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Exhibition: 'Fighting for empire: From slavery to military service in the West India Regiments'

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'The Capture of Tubabakalong, Gambia, 1866', oil painting by Chevalier Louis William Desanges (1866), Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance.

This painting depicts Private Samuel Hodge of the 4th West India Regiment (foreground; right-hand-side), the first African-Caribbean man to be awarded the Victoria Cross.

A display about the West India Regiments will run at the Museum of London Docklands from 10 November 2017 to 9 September 2018. It is centred on Samuel Hodge, the first African-Caribbean man to win the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest military award.

The display is curated by David Lambert, Professor of History at the Department of History. It has been created in partnership with the University of Warwick and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and draws on research undertaken as part of the 'Africa's Sons Under Arms' research project.

This display explores the changing image of the West India Regiments from their creation at the end of the 18th century up to the First World War. It speaks directly to many of the themes in the permanent displays at the Museum of London Docklands, notably enslaved resistance, black agency, and visual representation. The theme is explored primarily through prints, ephemera and maps, as well as a large framed oil painting by Louis William Desanges entitled ‘The Capture of the Tubabakolong, Gambia (1866)’, which depicts Private Samuel Hodge.

Founded in 1795, the West India Regiments were military units based in the Caribbean and, later, west Africa, created by the British army during the war with Republican France. British army commanders established twelve West India Regiments in total with the view that black soldiers were necessary for the security of the British islands as white soldiers suffered terribly from disease. More than 13,000 enslaved African men and boys were bought at a cost of about £70m in today’s money.

After the slave trade was made illegal in 1807, the British army looked for a new source of soldiers. Men liberated from slave ships by the Royal Navy were given the option of enlisting in the army and this became the main source of new recruits. After slavery was ended in the British Empire by 1838, free men enlisted, including Samuel Hodge, who was a West Indian Regiment volunteer soldier born on the island of Tortola in what is now the British Virgin Islands.

The Regiments served in the Caribbean and West Africa, helping to maintain and expand Britain's colonial empire. They were involved in putting down revolts against British rule by enslaved people (e.g. Barbados in 1816) and their descendants (e.g. Jamaica in 1865). On three occasions, soldiers also rebelled themselves (1802 in Dominica, 1808 in Jamaica and 1837 in Trinidad).

Useful links:

Professor David Lambert

Museum of London Docklands

Samuel Hodge, V.C.

'Africa's Sons Under Arms' research project