The Black Soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiments 1782-1831 (John D Ellis)
Marking Black History Month 2020, we’re publishing a series posts by John D Ellis, researcher, historian and educator specialising in race and ethnicity in Britain and Ireland during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. John’s research sheds light on little-known stories of black soldiers serving with the forerunners to the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
In the eighteenth century the fashion for exotic “Turkish music” and a racialised belief in the “natural propensity of Black people for music” resulted in black men being enlisted to serve as military musicians in British Army regiments. Playing percussion instruments such as cymbals, tambourines, big-drums and kettle drums, they were employed as symbols of regimental prestige. Initially enlisted by only higher status regiments, by the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815), most regiments had some black presence, be it individuals or small groups of drummers, trumpeters or bandsmen. (In addition to Black wives, partners and offspring – e.g. Mary Seacole, whose service as a nurse in the Crimea is well known, was the daughter of a Scottish soldier). The British Army of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made no distinction between people of African or Asian origin – simply referring to them as being “Black” or “of colour.” Some men were recruited whilst the Army served in North America, the Caribbean and India, however, most were recruited from the black population resident in Britain and Ireland. A number were themselves the sons of serving soldiers, whilst others were recruited from amongst French Prisoners of War.
Whilst stationed “at Home” (in Britain and Ireland), the role of a black military musician may well have been to promote regimental prestige. However, on campaign their role was to communicate orders in battle. With shot and shell making verbal orders difficult to hear, commands were relayed by the beat of a drum or the call of a trumpet. Many black soldiers served as bandsmen, whose secondary roles were to act as medics or augment the ranks. In several regiments black soldiers were employed at company and Troop level (as drummers/buglers in the infantry and trumpeters in cavalry respectively), and these battlefield communicators required quick wits and situational awareness to fulfil their role. Thus, black soldiers were not simply bandstand or parade ground eye-candy. They served with their regiments during the American Revolution, the Peninsular War and various small wars as Britain expanded its empire – including in Africa, India and the 1st Afghan War.
Whilst the War Office purchased thousands of African slaves for the West India Regiment in the 1790s, and some army officers owned slaves, there is no evidence that individual British regiments purchased slaves. Instead, it is likely that the existing black population of Britain and Ireland was large and willing enough to meet the demands of recruiters. The few soldiers for whom anything of their previous lives are known appear to have been free, or free on enlistment. Black recruits who enlisted in Britain and Ireland came from Africa, India, North and South America and the Caribbean. Most enlisted in ports such as London, Bristol, Chatham, Cork, Dublin, Glasgow, Liverpool and Plymouth.
The British Army of the period was arguably the finest in the world, however, it was plagued by drunkenness and violence. It was the Duke of Wellington himself who referred to it as “the scum of the earth”, and so the decision by so many black men to voluntarily enlist does beg the question “how bad was civilian life?”. Discipline was enforced by flogging. Drummers and trumpeters were responsible for flogging, and this inverting of the “racial hierarchy” made black soldiers unpopular on occasion. Black soldiers were restricted to musical roles, and few were ever promoted to non-commissioned officer rank – those that were invariably being experienced combat veterans. A number were racially abused by both white civilians and soldiers, and one was the victim of a racist murder by soldiers of another regiment. Yet, the re-enlistment rate amongst Black soldiers was higher than their white peers, and their service was highly praised.
The Black Soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Regiments 1782-1831.
Forenames and surnames rarely provide an indicator of the race or ethnicity of black soldiers, and only Marcus Cato of the 14th Foot possessed a classical “slave name.” This means that it is difficult to identify black soldiers by name alone. However, it is possible to identify the ethnicity or race of a soldier from the physical descriptions of them in their pension record or if they were present when the details of individual soldiers were recorded in a regimental description book (Records held by The National Archives and accessible online via ancestry.co.uk and findmypast.co.uk). Luckily, several of the Black soldiers of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire regiments survived to qualify for a pension, and description books survive for all three regiments. Enlistment was usually for an unlimited period (i.e. life), until illness, wounds or debility resulted in soldiers being sent to the Royal Hospitals at Chelsea or Kilmainham (Dublin), to be examined for pension. However, with mortality rates being high and regiments subject to reductions or disbandment the service of many soldiers was not rewarded with a pension, nor do they appear in regimental description books. Therefore, it is unlikely that the full extent of the presence of black soldiers in the regiments of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire will ever be known.
The black soldiers who served in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire regiments came from Africa, the African Diaspora and Asia. Whilst a number were recruited overseas, others were recruited from the black or Asian population already resident in Britain and Ireland. Additionally, and as the records of the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Foot reveal, the presence of “people of colour” within the regimental family also extended to wives, partners and children.