Mutiny at Taranto
After Armistice Day, on 11 November 1918, the eight BWIR battalions in France and Italy were concentrated at Taranto in Italy to prepare for demobilisation. They were subsequently joined by the three battalions from Egypt and the men from Mesopotamia. As a result of severe labour shortages at Taranto, the West Indians had to assist with loading and unloading ships and do labour fatigues. This led to much resentment, and on 6 December 1918 the men of the 9th Battalion revolted and attacked their officers. On the same day, 180 sergeants forwarded a petition to the Secretary of State complaining about the pay issue, the failure to increase their separation allowance, and the fact that they had been discriminated against in the area of promotions.
During the mutiny, which lasted about four days, a black NCO shot and killed one of the mutineers in self-defence and there was also a bombing. Disaffection spread quickly among the other soldiers and on 9 December the 'increasingly truculent' 10th Battalion refused to work. A senior commander, Lieutenant Colonel Willis, who had ordered some BWIR men to clean the latrines of the Italian Labour Corps, was also subsequently assaulted. In response to calls for help from the commanders at Taranto, a machine-gun company and a battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment were despatched to restore order. The 9th BWIR was disbanded and the men distributed to the other battalions which were all subsequently disarmed. Approximately 60 soldiers were later tried for mutiny and those convicted received sentences ranging from three to five years, but one man got 20 years, while another was executed by firing squad.
Although the mutiny was crushed, the bitterness persisted, and on 17 December about 60 NCOs held a meeting to discuss the question of black rights, self-determination and closer union in the West Indies. An organisation called the Caribbean League was formed at the gathering to further these objectives. At another meeting on 20 December, under the chairmanship of one Sergeant Baxter, who had just been superseded by a white NCO, a sergeant of the 3rd BWIR argued that the black man should have freedom and govern himself in the West Indies and that if necessary, force and bloodshed should be used to attain these aims. His sentiments were loudly applauded by the majority of those present. The discussion eventually drifted from matters concerning the West Indies to one of grievances of the black man against the white. The soldiers decided to hold a general strike for higher wages on their return to the West Indies. The headquarters for the Caribbean League was to be in Kingston, Jamaica, with sub-offices in the other colonies.
Meanwhile, the cessation of hostilities quickly led to a profound change in white attitudes to the presence of blacks in the United Kingdom. As white seamen and soldiers were demobilised and the competition for jobs intensified, so too did the level of race and class antagonism, especially in London and the port cities. The more serious aspect of this was the numerous riots which erupted and the assaults on blacks in the United Kingdom. Because of the large-scale onslaughts on blacks, and in an attempt to appease the British public, the government decided to repatriate as many blacks as they could and by the middle of September 1919, about 600 had been repatriated.
Find out more
Books and articles
Lest We Forget by Robert N Murray (Hansib Publications, 1996)
Twenty-five Years After: The British West Indies Regiment in the Great War 1914-1918 by AA Cipriani (Karia Press, 1993)
Slaves in Red Coats: The British West India Regiments, 1795-1815 by N Roger Buckley (Yale University Press, 1979)
A Salute to Friend and Foe by Sir Etienne Dupuch (Tribune, 1982)
A Source of Black Nationalism in the Caribbean: The Revolt of the British West Indies Regiment at Taranto, Italy by WF Elkins (Science and Society, Vol 33, No 2, Spring 1970)
The British West Indies Regiment 1914-1918 by CL Joseph (Journal of Caribbean History, Vol 12, May 1971)
The Land Forces of Britain site has information about the West Indies Regiment.
Places to visit
The Imperial War Museum has extensive film and photographic archives, including the original film of the Battle of the Somme, and 40,000 official British, Australian and Canadian photographs from World War One.
The British Empire & Commonwealth Museum (Clock Tower Yard, Temple Meads, Bristol BS1 6QH) has a range of galleries and offers special tours, guides, workshops and family activities to visitors of all ages.
The Institute of Commonwealth Studies (University of London, 28 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DS) has a library and archive for anyone interested in further study of British Colonial history.