Power in the Telling

Mutiny: Hidden Histories of Black British Soldiers in WWI

This article is part of the Power in the Telling feature – curated by the Windrush Strikes Back project – on the production of community-engaged histories of Black Britain.

Sweet Patootee present MUTINY, a secret history that the British Empire tried to hide: Black British veterans tell their story of the First World War.

By the end of the First World War, the British West Indian Regiments (BWIR) had raised twelve Battalions. Over 16,000 BAME volunteers enlisted, the majority from Jamaica and serving on Europe’s Western Front, in East Africa and the Middle East. In December 1918, members of the BWIR’s 6th and 9th Battalions were main instigators of a mutiny at Taranto, Italy. BWIR recruits were told they’d receive equal treatment as comrades-in-arms. At their Seaford training camp, however, nineteen of the first arrivals died of pneumonia, facing their first British winter in poorly thrown-together huts. On the next troopship to Britain, 1,115 Black volunteers were left to freeze in a blizzard, wearing only thin tropical uniforms.

Much earlier, in 1915, the British Army had admitted its racial contempt for their new regiment to the British press, calling them “Our Faithful Apes” (News of the World). And still the volunteers completed training and marched to war as Black British West Indians soldiers, determined to ‘do their bit’.

On top of betrayal by the Army’s senior officers, BWIR troops were forced to swallow racist abuse from White comrades-in-arms. But they still did all that was asked of them and more – winning 63 medals, achieving 49 mentions in dispatches. And despite the British Army’s racist efforts to deny them combat roles alongside White comrades in arms, units of BWIR fought in Palestine and emerged as heroes of the Battle of Megiddo – a victory of combined operations so comprehensive, it is still taught at military colleges today.

If you only view these experiences through the narrow lens of military history, you miss a turning point the mighty British Empire tried to hide. These were descendants of slaves and indentured labourers who inspired their generation. Pioneers who risked the firing squad for Black pride, they were part of a global tide of ‘New Negroes’ and anti-colonial struggle battling for racial justice and to end White supremacy; shaping our modern world!

This is the story of that awakening: an incredible shift from loyal volunteers for King and Empire in 1914, to Black pride and mutiny by the war’s end.

MUTINY is unique among the countless documentaries and films about the First World War. It is the only time WW1’s Black British veterans have been allowed to tell their own story. In doing so, they reveal a history that was suppressed, ignored and forgotten for 80 years – a landmark that shaped the parents of the Windrush Generation.

To watch Mutiny in full on Amazon Prime click here.

You can watch further clips from ‘MUTINY’ below, from interviews with Gershom and Miss B.

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