The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments During the Early Nineteenth Century.

The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments During the Early Nineteenth Century.
Presented by Mr John D Ellis as part of the requirement of the MA Degree in Nineteenth Century Culture and Society.
University of Nottingham, September 2000.

The thesis utilised contemporary visual and documentary evidence, (the latter including pension records and regimental description books containing physical descriptions facilitating the identification of black soldiers), in order to examine The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments During the Early Nineteenth Century. It focused on black soldiers serving in what have hitherto been considered “white” British cavalry and infantry regiments, (based on the widely held but incorrect assumption that the presence of black soldiers in their ranks was a twentieth century phenomenon), rather than “foreign raised” or colonial regiments such as the West India Regiment and the East India Company.
Prior to the nineteenth century blacks were frequently employed as servants to Army officers, indicating their owner s “rank and opulence”, and subsequently being depicted as such in the portraits of officers in much the same way as they were for civilians, although of course they also reinforced their owner s status in the Army, as well as wider society. Black military musicians were initially employed by high status Household and Cavalry regiments because of their “natural propensity for music”, and for the purpose of promoting regimental rather than individual, image and status. Consequently, the employment of black military musicians became intrinsically linked with high status units, even though after 1757, and the establishment of enlisted musicians Army wide, many other regiments came to employ them.

Black soldiers were represented by numerous artists in a variety of genres, invariably linking them with Household regiments, London and the monarchy. Morier s Trumpeter, 1st Horse Guards, c.1751, was of a black Life Guards musician in a series commissioned for King George II. The Relief of the Guard at St. James s Palace, c.1790, was a print depicting an every day scene in London, (which included three black musicians), whilst Isaac Cruickshank s Triumphal Entry of 100,000 Crowns, c.1791, was a satirical sketch depicting the Duke of York entering London preceded by black military musicians. However, in many of these pictures, the representation of black soldiers was influenced by contemporary attitudes to blacks, with them frequently being portrayed as having a casual approach to violence, being lazy and ill disciplined, or simply loyal but passive figures.

By the early nineteenth century the practice of employing black soldiers was widespread in the Army. All the Household and most Cavalry regiments had them, and in the line infantry 41 of 103 regiments on the establishment, are known to have employed West Indian born black soldiers at some point in the early nineteenth century, (this figure excludes those black soldiers born elsewhere). Black soldiers were found to originate from all the established regions of the Diaspora; such as Africa, North America and the East and West Indies, (the latter being most numerous), and including lesser known areas such as Nova Scotia, England and Ireland, (George Carville, the last black drummer of the 29th Foot was born in Limerick).

Whilst the Army is known to have procured slaves for the West India Regiment, no evidence exists to link the practice with any of the black soldiers or regiments who were the focus of this thesis. Inevitably some must have been, however, the issue of slavery may well have been deliberately kept “invisible”, (in light of the jealously guarded traditionally volunteer nature of the Army), thus ensuring that any references to, or indicators of, an individuals enslaved status were deliberately omitted from their records. In contrast with the lack of information regarding slavery, both Ukawsaw Gronniosaw s account of his motivation for enlistment in the 28th Foot, and the depiction of black soldiers in abolitionist imagery, suggests that the Army often acted as a place of refuge for escaped slaves or blacks whose freedom was threatened. It was also the chosen occupation of many black men who were already free, and it is possible to identify a group of black “journeyman soldiers”, who continually re-enlisted for service after discharge, (although socio-economic factors influenced this).

Even though the practice of employing black soldiers was long standing and wide spread, proportionately few were promoted. In the nineteenth century Army literacy was the key to promotion, and whilst blacks were often as literate as whites, they were not promoted in the same proportions. Partly this was a result of the lack of opportunities for advancement their musical role offered, but it was also no doubt due to the distaste many whites felt towards black soldiers holding positions of authority. The few that did achieve non-commissioned rank were invariably those with extensive campaign experience, who perhaps, in the face of popular prejudices concerning their “mental and moral inferiority and ill disciplined nature”, had through their participation in combat proved themselves “the exception to the rule”, (George Rose of Jamaica was the highest ranking enlisted black soldier found, a Sergeant in the Highland 42nd Foot who had previously served in the Netherlands and Waterloo campaigns).

The nineteenth century saw the emergence of a “cult of heroic sacrifice”, which prized and venerated war wounds and campaign service, (although paradoxically Britain itself has a shameful record of ill treating former enlisted soldiers). Within this context, the hitherto exclusively ceremonial role of black military musicians, as expressed by historians and visually represented by contemporary images was compared with the actual military service records of black soldiers. It was found that whilst the permanent commitment of Household units to London ensured that black soldiers in those units remained on ceremonial duties, their counterparts in other regiments played a full and active part in all the major campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, (including the Peninsular, North American and Waterloo campaigns), and received the same decorations as their white peers. In addition to George Rose, a number of other black soldiers received the Waterloo Medal, including; William Wilson of Barbados and William Affleck of St. Kitts, after service with the 13th and 10th Hussars respectively. Whilst in 1848, the latter, was only one of a number of former black soldiers to receive the retrospectively awarded Military General Service Medal, (in Affleck s case with clasps for the Peninsular battles of Sahagun & Benevente, Vittoria, Orthes and Toulouse). However, despite the visual evidence to the contrary, not all black soldiers served as military musicians; Joseph Fergus of St. Kitts “carried arms as a Private” in the 2nd Foot Guards from 1814 to 1833, whilst Estiphania Pappin of St. Domingo served as a Private in the 39th Foot in the Peninsular, later being promoted to Corporal.

In the period following the Napoleonic Wars patriotism inspired a public demand for military spectacle, within which military imagery was an important and popular part, and black soldiers were represented in a variety of genres painted by a variety of artists. When regiments either commissioned or produced art, black soldiers were invariably involved as either prominent characters in portraits of senior regimental officers, the subject of military costume studies, or in detail in genre pictures.

There was also a connection between the visual representation of black soldiers and the subject of slavery. French artists used military costume studies of black soldiers to commercially exploit the demand for military imagery in Bourbon France, and to make a political statement about the equality of blacks and the hypocrisy of the Republic by way of slavery and “liberty. “In Britain, Sir David Wilkie s Chelsea Pensioners., c.1822, (one of the most prominent paintings of the nineteenth century), used the representation of a black soldier both to pay tribute to Wellington s role in abolition in France, and to lend a basis of moral superiority to Britain s victory in the Napoleonic Wars; showing that British “Union” was founded not only on war, but on a sense of national integrity, based on moral superiority and strength of character regarding slavery. However, a comparison of the identity provided by Wilkie for his black soldier in the exhibition catalogue, with the service records of real black soldiers, suggests that the identity provided, (a non-combatant refugee from a French West Indies colony, serving as a military musician in the 1st Foot Guards), had more to do with expressing populist views on the French Republic s treatment of blacks, maintaining artistic conventions by way of the non-combatant status of blacks, and the desire to perpetuate the image of a benevolent Britain graciously emancipating the victims of other country s brutal enslavement. In reality the West Indies born black soldier, (if he was a slave at all), would have been as likely to be fleeing British as French slavery, and have seen combat anywhere from the East Indies to North America to Waterloo.

Despite their extensive presence and high profile, black soldiers were subject to the exclusion and marginalisation from contemporary visual representations and narratives. Whilst to some extent this was due to their lowly enlisted status, it was “race” that led to marginalisation in military costume study, (in which the presence of both armed and non-commissioned black soldiers was deliberately ignored in favour of that of the military musician), and their complete exclusion from battle art. With regard to battle art, the visual encoding of “racial hierarchies”, meant it would have been impossible for artists to represent blacks serving alongside their white peers in scenes of significant national victories, because of the equality inherent in such images, (both physically and with regards to contribution).

The Napoleonic Wars produced a plethora of enlisted and commissioned writers and diarists, but only two mentioned the presence of black soldiers, and then only in passing. The list of writers who served in combat alongside black soldiers, but omitted to mention their presence serves as a “who s who” of Napoleonic military writers. General Sir George Napier s account of his time in the Peninsula with the 43rd Foot omits to mention the presence of the mulatto Bugler Charles Arundell of St. Kitts, even though the latter served at Copenhagen in 1807, Corunna in 1809, and in every action in which the 43rd was engaged from the Battle of Coa in 1810 to the end of the Peninsular War in the South of France in 1814, and New Orleans and the Capture of Paris in 1815″, and who must therefore, based on campaign experience alone, have been a prominent regimental character. Likewise the memoirs of Thomas Morris of the 73rd Foot fail to mention George Rose, even though the latter served alongside him for five years, including the Netherlands and Waterloo campaigns. This lack of references to black soldiers in the narratives of their white contemporaries, is no doubt due to the fact that many memoirs were published after the 1840s, with the subsequent decline in the status of blacks ensuring that when their white former comrades came to record their memoirs, blacks were written out, in order that the notion of a “low status group”, should not by their inclusion, serve to denigrate from the achievements of the authors.

The practice of employing black soldiers came to an end through a combination of the growing belief in racial difference, including “scientific racism”, the racist diatribe of the plantocratic scribes and their supporters, and the declining social status of blacks in Britain. However, whilst the recruitment of blacks terminated in the 1820s, there appears not to have been any single concerted decision to discharge blacks, rather that existing numbers were allowed to gradually decline before dying out altogether in the 1840s. Subsequently, a form of unofficial segregation did descend on the Army, and the exclusion that followed was so successful in driving the presence of black soldiers underground that until now, their role in defining moments in both regimental and national history, has been forgotten by the regiments they served in, the Army and Britain.

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