Black Americans in the British Army, 1795-1815

Tim Lockley

print of private in the 5th West India Regiment holding a gun

Charles Lyall, ‘Private of the 5th West India Regt. 1814. Prints, Drawings and Watercolors from the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection. Brown University Library [copyright for worldwide use granted free of charge]

In my recent JER article “The West India Regiments and the War of 1812,” I refer to British efforts to recruit enslaved men from the Chesapeake, and elsewhere in the South, into the West India Regiments (WIRs). Recruiting parties were dispatched with offers of freedom and provision for the families of those who signed up. In the end these efforts were largely wasted as little more than a dozen men from Virginia, Georgia, and Louisiana enlisted between 1813 and 1815, but the recruitment of men from North America into the WIRs actually has a much longer history that is not discussed in my article. Some of the earliest men assigned to the 1st WIR were the surviving members of the Carolina Corps. This body of formerly enslaved men had been created in the latter stages of the American Revolutionary War in South Carolina, evacuated to the West Indies in 1782, and subsequently deployed on various islands against maroon bands. There are no surviving records from the 1st WIR’s earliest years, so it is impossible to know precisely how many members of the Carolina Corps were transferred to the regiment, but from the 213 men listed as belonging to the Corps in early 1795, “about a hundred” were deemed fit for duty and it seems reasonable to assume that these men at least would have been transferred. A hundred men would have constituted about a fifth of the 1st WIR if fully staffed.[1]

There is evidence of other North Americans joining the WIRs in these early years, even though the surviving regimental records are far from complete. Forty-nine North Americans appear in the records of the 6th WIR drawn from along the eastern seaboard, from Boston and New Haven in New England to New York and Philadelphia in the Mid-Atlantic and Charleston and Savannah in the South. The largest number (22) came from the southern states. The mechanics of enlistment are not clear, but a high proportion of North American-born WIR recruits signed their attestation papers at Chatham docks in Kent or in Kingston, Jamaica. This suggests that Black American crewmen in the Atlantic merchant fleet were actively recruited by the British army with the offer of a signing-on bonus, a uniform, food, and housing. The Black community in London, swollen after the Somerset decision in 1772 that enabled enslaved arrivals to claim their freedom in Britain, might also have been a source of recruits. The surviving regimental records list several American-born recruits who were evidently not sailors. Many were listed as former laborers, but more skilled occupations included carpenters, bricklayers, rope-makers, and pastry cooks.  Cooper Titus Campbell (born in South Carolina) and blacksmith Louis Kirby (born in Virginia) both enlisted in the 6th WIR in 1796, a year later they were joined by William Wilson who declared himself to be a “horse doctor.”[2]

These North American men had a vital skill absent from the African recruits, namely fluency in English. Several regimental inspection reports highlighted the fundamental problem trying to train a “corps composed of raw Africans, totally ignorant of the English language,” and men who spoke English could earn rapid promotion. William Stewart, originally from Charleston, joined the 6th WIR in May 1797 and within a month was a corporal, while Savannah-born Charles Reed spent nearly all of his twenty years with the 6th. WIR as a sergeant, ending up as a sergeant major. They were not the only Americans to serve for lengthy periods in a WIR uniform: New Yorker Benjamin Jones served in Africa and the West Indies with the 2nd WIR between 1815 and 1842, while Samuel Mumford from Petersburg, Virginia, one of those who joined in 1814 during the Chesapeake campaign, served until 1838. These Americans spent their prime years in the West India Regiments, but they were counter-balanced by others who quickly decided that life in the army was not for them. Eleven Americans recruited into the 6th WIR between 1797 and 1800 deserted, often within a year, and since few were recaptured they probably blended into the free Black populations of Kingston and other West Indian ports.[3]

Although I am at the start of a project looking at the non-African members of the WIRs, it already seems clear that while Africans were by the far the largest constituent group among WIR recruits, the regiments were significantly more diverse than previously thought, particularly so in the earliest years. British Army recruiters were happy with any willing (and some not so willing) Black recruit, whether African, West Indian, or North American, because the medical rationale for the West India Regiments was underpinned by the widespread belief in their natural resistance to tropical diseases. The War of 1812 marks the end of the recruitment of American men in the WIRs as the British Army settled into a routine of recruitment among liberated Africans in Sierra Leone, but for a period of time they had been valued members of the West India Regiments.[4]


[1] 2nd WIR succession book WO25/644, the 2nd WIR was stationed in Bermuda during the war and campaigned in Georgia in February 1815. (All WO—War Office—and CO—Colonial Office—records are in the National Archives in London.) “Of the Carolina, or Black Corps, serving in the Leeward Islands,” CO101/31. See also Gary Sellick, “Black Skin, Red Coats: The Carolina Corps and Nationalism in the Revolutionary British Caribbean,” Slavery and Abolition 39 (Aug. 2018), 459–78. George F. Tyson, “The Carolina Black Corps: Legacy of Revolution (1782–1798),” Revista/Review Interamericana 5 (Winter 1975/76), 648–64. Monthly return Windward and Leeward Islands, January 1795 WO17/2486. Vaughan to Dundas 25 Dec 1794 WO1/83.

[2] 6th WIR succession book WO25/657.

[3] 4th WIR report 1 May 1807 WO 27/90; 8th WIR report 1809, WO 27/97. WO25/657. WO97/1161/23 (Reed); WO97/1159/137 (Jones); WO97/1160/81 (Mumford).

[4] On the medical rationale, see Tim Lockley, Military Medicine and the Making of Race: Life and Death in the West India Regiments 1795–1874 (Cambridge, UK, 2020), 19–53.