Following the Armistice in November 1918 the battalions of the BWIR were concentrated at Taranto, Italy, to prepare for demobilisation. However, as a result of severe labour shortages at Taranto they were still required to work; loading and unloading ships, performing labour fatigues, and building and cleaning latrines for White soldiers; all of this caused resentment, which increased when they discovered that they had been classified as “natives” and were not entitled to the 50% pay rise the White soldiers were receiving.
Tensions brought about by this treatment eventually came to a head in December 1918; frustrated by their continued use as labourers whilst waiting for demobilisation, men of the 9th Battalion attacked their officers in a mutiny that lasted four days before being crushed.
On 6 December 1918, the men of the 9th Battalion refused to obey orders, and 180 sergeants signed and forwarded a petition to the Secretary of State complaining about the poor pay issue, the failure to increase their separation allowance, and the discrimination against them relating to promotions – as soldiers of African and Caribbean descent they would never rank beyond sergeant, they would always have White officers. The West Indian Contingent Committee signalled the hypocrisy and impossibility of the situation and warned of the serious effect differentiation would have on public opinion in the colonies when the British West Indies Regiment was demobilised.
Three days later on 9 December, the 10th Battalion also refused to work. Over a period of four days a Black Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) shot and killed one of the mutineers in self-defence, there was also a bombing, and senior commander, Lieutenant Colonel Willis, who had ordered some BWIR men to clean the latrines of the Italian Labour Corps, was also subsequently assaulted. In response to calls for help from the commanders at Taranto, a machine-gun company and a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment were despatched to restore order. The 9th Battalion was disbanded, and redistributed to other battalions, which were then disarmed. Approximately 60 soldiers were tried for mutiny, some received sentences from 3 to 5 years, with one man getting 20 years, and another was executed by firing squad. The authorities then made the decision to disarm all the soldiers and disband the BWIR as soon as possible
Bitterness persisted after the mutiny was suppressed, and on 17 December 1918 NCOs of the BWIR met to discuss the question of black rights, self-determination, and closer union in the West Indies. An organisation called the Caribbean League was formed at the gathering to further these objectives.
At another meeting on 20 December, under the chairmanship of one Sergeant Baxter, who had just been superseded by a White NCO, a sergeant of the 3rd BWIR argued that the black man “should have freedom and govern himself in the West Indies and that if necessary, force and bloodshed should be used to attain these aims”. His sentiments were loudly applauded by the majority of those present. The discussion eventually drifted from matters concerning the West Indies to one of grievances of the Black man against the White. The soldiers decided to hold a general strike for higher wages on their return to the West Indies. The headquarters for the Caribbean League was to be in Kingston, Jamaica, with sub-offices in the other colonies. The league was then betrayed to Officers and it was disbanded early in 1919. The pay increase originally fought for was eventually granted following further protests from governments in Caribbean countries.
As the racial hostilities subdued in the military, a profound change occurred in White attitudes to the presence of people of African descent in the United Kingdom – troops were kept away from the victory parades that marked the end of the war. As white seamen and soldiers were demobilised and the competition for jobs intensified, so too did the level of race and class grow in antagonism, especially in London and the port cities. The more serious aspect of this was the numerous riots which erupted and the large-scale onslaught of assaults on Black people. In an attempt to appease the British public, the government decided to repatriate as many of the volunteers from the Caribbean as they could and by the middle of September 1919, about 600 had been repatriated.
Even more alarming to the authorities, especially those in the West Indies, was the fact that between 1916 and 1919 a number of colonies including St Lucia, Grenada, Barbados, Antigua, Trinidad, Jamaica and British Guiana experienced a series of strikes in which people were shot and killed.
The BWIR soldiers began arriving back home and they joined the wave of these worker protests resulting from a severe economic crisis produced by the war, alongside Black nationalist ideology by the Right Honourable Marcus Garvey and others. Together, the disenchanted ex-soldiers and resentful workers in the Caribbean unleashed a series of protest actions and riots in a number of countries including Jamaica, Grenada, and especially in British Honduras (Belize). Gunner Norman Manley, who had seen his brother blown apart in front of him during the war, eventually took Jamaica to independence, becoming its first prime minister in 1962.
George Blackman from Barbados, who was in Taranto for a short time, remembers it being hard “From Marseille, it was seven days to reach Taranto. It is a seaport – all the boats were coming from London with ammunition. We have to unload the boat, the train come, and we got to load the train to take the ammunition up the line.”
“When the war finish, there was nothing,” said George. “I had to come and look for work. The only thing that we had is the clothes and the uniform that we got on. The pants, the jacket and the shirt, and the boots. You can’t come home naked”.
He continued “When we got home, if you got a mother or father you have something, but if you’re alone, you got to look for work. When I come I had nobody. I had to look for work. I had to eat and buy clothes. Who going to give me clothes? I didn’t have a father or nobody. Now I said, ‘The English are no good.’ I went to Jamaica and I meet up some soldiers and I asked them, ‘Here boy, what the government give you?’ They said, ‘The government give us nothing.’ I said, ‘we just the same.'” Neither the Barbadian nor the British governments gave George Blackman a pension. He died at the age of 105 years.