Saturday, 3 November 2018

Trouble on St Helena: 1st bn West India Regiment


Two companies of the 1st bn West India Regiment arrived on St Helena on September 4, 1900 to be part of the garrison. Britain maintained a small garrison on the island but during the war the garrison was increased to guard the Boer POWs sent there. The 3rd bn West India Rgt was previously on the island. Their drum and fife band played the Boer General P Cronje and his fellow POWs into their prison camp. [https://www.napoleon.org/en/history-of-the-two-empires/articles/saint-helena-prison-island/]

Trouble broke out in the evening of New Year’s Day with fighting between sailors from HMS Thetis and West Indian Rgt soldiers. One of the West Indians was badly injured and sent to hospital. The following evening sailors from HMS Thetis gave a concert in aid of a local charity. A party of West Indian soldiers armed with “clubs and razors tied to sticks….raided the town”. Civilians, including women and children were injured, a man had his skull broken. Twelve sailors were injured “more or less seriously”. The West Indians were joined by more of their comrades who broke out of barracks. There ensued a chaotic night with their officers failing to get the men back to barracks as they rampaged around. The Soldiers and Sailors Rest Home was attacked “and broke the doors and windows to atoms”.

The next day the West Indians were ordered away from the town to Broad Bottom camp which wasn’t at this time occupied by POWs, they refused threatening to blow up houses in the town. Detachments from the Royal Engineers, Royal Artillery and HMS Thetis patrolled the town. On January 3rd a company of the Gloucester Rgt was bought up from Broad Bottom. Once more the West Indians were ordered out of the town, backed up by the threat they would be fired on if they didn’t. The West Indians relented and marched at once to Broad Bottom, “The whole place is in a state of alarm lest they carry out their threats to make a raid, and precautionary steps are being taken.”  Conductor FJ White, Army Service Corps, wrote:

“..it is no joke to feel that you are likely to be struck across the face with a razor tied to a stick, or knocked on the head by a big stick..it was hardly safe to be out unless [you] were armed.. ” [Surrey Mirror 05 March 1901]

The West Indians remained at Broad Bottom until transport to take them off the island could be arranged. The two companies left the island on January 13, 1901 for Sierra Leone. [East Anglian Daily Times 31 January 1901, Surrey Mirror 05 March 1901]

The issue was raised in Parliament in March 1901 by Mr J Dillon (Mayo East). In reply, the Secretary of State for War, W Brodrick, stated that no women or children were injured and five not 12 sailors were injured, “Nothing is known of any threat to blow up the town”. The numbers involved was not stated but it appears to have been a minority rather the whole detachment involved in the disorder. When the companies arrived on St Helena 15 men were tried by court martial; six convicted and sentenced to imprisonment from six weeks to six months, seven were acquitted and two were still in hospital too ill to stand trial. Mr Dillon then asked:

“With this experience will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that these regiments of coloured troops will not be moved into the more civilised portions of the Empire?

Mr Brodrick refused, and in April two companies from the 3rd bn returned to the island.

[HC Deb 07 March 1901 vol 90 cc794-5 https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1901/mar/07/west-indian-troops-at-st-helena#S4V0090P0_19010307_HOC_89]

Following the trouble there was correspondence between the War Office and Lord Kitchener, C in C South African Field Force under whose command came the troops on St Helena.  Replying to the War Office on December 10, 1901 Lord Kitchener wrote:

“I do not recommend the 2 companies of the 1st battalion, West India Regiment, for the Medal, in view of the circumstances of the removal of these 2 companies from St. Helena.” (WO100/287p381)

The War Office informed the 1st bn that the detachment would not receive the QSA medal. (WO100/287p383) In March 1902 Lieutenant-Colonel AL, commanding the 1st bn sent a nominal roll (in triplicate) to the War Office of the men of the 1st bn stationed on St Helena between September 4, 1900 and January 13, 1901.  (WO100/287p382) This roll is preserved in the medal rolls WO100/287 pp387-388. There are 183 names on the roll, ordered by rank and surname. The final name on the roll is Private 309 A Ricketts, the list could be incomplete, it seems odd no other surnames are recorded beyond the letter “R”.

A question for medal collectors is, can one get a medal to any of these men? The answer is “Yes”, of the 183 men listed, 124 earned an East & West Africa 1887-1900 medal:

Clasp
Number
Sierra Leone 1898-99
116
Sierra Leone 1898-99 & 1892
3
Sierra Leone 1898-99 & 1897-98
5
Total
124

Additionally, Corporal 859 T Padmore earned the Ashanti Star 1896.

No officers are recorded in the medal rolls for the 1st bn on St Helena, they didn’t get their medals but remain anonymous. Three officers of the 1st bn received QSAs for service in South Africa: Major HA Hill (attached Royal Scots Fusiliers), 2nd LT JH Forshaw (attached 3rd bn East Lancashire Rgt), Lt A Peel (previously Cpl 5423 2nd bn King’s Shropshire LI).

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