The Nine Black Stowaways
The outbreak of the First World War saw an increasing number of black men volunteering to join the British Army from all parts of the Caribbean. Some would even risk life and limb to "serve kind and country", as they stowed away on ships to Britain. However, their desire to serve the Empire was, at times, in vain, as they were often not welcome. The case of the nine Barbadian men, illustrates how these men were looked down upon, rather than embraced for their attempts to help Britain.
Nine black men – natives of Barbados, West Indies – attempted to stowaway on the S.S. Danube which was on its voyage to England. Once the voyage had ended and the ship had docked at West Ham, the nine men were found. They pleaded that they only wanted to join the British Army, and serve the Empire… but this was to no avail. The nine men were arrested before they took one step off the ship, and were prosecuted by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company. Instead of being embraced for their desire to "serve kind and country", they were met with hostility and prejudice. The nine men, were set to be prosecuted in West Ham Magistrate's Court on May 19 1915. It was during this trial that the nine men faced discrimination and public humiliation.
The nine black men from Barbados were prosecuted for being stowaways. Their defence was that they only wished to enlist in the British Army. During the trial, a man named Mr Gillespie responded: 'What?! do they want to enlist in the black guards?!' , which was met with laughter in the courtroom as there was no such thing. The term black guards, in this instance was a play on the word blaggard which refers to a person who is a scoundrel, evil or of ill repute. Nevertheless, even amidst this laughter, the nine black men remained firm in their desire to join the British Army. The question of why they could not join the Army was asked, to which Detective Sergeant Holby replied that he had made numerous enquiries at local recruiting offices but the response was that these men could not enlist because of the colour of their skin.
It was a great shame that these men, who ventured from their homes in Barbados to the docks of West Ham to help the British Army in this war, were faced with such antagonism. However, hope was on the horizon in the form of the British West India Regiment that was formed in 1915. Major Lucas who formed this "coloured battalion", saw the potential and importance of black soldiers and their willingness to serve. After the trial, Major Lucas had asked that these nine black men be sent to him, to join this battalion.
These nine men joined 16,000 other West Indians and fulfilled their wish, to fight alongside the British Army for Britain in the British West India Regiment.
Image: Original Copy of the 1915 Court Certificate, Courtesy of Newham Archives