As we mark Memorial Day 2022 - we shine a light on who is missing from mainstream conversations around World Wars 1 and 2. In his debut book: Black History Walks, Vol. 1, inspired by his groundbreaking tours, Tony Warner brings to the forefront the contributions of Black persons to the war efforts. This chapter looks at how Black people were included in the war and how they continue to be excluded from the conversations of memorialisation.
‘We didn’t win the war for you people to come here and take our jobs and our homes.’
Comments made to Sir Herman Ouseley (first Black chair of the Commission for Racial Equality 1993- 2000) when he was a child in the 1950s. Interview with Vox Africa on 22 June 2017, Windrush Day, at the opening of the Nubian Jak African Caribbean war memorial in Windrush Square.
‘We only won the First World War and we only won the Second World War because we were joined in those wars by millions of Black and Asian people from around the world.’
Quote from Jack Straw on BBC’s Question Time, 22 October 2019, when he appeared alongside Nick Griffin, leader of the BNP. (The British National Party was a racist political party tracing its roots back to the National Front).
Every year during the November remembrance period, the mainstream media portrays World Wars 1 and 2 as all-white affairs. Black Spitfire pilots and African soldiers are missing in action when it comes to interviews, documentaries, parades and war movies.
This pale version of history then gives those who watch it the conscious and subconscious view that Black people had nothing to do with any of the wars. Thereby giving the lie that was thrown in the face of Lord Ouseley in the 1950s, that was still being told to little Black boys in 2015 and may be repeated even now.
Ryan Ewhare was told exactly the same nonsense by a fellow pupil while at school in 2015; however, as his mother, Justina Gore, had brought him along to many Black History Walks events he was able to carefully correct the mis-informed youth.
A good exploration of the Imperial War Museum will take you at least three hours but don’t expect to see a great deal of Black history. It’s a superb space but sadly lacking in its coverage of African/Caribbean involvement and contribution.
They do have it and are aware of it, it’s just not on display. The Museum only covers the wars fought from the 20th century, but there have been African/Caribbean people serving in British forces long before 1900. You will probably find more Black military history in this chapter than in the entire museum.
So, to introduce you to the earlier Black contributions, here are a few quotes and facts:
‘I am of the opinion that a Corps of one thousand men composed of Blacks and mullatoes and commanded by British Officers would render more essential service in the Country, than treble this number of Europeans who are unaccustomed to the climate... and as the enemy have adopted this measure to recruit their armies, I think we should pursue a similar plan to meet them on equal terms.’
Lieutenant General Sir John Vaughn, letter to the Home Secretary 22 December 1794 (from The Empty Sleeve, Brian Dyde pg. 15.)
The above quote by a high-ranking officer to the 18th century British government is very revealing. Firstly, he literally states that one Black soldier is worth three white soldiers. This is a shocking statement from a white man bearing in mind this is during the heyday of slavery, whose entire ethos is that Black people are inferior to white people.
Secondly, it shows that British enemies have apparently come to the same conclusion and are using African soldiers to fight their wars; to the extent that Britain needs to catch up by doing the same. Britain’s enemies at this time included France and this is the period of the Napoleonic wars. Britain and France are fighting to control Caribbean resources.
One then wonders how and from where are Britain and France getting these African recruits? In his book The Empty Sleeve from 1998, Brian Dyde offers an answer:
‘The British Army became the biggest single purchaser of enslaved Africans anywhere in the West Indies, and quite possibly anywhere throughout the Americas. At least 13,000 were bought during this period from selected merchants who dealt direct with the owners and masters of slave ships.They were obtained with a great deal of discretion at a cost of over £900,000 using funds which Parliament voted annually to meet unforeseen wartime expenses.’
The Empty Sleeve, Brian Dyde (1998. pg. 23)
The fact is that the British Army used enslaved soldiers to fight its battles in the Caribbean in the 18th century. The British government was aware and complicit. You can search intently in most history books and not read about this. Why the absence? Again, Brian Dyde writes:
‘The policy also involved a fair degree of hypocrisy on the part of the government, several members of which, including William Pitt, the prime minister for most of the period, were keen to be identified publicly with the abolition movement. At the same time and to look at the matter dispassionately, the policy said something for the value now being placed on the Black soldier: the Army being prepared to pay £70 or so for a completely uneducated Black recruit who before anything else had to be taught English, when an equally uneducated white recruit from any part of the British Isles could be obtained for a fee less than a fifth of this amount.’ (Ibid)
Government hypocrisy sadly continues to highlight abolition and de-emphasise how Britain benefitted from slavery. Additionally those MPs, like Pitt, who were allegedly in favour of ending the kidnap and sale of African people, were quite happy to profit from and exploit those very same African people.
Government financial investments showed the lie of Black inferiority in that they preferred and were prepared to pay more to get Black people in the forces. However, the British slave trade was ‘abolished’ in 1807, so how did the British Army meet its military needs when it was no longer able to buy its supply of fit African bodies? Mr Dyde assists again.
‘To enable the Army to still find Black recruits after the Abolition act (1807) there came into force a clause in the Act that permitted the involuntary enlistment of any suitable slaves captured from an enemy or taken as prizes of war.’
The Empty Sleeve, Brian Dyde (1998. pg. 29)
Therefore, when the British ‘abolished’ the slave trade in 1807 and set the Royal Navy to intercept any British or foreign slave ships that tried to continue the trade, a loophole was deliberately included to allow the British to enslave the people they were supposedly rescuing from slavery... this was euphemistically referred to as ‘involuntary enlistment’.
Interested in reading on?
Tony Warner's Black History Walks Vol. 1 is available to buy online and in bookstores across the country.
Black History Walks is an essential read for anyone wishing to understand the history and culture of one of the oldest and most influential cities in the world.
You can also take part in one of Tony Warner's ground breaking tours. Check out his Eventbrite page and book yourself in for an experience that will transform your understanding of one of the world's oldest metropolises.