The West Indian Soldier exhibition at the National Army Museum in Chelsea tells (part of) the story of Caribbean soldiers and the British Empire.
It tries to stress the positive aspects of soldiers’ relationship to the army, but reveals how they faced racist attitudes and treatment from higher-ups. During the First World War Caribbean troops were sent to fight the Ottomans in Egypt, as the British government did not want them fighting white people. Until 1807 the government was reluctant to even concede that enslaved men recruited into the army were automatically freed.
The most interesting bit is on the 1802 mutiny by black soldiers in Dominica. They were tasked by the colonial government with clearing brushland, and feared they were being tested on their ability to cut sugarcane as a prelude to being returned to slavery.
Unfortunately, the exhibition ignores the much more recent mutiny of 1918, the Taranto Revolt. Stationed in Italy at the end of the war, black soldiers filling in for Italian labour shortages were given hard physical labour and also made to clean white soldiers’ latrines, whilst being denied the pay rise given to whites. On the same day as 180 sergeants submitted a petition about the pay rise, soldiers mutinied. Over four days this spread from the 9th to the 10th Battalion.
The mutiny was defeated, but on their return to the Caribbean many of the soldiers took part in the strikes and riots sweeping the islands.
Despite looking at the role of Britain in the Caribbean during the French revolution, the exhibition also completely ignores Haiti. This fits with its sympathetic view of the British colonial army and the empire.
However, there is much that hints at the dark reality. There are many references to the racist treatment of soldiers, and discontent from them and the populations they were sent to control.
West Indian Soldier is worth visiting (it runs till 31 October). Just don’t expect the full story!