Gilkes: Is 11/11 about remembrance; or chain up? Black West Indians must tell our story of WWI

So on Wednesday night, I was a guest on the radio programme Indaba. You know the programme that discusses issues relevant to raising African-centred consciousness? No?

The one that was once two hours but is now reduced to one because, let’s be honest, it’s not like there’s any issue about Black hen chicken too complex or serious that can’t be reduced to sound bites in between Play Whe gambling results.

Anyway… So I was being interviewed regarding some sentiments I expressed on Armistice/Memorial Day and the experiences of West Indian troops “of colour” who served in the British West India Regiment in World War I.

Photo: West Indian soldiers during World War I.
(Copyright UK Guardian)

As you know this marks the 100th year since the ending of that ‘war to end all wars’ on the 11 day of the 11th month, 1918… Oh f**k wait; yuh didn’t know that neither?

See de same thing I saying. Every year on the 11/11, it does have a big fancy parade with even fancier speeches, prayers and sentiments about those who ‘gave’ their lives ‘unselfishly’ for their country and for freedom.

Don’t think for one moment I’m mocking or trivialising those men and women who served and fought in some of history’s major wars; the blood of the military runs through my family and one of my great-uncles was in WWII. Many vets from the West Indies served admirably against huge adversities and did much through individual acts to earn some degree of dignity and respect for all of us.

But as people who live in a region that has been exploited by major powers and used as a political and military football—not to mention Uncle Sam’s backyard—we really should be more enquiring about what narratives we are made to accept.

We should also be very wary of how we laud events that glorify the ‘spilling of the red wine of youth’.

We should be more analytical about these wars our forbears were drawn into so as to get a clear understanding of our own issues today, how those past events connect to ours and how certain things like the manipulation of emotion through propaganda are still being used to tie up we head with the same rationale.


You’re already sold on the Kool-Aid that those major European civil wars—aka World Wars I and II—really had much to do with defending freedom, democracy and ending tyranny. Dais ‘chain-up’ talk dred.

Photo: A West India Regiment sergeant (left) with Royal Malta Artillery officer in 1897.

You’d think we in the Caribbean had gotten wise to that by now—but then if a bright QRC man could say there is no evidence connecting racism to colonialism and a big UWI man could ask if it wasn’t for Columbus, slavery and colonialism bringing us here, where would we be today; it’s clear now why that same UWI had to hold a conference on critical thinking.

Because, you see, those two major bloodbaths—and the many other ‘minor’ ones—had almost everything to do with racist imperial powers, particularly England, warring over raw materials, mineral resources and geographic positioning they felt somehow entitled to possess; and at the expense of other racist, imperial powers.

Our forbears were encouraged to enlist to ‘defend’ king, country and freedoms they themselves didn’t even have and the British had absolutely no intentions of giving. That same freedom from tyranny talk is the myth we too in 2018 are being told via our history books and popular media. But then, it’s been said that if you tell a lie often enough, many people—hell, even you—will believe you.

This particular lie is constructed around what Prof Terry Boardman calls HERE the myth of St George.

St George, according to legend, rescued a princess from an evil dragon. This myth has been reproduced over and over and over and applied in real political terms, and not always as subtle or coded as the “dog whistle politics” Prof Ian H Lopez speaks about in his works HERE.

Back in 1914 (and 1939) Britain and its allies were portrayed as St George, Belgium as the princess and Germany as the evil dragon. Today, the West is St George, brown women in Islamic countries as the princess and radical Islam as the dragon.

It wasn’t hard to believe the lie; at least three centuries of enslavement, colonial rule, colonised schooling and churching ensured that a substantial number of colonial subjects truly believed they were full-fledged British citizens.

Photo: St George slays the dragon and rescues the maiden.

In plantation societies where violence and aggression was the norm and militarism was considered the ultimate avenue for a real man to prove himself, thousands of young, unemployed and under-employed men—living in squalid conditions held over from enslavement or created because vagrancy laws forced them back to sugar, cocoa and coffee estates—were only too eager to enlist, finally prove themselves in battle and earn not just respect, but gratitude that they hoped would extend to greater political autonomy.

This is why, for instance, even Marcus Garvey—and WEB duBois on the African-American side—lent support to the war effort.

Of course that meant that the British propaganda machine had to hide the fact that by 1914, the British alone had militarily intervened in almost every part of the globe in the unending search for resources. They had long since invaded India and were busily under-developing it; in 1898 they invaded the Sudan, committing horrible atrocities in the process.

Then during the Boer War they fought the Dutch settler-colonials in South Africa so as to take control of gold and diamonds—so one set of racist imperialists took from another set of racists in order to deny access to a third set of racist imperialists,  the Germans.

In 1900, Britain, along with other Western powers and the United States, had already militarily intervened in China. In 1904, it invaded Tibet, killing over 2000 people.

Additionally, in their own country, women were denied the right to vote and imprisoned hunger-striking feminist activists were being force-fed. Further back, in 1819, the British government brutally put down a peaceful gathering for representation in Parliament, in what was known as the Peterloo Massacre. So a free, democratic country it was most certainly not.

Photo: Atrocities committed in the name of colonialism.

Oh by the way, the then ‘princess’, Belgium, was in the news for quite a while prior because of the horrific atrocities people like King Leopold were committing in its colony of the Congo. Beatings and amputations were a daily occurrence; women and children were held hostage as labourers were sent deeper and deeper into forests in search of rubber trees.

An estimated 10 million Congolese were killed and many more mutilated for not making their quotas of rubber sap. Belgium’s wealth and standard of living today owes much to that period. Remember that next time you purchase their chocolates.

Even more importantly, the evidence had to be concealed from the colonials—and poor white English working classes who were also spurred to fight to defend freedom—that far from being the defenders, the British had been planning to wage war against Germany since the 1880s.

The Saturday Review, a most respected journal at the time, informs us through an article printed in 1897 that:

“[I]n Europe, there are two great, irreconcilable forces, two great nations who would make the whole world their province, and who would levy from it the tribute of commerce. England with her long history of successful aggression, with her marvelous conviction that in pursuing her own interests she is spreading light among nations dwelling in darkness, and Germany, bone of the same bone, blood of the same blood, with a lesser will-force… compete in every corner of the globe

“[…] Is there a mine to exploit, a railway to build, a native to convert from breadfruit to tinned meat… the German and the Englishman are struggling to be first.”

At least three different articles of this nature can be found in this journal, at least one of which ended with “Germania est delenda” (Germany must be destroyed).

Photo: Former British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill.

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, Britain had also developed plans to go to war with the United States, all in the name of who gets to control the mineral resources of the global south—the peoples who lived there were of no importance whatsoever outside of being fit to labour for the Euro and, as the above passage shows, a market for European tinned food products. Doesn’t all this sound kinda familiar?

So, if we’re really serious about honouring the legacy of our West Indian veterans, let us stop mindlessly following traditions we were saddled with in 1962 and start thinking with our own minds.

We can start by understanding that aside from the obvious money factor, the vets of WWI and II who came out of poor labouring class communities were seeking to gain respect from a people who saw—and still see—no need to give any.

Having understood that, we must then set about examining the worldview of those who colonised us in order to make connections between how those of generations gone saw us and how their descendants still see us, such as the Clintons, Trumps, Kochs, Buchanans, Macrons, Blairs, and Mays.

Don’t be wasting time debating whether or not I have some anti-white, anti-Western chip on my shoulder. Discuss instead how poor, labouring class West Indians had to fight for the right to prove their manhood in the rigid confines of a racist, classist imperialist structure of power that took it away.

Discuss how almost all of them had that ‘right’ to fight denied because on the one hand ‘respected’ academic journals stressed that black people didn’t possess the ‘moral fibre’ to fight, while on the other hand other ‘authoritative’ theories warned against blacks being allowed to shoot and kill white men.

Photo: West Indian soldiers during World War I.
(Copyright UK Guardian)

Discuss how there were two regiments because local whites refused to fight with—and certainly not take orders from—black soldiers. Discuss what was mentioned in Glenford Howe’s fascinating book “Race, War and Nationalism: A Social History of West Indians in the First World War” in which German prisoners of war were kept in a heated room while black BWIR troops were shivering in an unheated room in the same building.

You’ll also have to explain how, even though Britain were supposedly mortal enemies—the war having been underway since 1914—it deployed troops in 1915 to what is now Malawi to help German settlers put down an African nationalist uprising under John Chilembwe.

The real stories behind the two world wars are signposts to almost identical issues today. The contest today is exactly what it was prior to 1914 and 1939, which is control of the mineral resources.

The role people of colour had to play then is not that much different from what they are expected to play now. And although many are now in political and financial positions their forbears of 1914 could scarcely dream about, they’re still ‘niggers’, ‘wetbacks’, ‘coolies’, ‘ragheads’, ‘spics’ and so on.

Indeed, it’s deepening now with the resurgence of Far Right and centrist liberal politics. The myth of St George is as strong today as it has ever been in previous generations.

Fortunately, there are many Princesses who can now speak for themselves. Many of them are under no illusions about St George and his motives.

So if they can possess the independence of mind to speak for themselves, the least we can do is to tell the story of our heroes from our own perspective for a change.

Photo: The Cenotaph Memorial in London.
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  1. I would take Princess Deepa Kumar’s advice and concentrate on transnational solidarity rather than ‘religion’ or in this instance, a separation by race.

    The history of mankind is constant war, rivalry and conquest of peoples (and women by Kumar’s words!) who were weaker only by the absence of suitable weaponry AND also by the acts of traitors of their own kind, besides the greed of the conquering and/or abusive races. As stated, the conquering races were never necessarily smarter nor stronger, the African physique which contributed to founding of the blood of the Scots being the most resilient of all. The African DNA likely contributed to the ferociousness of the Scots and I am not even considering the African princess who supposedly also gave her DNA and red Egyptian hair to the Scots.

    In any case, the Scots and the Brits became one eventually and went on to take Africa by force thousands of years later. They also went on to deny Caribbean people the citizenship they deserved after using and abusing them on and off the plantations and of course, today many are still racist. They are however, far more imperialist than racist, as many other peoples were in human history. The Egyptians to the Jews and so on and so forth.

    In any case, black man’s DNA is part and parcel of imperialist England’s DNA, whether they like it today or not. As Princess Kumar also states, one should not view the entire race as one homogenous bad race. There are the not so bad ones and I know that the damned good ones who helped all indigenous peoples including all Africans have slowly been systemically forgotten.

    We should remember all of them, all those who lost their lives, all peoples who suffered and we have to try to bridge the gaps of race and religion by not concentrating on who is the bad religion or race but give attention to all those who fought the good fight, whether they were used as tools to do so by others who conquered and enslaved them or they did so willingly by thinking they would gain something good by so doing.

    Great article but my only problem is that it is not finished and it needs to go further. It also needs to transcend race.

    Ask yourselves why did the West Indian Society in London, co-founded by a white Kittitian who truly cared about all West Indians, who mentored countless West Indians including England’s FIRST black Peer in London, Lord Constantine, a TRINIDADIAN, who also mentored my own father and at least 3 other famous West Indian writers, why is that man’s name now forgotten?

    Ask yourselves why is the West Indian Society is now called the West Indian Black Caribbean Society? When West Indians are made of up so many others who also suffered, the indigenous peoples for example who were almost completely wiped out?

    It’s not about race it’s about what we all lived and inherited and that a few others are slowly being forced to consider themselves as black just to be made to feel as they belong?

    We are all one. Those who do not belong to us are those who abuse all of us, no matter what color, creed or race we belong to. Those who do not belong to us are the abusers, the murderers of men, women, children just get get the resources which our lands had at one point in time.

    I literally grieve for all of us and the fact that this so-called ‘white man’ continues to separate all of us between black and white when we all grown people know that even truth is never black and white, there are all shades in between, all traitors who are our own color who fed us to the dogs.

    Remember the Rastafarian hairstyle is from man Indian guru, remember that some of us Caribbean people have indigenous Indian Taino, Kalinago and more blood flowing in your own veins, those with the slanted eyes and don’t talk about those with the grey/green eyes.

    Remember it was the ‘white man’ who already has the Moorish and Egyptian blood flowing in him who gave some of you those eerie eyes.

    Remember that it’s this white man who stupidly states that even 1% of black constitutes entire blackness, that we are just following their wishes by separating ourselves into simply ‘white’ or ‘black’. As far as I know there’s almost no one on the favs of this earth, including the very people who we are calling white who doesn’t have a drop of African blood in him. Even if it’s big west Africa, it’s North Africa, it’s the moors, it’s Arabian blood, even these ‘white people’. The sooner we all look at what we are individually doing to each other, our own people, the quicker I think we will all come to a place of happiness.

    We are all one and we fight hate, we fight abuse, we fight murder, we fight all bad and evil things together. Namaste.

    • Wrong Linda Louison we are not the same. African blood, green eyes, dis and dat, the DNA and geographic route to 2018 trumps everything. Growing up in London and watching my children being born and grown there gives me the opportunity to watch the differences refine themselves and settle for the best compromises of a racial environment. Teresa May’s prescribed hostile environment for West Indian migrants to UK was indeed one of the available redefinitions of an obvious racial environment for non-Whites. Black in UK, even just by label, contains all, down to the five percenters. But then in every case the gradations of ethnicity and colour – by ancestral geography, by DNA and by appearance, have their own meanings everywhere.

    • Danny Holder that’s what I’m saying. By going along with their 5% or 1% or 0.00001% blackness, you’re just making them happier people, happy that you’re moving with their plan for you or all of us to see ourselves as a complete opposite side of the spectrum.

      Don’t get me wrong, anyone if any gradation can identify with any other they want or need to, but by seeing everything as ‚black‘ and ‚white‘, many blacks began a process of exclusion to other non-whites who they did not see as being black.

      The new phenomenon I see raising its head, is that depending on any given situation, people of certain brown colors are thrown back and forth depending on how useful their color is in a certain locale.

      That means that, for example, I may be called black in Britain but there’s no way black people in the Caribbean see me as one of them and in fact called ‚whitey‘ names and I’m not white.

      Understand that my own indigenous Kalinago have called me the ‚white‘ one too.

      I choose not to see any name calling as insulting because it was never important to me to be seen as any race, simply because I never actually noticed most of it until well into my adult life. I had black people all around me growing up in Belmont and going to the Belmont primary school. I loved my time there until my own sister began to be mistreated by a Dougla teacher. I never even saw her color, nor her race back then. I saw her deeds.

      To come back to what people think we are ….. am i to think of myself as white when people call me white? No!

      Am I to think of myself as black when people call me black? No!

      I am to think of myself as myself. I never even started to think I was mixed until I heard of all my ancestors and I am proud of all of their good deeds and I don’t even need to be ashamed of their bad deeds. I detest their bad deeds, with a passion. I know all their strengths and their failings from my own position. I listen to their cries and frowns and see with my own eyes what they do to their own kind, their own women and their own children.

      So no, just because the people we call ‚white‘ want or need to call me ‚black‘ for their own agendas, I anbot going to see myself as black, the same way I don’t see myself as white when the black school children of today call me white.

      No one is going to tell me what color I am not who I am. Anyone who does so is a slave to the others‘ mentalities.

      I’m also not here to represent any race‘s agendas, none of all the races that are in my blood have anything over the other. Not the best of them nor the worst of them. I myself am from Black Carib Maroons stock and I like to identify where I feel people were subjected to the worst but that’s my personal choice. They don’t have to go along with it, nor do I have to go along with anyone’s ideas of who I am or what side of 2 restrictive colors I am supposed to be in their minds. That’s their problem, their fantasies, their imaginations. Not mine.

    • Danny Holder plus it didn’t just start with Theresa May! ? ?

    • Linda Louison it took Trinidadians 40 years to settle down alongside other Black people in UK. Jamaicans were too loud on the boat coming over in the 1950s and as far as Trinis were concerned, the only acceptable Caribbean vernacular was ours. The Nigerians and Ghanaians, our new friends, were just as populous as us Caribbeans and now the Somalis have come in even greater numbers than we came, to change our already blurred landscape. That changes everything, even to a greater extent than when we settled wharfmen in Mourvant. I have changed to this more tangible reality. Respect to you for having been descended from both the most oppressed racial groups in recorded history, but the Amerindian problem in the Americas is very different from the African, Negro and Black problem. Laventille has not been my base for fifty years but still the headquarters of all my strategies for a solution.

    • Danny Holder hey I did say that I’m a descendant of the Black Caribs, the Maroons, if you know who they are! I can talk about the cruelty of others too, why I show no bias.

    • Linda Louison I took Black Caribs to mean mixed-race African and Carib descended people, therefore descended from the two most oppressed racial groups in recorded history. Enlighten with your meaning please.

    • Danny Holder ?? wasn’t sure you understood.

    • Linda Louison I have interacted with you in this group many times before, and I notice the first sign of contemptuous bitterness came after I mentioned that I was from Laventille. I should point out that of the 20 girls who were my classmates in Rose Hill RC School, Laventille, four are now PhD’s. None ah we did drink de water from de canal, we let it flow into town for dem to bathe.

  2. best article. Gilkes should start a school.

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