The 5th West India Regiment , 1809.
The sugar plantations of the West Indies, worked by slaves , provided a third of Britainís trade during the 1790s , and that trade grew during the early years of the nineteenth century. It was essential to protect this enormous source of wealth against the rival ambitions of France and Spain, operating from their own islands, and vast funds were spent on providing naval and military forces.
Apart from the expense, there was another human problem other than slavery. The dozens of British regiments sent out in the 1790s suffered terribly from tropical diseases against which they had no immunity , chiefly malaria and Yellow Fever .
Both were mosquito-borne diseases, but this was not understood at the time , and as a result something upwards of 40% of all European soldiers died , often in their first year , and even before they could be used on operations.
Many more who survived infection became invalids.
Such was the dreadful mortality that service was shirked or avoided : once learning of their posting to the dreaded Caribbean , young officers queued to be exchanged out to another unit . The ordinary soldiers did not have that choice.
The Government sought desperately for a solution , and by about 1803 had realised that the answer was to recruit black soldiers , from both the slave and freed men on the islands and directly , as slaves , from West Africa.
All were freed on discharge.
They were largely immune to these endemic diseases, and it was quickly realised they made excellent soldiers , being less given to drink than white men. The experience of the Royal Navy with free black men may have counted here , since they had long served afloat.
The subject of slavery is a thoroughly nasty one, but these are historical circumstances we cannot change by wishing they had never happened.
Britainís record in promoting and even dominating the slave trade in the 1700s was a lamentable one ; the only redeeming feature was that she was the first to abolish it , in 1808 , and shortly after made a considerable effort to suppress it. All WIR recruits after this were free men , and by 1812, all recruits from Africa were volunteers .
These were of course relative terms given their circumstances, but at least were no worse than their white comrades.
After experiments with various units of black ď Rangers ď raised for specific campaigns, in 1795 it was decided to raise eight regular West India regiments. These West India Regiments were part of the British Line , and served succesfully during the wars with France, then later in the 19th century in West Africa and during the Great War. Because of the disease problem , the European officers and Sergeants were often of dubious quality : unlike today , the West Indies were a highly undesirable posting .
More battalions were raised later, then disbanded by the end of the War with France. Two battalions survived until 1920, then amalgamated , then disbanded in 1927.
The current Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago Regiments are their indirect descendants.
The figure :
An HT Michael Jackson body, with my own head and hands.
The mosquito trousers were made by tailoring a pair of DiD napoleonic ones into the gaiter shape with some spare waistcoat fabric.
The shako, coat and black leather equipment are scratchbuilt.
There is no record of distinctive badges that I have been able to find, so the buttons are plain, and the belt plate has the crowned GR .
Iíve chosen the earlier uniform with the stovepipe shako and linen trousers , which later changed to the Belgic shako and blue-grey overalls , and the belts to white buff.
The coat was unlined , and had no tails . The half-lapels were unusual in British service ; the precise cut seems to have changed over time.
Itís questionable whether the leather stock was ever worn : Iíve shown a black silk cravat. I have also given him a waistcoat ; these were not issued , but they likely made their own , since they were a normal part of contemporary dress. It also helps to flesh out his rather skinny body .
The musket is my own India Pattern .
Heís shown here in the full dress after De Bosset , but it seems likely that in the field when fighting irregulars, this outfit may have been simplified, the men fighting in their shirts and slippers, or even bare feet . Unfortunately we donít have any pics of their undress rig , though they had a white undress jacket with green facings and loose trousers.
This regiment was engaged at the disastrous Battle of New Orleans in 1814.
The base is festooned with various fake plants I have been collecting at my local carboot : I go most Saturdays, and itís a great source for almost anything a bit weird and unusual, and they are to be had for pennies.
Osprey No.294, ď British forces in the West Indies 1793-1815Ē.
Rene Chartrand. Various online articles.