When the Great War began in 1914, the majority of people living in British Guiana and the West Indies were experiencing great economic hardships because they had been forced to live below the standards necessary to maintain them.
Some middle- class people of African descent in their struggle for political and constitutional change welcomed the war. Furthermore, in September 1914, the founder of the UNIA-ACL, Marcus Garvey, in a letter to the governor of Jamaica endorsed the war effort.
He wrote: ‘Being mindful of the great protecting and civilising influence of the English nation and people of whom we are subjects, and their justice to all men, and especially to their Negro subjects scattered all over the world, we hereby beg to express our loyalty and devotion to His Majesty the King and Empire… Thrice we hail ‘God Save the King! Long live the King and Empire.’
Garvey supported the war and encouraged young men to fight in order to prove their allegiance, in the hope that they would be treated as equals. Some, governed by a sense of loyalty to the “Mother Country” sold their possessions to pay the £17-£25 fare to enlist in England.
Those who had no possessions to sell stowed away. But on arrival in England, the War Office did not want to enlist black West Indians and some destitute men gravitated towards existing black communities in London, while others were repatriated. This was not the case with white West Indian volunteers wishing to enlist.
It was not until 26 October 1915 when the British West Indies Regiment was formed (after the intervention of King George V) that West Indian men were officially allowed to enlist for the Great War. As part of the recruitment process in the West Indian islands, British propaganda alluded that West Indians should feel a debt of gratitude to them for emancipating their ancestors.
While most risked their lives for patriotic reasons, others enlisted because of financial pressures; the wages the army paid were an immediate solution to decades of high unemployment and poverty. Although people in the West Indian Colonies found it difficult to sustain themselves, the Colonial Office’s first request was for financial and material contributions rather than manpower. They received two million pounds (60 Million in today’s money), ambulances, aircraft and other material contributions for the war effort in Europe.
Gershom Browne was one of those soldiers who enlisted logon CaribDirect.com next week for his account of his experience in the Great War.