On the home front: World War I and the Caribbean

A century after the outbreak of World War One, James Ferguson looks back at the global conflict’s impact on the Caribbean’s political and social landscape

Illustration by Rohan Mitchell

Few of us can have avoided noticing the commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War, and in particular the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on 4 August, 1914. The convoluted events leading to the conflict — the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, the unravelling of the Ottoman Empire — seem largely European in their impact, but the war very soon became literally global in its reach.

Not many areas of the world were left untouched, and among those directly affected was the Caribbean. Technology was in part responsible, as submarines and battleships could now operate hundreds of miles away from their home bases. But also key was the continuing colonial presence and ambitions of European nations in the region.

Eighty years after the abolition of slavery, the British colonies remained poor and profoundly unequal, dependent on exports of commodities to Britain and the United States. Yet strong bonds remained between a territory such as Jamaica and the “Mother Country.” At a 13 August meeting of the island’s Legislative Council, Governor Sir William Manning confidently announced, “I feel that Jamaica will loyally and patriotically assume her part in maintaining the integrity of our Empire, and will comport herself gallantly to-day as she has done in the past.” Moves were taken to establish a regiment in every parish to fend off possible German invasion, while collections of money, food, and clothing were arranged for those who volunteered to fight overseas.

Wide-scale recruitment began throughout the English-speaking Caribbean in May 1915, and by autumn that year the British West Indies Regiment had been formed, with men from British Guiana, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St Vincent, and Grenada. Jamaicans later came to make up the majority of the 15,600 men who served with the Allied forces. Fighting took place with Turkish troops in Palestine and Jordan, and Governor Manning was no doubt delighted to receive a telegram from General Edmund Allenby, reporting: “I have great pleasure in informing you of the gallant conduct of the machine-gun section of the 1st British West Indies Regiment during two successful raids on the Turkish trenches. All ranks behaved with great gallantry under heavy rifle and shell fire and contributed in no small measure to the success of the operations.”

But relations between the mostly black volunteers and the British military authorities were not always so cordial. Racism was rife, and men from the BWIR were routinely allotted hard, dangerous, and menial tasks such as digging trenches. In one notorious incident in March 1916, volunteers were shipped to Nova Scotia in Canada to avoid German submarines in the Atlantic, only to suffer from freezing temperatures in their lightweight uniforms. Many were severely ill, and five died, a scandal that put a halt to further recruiting in Jamaica.

Resentment came to a head in a mutiny after Armistice Day in 1918, when eight BWIR battalions in Taranto, Italy, were ordered to unload ships and perform other heavy work. When they refused, fighting broke out, and sixty men were eventually tried for mutiny, with one shot by firing squad. Many returned to the Caribbean, disillusioned and sometimes wounded, thwarted in their attempt to start a new life and escape poverty. This sense of injustice would be a major factor in the growing radicalisation that eventually led to self-rule and independence. Although precise figures are hard to come by, it is thought that about one thousand men from the Caribbean died in the war, with a further three thousand wounded.

In the French territories, military service and conscription were in force, and some 2,600 soldiers from Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana lost their lives out of 23,000 conscripts. Unlike those from the English-speaking Caribbean, these troops were deployed in the notorious fighting in the Marne and Somme, nearly all casualties occurring in the mud of the trenches. A recent novel by the Martinican writer Raphaël Confiant, Le Bataillon créole (not yet translated into English), imagines this courageous group, freezing in the fields of northern Europe but seeking revenge for centuries of humiliation by a white minority by attacking the hated German enemy.

The four-year conflict also affected those who stayed in the Caribbean, in many different ways. Trinidad enjoyed a sudden oil boom, as the British Royal Navy converted to oil-powered shipping, and production increased sixteen-fold from 1910 to 1920. In other territories, such as Jamaica, disruption to shipping meant that exports and imports fell dramatically, causing widespread economic hardship.

But perhaps the most significant impact was to occur in the run-up to the United States’ formal entrance into the war in April 1916.  Since the completion of the Panama Canal (which coincided with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1914), the US had been concerned that a European nation, most probably Germany, would seek to implant itself in what it saw as its “backyard.” Hungry for an empire to compete with the British and French, the Germans had targeted the chronically unstable nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic as possible sites for military bases, and a foothold in the Americas.

What particularly alarmed American intelligence was the role of a small but immensely powerful German expatriate community in Haiti, which controlled eighty per cent of the country’s exports and most of its banking and utility sectors. Were these German merchants the precursors of a full-fledged military annexation by Berlin? Those in charge in the US State Department did not wait to find out, and dispatched a company of Marines in July 1915 to take control of a violence-wracked Port-au-Prince and monitor suspected “aliens.” The occupation was to last until 1934.

The same fate befell the Dominican Republic in 1916, and in August of that same year the Treaty of the Danish West Indies was signed between the US and Denmark. For the sum of $25 million, the Danish colony became the US Virgin Islands, thus allaying American fears that the Germans would build a submarine base there.

So it was that the geopolitical landscape of the Caribbean was redrawn by what we now know as the Great War. The influence of the United States was massively reinforced, and that of the European powers ultimately weakened. Many of the old certainties about empire and the role of the colonies were lost forever, and despite the horrors and privations suffered by people across the region, an unstoppable process of change had been unleashed that would culminate in the strife and reforms of the 1930s.