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24 September 2014

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Voices: Our Untold Stories »African-Caribbean Stories
Servicemen The World Wars

Despite the success stories, by the beginning of the twentieth century, life was very hard for the majority of black British people.
First World War servicemen
The largest group in Britain at this time, in terms of occupation, was seamen. Many settled in ports such as Cardiff, Liverpool and London, but most were laid off and found it virtually impossible to find work and so became destitute.

The government repatriated some, but many West Indians were not welcomed back to the islands. Along with other colonial subjects, especially those from India, the numbers and the plight of these seamen and servants brought to England and abandoned, or forced to leave through ill-treatment, became the subject of a parliamentary inquiry.

First World War

The outbreak of the First World War, in 1914, provided a solution to this problem for many blacks already resident in Britain. Labour was needed for the war effort in factories and seamen were required for the merchant service to replace men who joined the Navy.

Men on ship
Seamen were required for the merchant service, to replace men who joined the Navy

They were among the thousands who died in the German U-boat attacks, bringing supplies to Britain.

Moreover, men were needed to fight in the Army for 'King and Country'. Thousands played their part. In the Caribbean and Africa, as elsewhere in the Empire, there were public meetings to encourage people to get involved in the war effort.

Despite discrimination confining some recruits to the more menial tasks required of soldiers, troops from the Caribbean and Africa fought in many of the arenas of war, under the command of white officers in regiments such as the British West Indies Regiment, the Gold Coast Regiment and the King’s African Rifles. Thousands died and many were honoured as heroes.


Following demobilisation, many black soldiers stayed on in Britain, thereby sharply increasing the country’s black population.

However, as soon as the war ended, the need for black labour decreased as quickly as it had grown when the war started. Black sailors were sacked in favour of white sailors, as were black factory workers.

First World War servicemen
Troops from the Caribbean and Africa fought in many of the arenas of war

There was resentment from returning soldiers who were unemployed and saw black workers in jobs they felt they should have had.

In addition, many black people who had married white people faced prejudice and discrimination. In 1919, riots broke out across the land - in Cardiff, Newport, Liverpool, and Canning Town in London. Four people died following attacks on individuals and homes were destroyed.

Attacks were also made on black people in the newspapers of the time. There were unsuccessful attempts to repatriate the ex-soldiers and sailors, but also concerns about the possible consequences of the return of these disillusioned subjects on the colonies.

There followed a distinct rise in black consciousness and anti-colonialism in the West Indies. Organisations such as the Society of Peoples of African Origin, the African Progress Union and the League of Coloured People in Britain, and the Pan-African Congresses of the 1920s sought political solutions to the situations black people found themselves in at home and abroad.

The Second World War

The Second World War, as did the First, saw people of the Empire joining with the 'Mother Country' to fight and work for victory. Men and women arrived from the Caribbean in their thousands to work as civilians or in the armed forces. Some arrived as early as 1940 - these were the children of professionals in the Caribbean, many of whom may well have intended to travel to Britain to study.

Joining with the ‘Mother Country’ to fight and work for victory

The main group of recruits, however, came after 1943 when, in preparation for the invasion of Europe, the need was for more support staff such as ground crews and technicians.

After the war, many ex-servicemen and women stayed on in Britain, and in the following years a combination of 'push' and 'pull' factors led to large-scale migration of Caribbean people to Britain.

The 'push' factors were high unemployment, low wages, over-population and a general lack of opportunities in the Caribbean.

The 'pull' factors were in the form of the great labour shortage as Britain attempted to rebuild its economy, along with active recruitment drives in the Caribbean.

» See 'Black Britain: A History'
» See 'A Gloucestershire history'

This article is user-generated content (ie external contribution) expressing a personal opinion, not the views of BBC Gloucestershire.
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