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Fighting for Empire: From Slavery to Military Service in the West India Regiments

1 November 2017

Fighting for Empire: From Slavery to Military Service in the West India Regiments
Museum of London Docklands
10 November 2017 – 9 September 2018

A new display at the Museum of London Docklands shines fresh light on soldiers of African and Caribbean descent who fought for the British Empire as part of the West India Regiments in the 19th century.

Curated by Professor David Lambert in partnership with the University of Warwick and the Arts & Humanities Research Council, Fighting for Empire focuses on the story of Private Samuel Hodge. Hodge fought with the regiments and became the first soldier of African-Caribbean descent to receive the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour.

The West India Regiments, an official part of the British Army, initially used only enslaved African and Caribbean men. For each soldier, military service offered an alternative to the lifelong misery of servitude on a sugar plantation.

The act of recruiting and consequently arming 12 regiments of enslaved men for the West India Regiments during the height of the transatlantic slave trade highlights the importance of the Caribbean colonies’ contribution to the British Empire during this period.

Central to the new display, in the museum’s London, Sugar & Slavery gallery, is a striking painting by Louis William Desanges – The Capture of the Tubabakolong, Gambia 1866 . It gives greater prevalence to the British commanding officer Colonel George D’Arcy than to Victoria Cross recipient Samuel Hodge. This highlights the uncertain status that West India Regiments’ soldiers held within imperial society.

The work was never displayed with other military paintings by Desanges as part of the Victoria Cross Gallery at the Crystal Palace in the 1870s.

Fighting for Empire also contains prints, ephemera and maps to highlight the role of soldiers of African and Caribbean descent in Britain’s colonial past.

Although the West India Regiments were disbanded in 1962, their heritage lives on. The military band of the Jamaican Defence Force still use their distinctive uniforms, and the British Army still recruits soldiers from Caribbean nations.

Professor David Lambert, Professor of History at the University of Warwick, said: “The key message from this display is that people of African and Caribbean descent played a significant part in our military history long before the First World War. This was not well acknowledged at the time, or well known since, which is why it is important to highlight this history in this display.”

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Notes for editors

For more press information please contact Aaron Stennett, Marketing and PR Officer at the Museum of London Docklands on 020770019809 / 07966367706 or [email protected].

About the Museum of London Docklands
The Museum of London Docklands is located at West India Quay in east London. Opened in 2003, this grade one listed converted Georgian sugar warehouse specifically tells the story of the port, river and city – focusing on trade, migration and commerce in London.

The museum is open daily 10am – 6pm and is FREE to all, and you can explore the Museum of London Docklands with collections online – home to 90,000 objects with more added regularly.