Race, War and Nationalism. A Social History of West Indians in the First World War

Article excerpt

Glenford, Howe, Race, War and Nationalism. A Social History of West Indians in the First World War. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2002 (vi+270 pages).

The work Race, War and Nationalism comprehensively explores the multi-dimensional experiences of Caribbean blacks from their recruitment in the British West Indies to their participation in World War One. This includes negative interactions with whites in the military which undoubtedly radically transformed the blacks' perception of Britain.

One of the noteworthy aspects of the study is its avoidance of parochialism. There is the continuous emphasis on the interconnectedness among the local, regional and international levels. The fluidity is evident as Howe shows the relation among a Jamaican parish, the views of the Colonial Office and the experiences of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR) in Egypt. Furthermore, illustrations have not been limited to the larger colonies such as Jamaica and Trinidad but included frequent references to St. Kitts, Grenada and Barbados.

By November 1918, an estimated 15,200 West Indians had enlisted as members of the British West Indies regiment. Most of the recruits were drawn from the region's working class. Chapter 5 "Military Selection and Civilian Health," with its recruitment statistics, offers a synopsis of the dismal health conditions facing the majority of inhabitants in the British West Indies. By 1917 in British Guiana, 1,453 applicants were rejected from a total of 2,046 men. They were deemed physically unfit in the military's screening exercise. Likewise, in Jamaica, 13,940 men were screened and the most common cause of rejection was a result of being undeveloped and underweight (3,765). Other causes of applicants being rejected were malnutrition, poverty, poor diets and deplorable medical services.

To a large extent, the soldiers as a result of their travel abroad, had become more enlightened aware of their surroundings. The exposure to different cultures, customs and people in Palestine, France, Italy and Belgium made the black soldiers more acutely aware of their identity and sensitive to racial attacks.

Howe noted that the West Indian soldiers in Egypt and Mesopotamia endured racial slurs from British troops. The response of blacks, especially from the middle-class was to contact the newspapers from their homeland: "Their intention was to mobilize West Indian public opinion in the hope of getting proper representation and possible relief from the daily harassment" (pp. 122-123). But the issue of racism is more complex because the blackness of these soldiers was treated as a novelty, rather than mocked, in some parts of Europe.

It seems that Howe and other scholars have placed undue emphasis on the impact of the discrimination, inequalities and segregation experienced by the West Indian blacks on the battlefront. Indeed, these blacks would have been exposed to deep-rooted racism from the coloreds and whites in the British West Indies. …