered by researchers for a Channel 4 programme on the Taranto mutiny, showed that the British government realised that everything had changed, too: “Nothing we can do will alter the fact that the black man has begun to think and feel himself as good as the white.” In a sense, history was rewritten. That meant no celebrations, no official acknowledgment.
The signing of the Treaty of Versailles was meant to create not just a peaceful world but a fairer one as well. Yet this vision would not include self-determination for many of the subject peoples of Britain’s non-white colonies. In supporting the war effort many West Indians had hoped for change, but it would take several decades, and another world war, for the islands to gain independence from Britain.
Even though there was a high degree of standardisation and regularisation in the disciplinary code structure of the army, inequalities in attitudes towards and treatment of the different races, classes and ethnic groups did exist. Major problems of discrimination were to be found in the practical application of army regulations in an environment in which stereotypes of race and class were prevalent. Even though the army structure and system of accountability did in many instances eventually vindicate the rights of all soldiers, adjustment into army life was usually more difficult and precarious for the Black soldier than for his White counterpart because of racism. One veteran, Sir Etienne Dupuch, wrote of the ‘consciousness of discrimination’ against ‘native troops’ which Blacks felt in the army.
In 1918 about 50 members of the BWIR were being treated at Belmont Road Military Auxiliary Hospital, in Liverpool. All had been seriously injured and had suffered wounds which had resulted in foot or leg amputations. Relations between black and white soldiers were good at first until some South African causalities were brought in. They soon began to taunt and insult the BWIR soldiers. As relations deteriorated, fighting broke out between the two groups.
One response adopted by Black soldiers was to write to local newspapers urging for ‘something hot’ to be written against race prejudice. Their intention was to mobilise West Indian public opinion in the hope of getting proper representation and possibly relief from the daily harassment. In fact, soldiers sometimes accused the papers and the local public of getting them into these difficulties by having urged them to enlist.
Some soldiers sought a form of quiet accommodation within the system. Barbadian soldier Charles Rice, when questioned about racism, denied ever having experienced any racial insults; in his view ‘anything you looked for is the same thing you got’. Quiescence may have been the product of centuries of colonialism and the feelings of inferiority which it engendered, or else it simply made life easier.