West Indian Soldier – National Army Museum Exhibition

In August I had the opportunity to visit the National Army Museum in London and take a look around some of their current exhibitions. One of these was one titled “West Indian Soldier” which ran from 19 May through to 31 October. The museum described it as a special exhibition to explore the role of West Indian Soldiers in the British Army over the past 300 or so years. 

The exhibition was much smaller than I had expected, comprising of just one smallish room but nevertheless efforts had been made to combine items artefacts, art work and videos in an engaging way.

It covered the origins and creation of the various West India Regiments that have historically been a part of the British Army and looks at the West Indies contribution in conflicts ranging from the Napoleonic Wars through to the Great War and the Second World War as well as looking at the continuing service of personnel from the West Indies today with some video interviews with former and serving personnel rounding out the exhibition. The exhibition looked at the experiences of both black and white West Indians who served in both the West India regiments and the wider British army as a whole.

Inside the exhibition (National Army Museum)

The exhibition explains that the West Indian Regiments were formally a part of the British Army and not a colonial unit or militia. It does not side step slavery’s role in the West Indian regiments‘ history with various letters from the 1760s through to the 1800s illustrating how slaves were bought to fill the regiment’s ranks. Some 13,000 newly enslaved men were bought over 50 years up until 1807 and the British abolition of slavery.

The West Indian Regiments took various forms over the years and the exhibition did a good job of explaining this and some of the key parts of their role and history. The exhibition has a number of highlights including a number of Victoria crosses including that of Lt. Frank de Pass. De Pass was of West Indian decent and was posthumously awarded the VC in late 1914. The colours of the 4th West India Regiment are also on display along with uniforms, correspondence and a striking portrait of a private from the 8th West India Regiment, painted in 1803. 

Notably the exhibition also outlines how during both world wars the War Office did not make use of the West Indies regiments as combat troops in several theatres, instead often using them a labourers. Often as on the Western Front where they were tasked with dangerous work in ammunition dumps. 

I would have preferred to have seen an exhibition with a slightly larger scope but despite its small size the exhibition outlined the regiments’ history and the important, interesting and often under-appreciated role the West Indian’s soldiers played in the history of the British Army. Perhaps this is something that can be revisited approaching the West India Regiments’ 230th anniversary in 2025.

Additional Reading:

‘West Indian Soldier Exhibition’, National Army Museum, (source)

West Indian Soldier Exhibition Virtual Tour, National Army Museum, (source)

‘West India regiments: the story of slavery in the Army’, Forces News, (source)

‘The West India Regiments’ , National Army Museum, (source)

‘The West Indian Soldier’, The West India Committee, (source)

‘The Story of the British West Indies Regiment in the First World War, Imperial War Museum, (source)

‘West Indian Soldier: Interactive Timeline’, National Army Museum, (source)

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