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Slaves to Soldiers: The Image of the West India Regiments in Britain and the Empire, 1795-1914

Led by David Lambert, this component examines the textual and visual representation of the West India Regiment (WIR) in Britain and its empire to understand ideas about race, masculinity, the military and empire. It extends the focus of Component 1 by considering more public articulations of racial thought, while also providing a means of assessing the impact of medical or (pseudo-)scientific notions on popular discourse. Key representational themes to be explored include discipline and deportment; fighting style, courage and honour; depictions of masculinity; and the use of humour, caricature and racial stereotyping.

Key questions to be asked include:

  • How did the image of the WIR change over time and how was this related to wider shifts in ideas about slavery, racial difference and the ‘civilisation’ of non-white peoples?
  • How were WIR soldiers represented as similar to or different from other figures – both military and of African descent? For example, how did its soldiers serve as a test-case for, and idealised version of, racial relations in (post-slavery) colonial contexts?
  • Were there differences in how soldiers and officers were described and depicted?
  • In what ways were WIR soldiers represented as ambivalent figures that embodied contradictory ideas about race, masculinity, prowess and civilisation?

The image of the WIR was a controversial from the start due to worries among West Indian planters about the dangers of arming slaves, while slave revolts raised concerns about the behaviour of black soldiers. In response, officers and others associated with the regiment made efforts to celebrate its soldiers’ discipline and martial valour. This component examines such images and counter-images of the WIR. It also considers a key change in the 1850s, when the uniform for all ranks below commissioned officer was altered from that of the British redcoat to one that included a white turban wrapped round a red fez and dark blue voluminous breeches. Inspired by French African forces, this shift represents an exoticisation of the WIR and raises important questions about the discursive ‘Orientalisation’ of the British Caribbean that scholars have discussed in other contexts (Sheller, 2003).

This component will intervene in three distinct areas of research. It extends work on Caribbean and Atlantic visual cultures where the focus has been on slavery and the plantation landscape (e.g. Mohammed, 2009; Kriz, 2008; Barringer et al., 2007; Wood, 2000). It enriches work on the representation of the British military, especially in imperial contexts (Frederick and Beckett, 2007; Spiers, 2004; Harrington, 1993), by considering the potentially ambivalent figure of the non-white solider. Finally, it enhances work on the representation of Africa, which has been mainly concerned with the constitution of racial difference through ‘spectacle’ and the public circulation of anthropological knowledge (Coombes, 1994; Koivunen, 2009), by examining the parade ground and battlefield as significant sites for the representation of racial difference.

The historical context encompasses the pre-First World War history of the WIR, a period that saw its soldiers serve in wars on both sides of the Atlantic and participate in the suppression of unrest in the Caribbean during and after slavery. Key contexts for the changing image of the WIR are provided by slave revolts around the turn of the 19th century (especially the Haitian Revolution), the public debate about the slave trade and slavery, emancipation in the 1830s and the subsequent hardening of racial attitudes in Britain, imperial crises (1857, 1864, 1865) and colonial wars in Africa. An expanding Victorian print culture, which increasingly included visual images, as well as new museums and exhibitions, provided a field for the articulation and circulation of popular ideas about racial difference and military actions.

This component is centred on the interpretation of textual and visual depictions of WIR personnel, especially the rank-and-file and NCOs, while at rest, on parade and in action. Attention will be given to representations produced by both external observers, as well as those associated with the WIR (e.g. Ellis, 1885; Caulfield, 1899). Two key interpretative methods will be employed: i) tracing the changing representation of the WIR in different media over time and ii) comparing this imagery to the depiction of other figures of African descent (e.g. slaves, maroons, rebels, emancipated West Indians, Haitian soldiers, ‘Liberated Africans’ from slave ships in settled in Sierra Leone and the West Indies, and African antagonists such as the Ashanti) and non-African soldiers (e.g. British redcoats, Irish soldiers – often ‘Africanised’ in British imperial culture – white West Indian militiaman, and Indian sepoys). The second approach enables representations of the WIR to be situated in wider political, cultural and artistic contexts such as the slavery debate, the rise of scientific racism and the conventions of military art. In addition, efforts to manage or alter the Regiment’s image (such as the change in the style of uniform in the 1850s) will be considered. Sources will be found in the (illustrated) press and periodicals – newspapers, Illustrated London News and United Service Magazine – travel accounts, prints, drawings and exhibitions. In addition to the holdings at the BL, which includes African materials, key archives are at the National Army Museum, the National Archives, the John Hay Library at Brown (which holds the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection), the Jamaican Military Museum and Library, the Barbados Museum and Historical Society, and national archives in Trinidad and the Bahamas. Wider visual contexts are provided by sources at the John Carter Brown Library and Yale Center for British Art.

This component has an associated PhD Project, ‘Picturing the West India Regiment in an Age of Unrest, Civil War and Tourism, c.1850-1914’.