The British army was the biggest purchaser of slaves. These men formed and served in the West India Regiment. In the late 1790s, Britain was defending several of its territories around the world and they were stretched thin. Between the years of 1775 and 1783, there was the American War of Independence, Anglo French War, Anglo Spanish War and the 4th Anglo Dutch War. Britain was having difficulty in the Caribbean as well. Many of the infantry men that were shipped from Britain had not adjusted well to the climate and were dying from heat exhaustion and deceases like yellow fever. The high mortality of troops led that army to form the West India Regiments in Jamaica in 1795, just prior to the Battle of St. George’s Caye. From there, they were deployed to various parts of the Caribbean.
There were several regiments formed. Members of the regiments 1st through 6th were garrisoned in St. George’s Caye. These were comprised of white officers while the infantry was comprised of black slaves that were purchased for that specific purpose. Between 1795 and 1807, estimates suggest that some 13,400 slaves were purchased for the West India Regiments. The British bought 7% of the total slaves that were sold in the West Indies. Africans and Creoles were bought from sugar plantations and from ships arriving from Angola and the Congo. This was a strategy that not only the British used to make their armies larger and to cover more territory, but also one that North Americans later adapted and which was immortalized in the song “Buffalo Soldiers” by the famous reggae singer, Bob Marley.
The uniforms of the West India Regiments were fairly similar, with just a few small regiment differences in color. It consisted of the following: a red jacket with red collar and dark blue breeches, half lapels, facing at the cuffs with white square lace and an epaulette on either shoulder. The white strap of the haversack went under the left epaulette which kept it in place on the wearer’s right side. The haversack was made of canvas and held their daily rations and water. The other strap was for the bayonet, placed under the right epaulette, which rested on the wearer’s left side. The men needed the assistance of another to get the straps properly under the epaulette.
The shako, or cap, was made of beaver felt, which was a large industry in North America at the time. Several hats were made from beaver felt, including the famous top hat. The shako was adapted from the Hungarian hussar uniform which had a strong influence on light cavalry uniforms. The shako was the most common form of headdress in Europe and the Americas. Sitting at the front of the cap was a brass plate which had a crown and “GR” cypher, the royal symbol of Britain’s King George III. This cypher was also on many items, including the emboss on the weapons used. There were several weapons that the British were using, the most common of which was the British India pattern musket with shortened barrel and long bayonet. This would later be named by the North American colonialists as the Brown Bess. Also on the list was the British pattern 1796 heavy cavalry sword, the British light dragoon pistol and the British Baker rifle. The Brown Bess resembled a rifle, but by definition, it was more of a shot gun, as it used one large .75 calibre sphere pellet.
The West India Regiments were disbanded, but subsequently reassembled in the early 1800s. Some were shifted from one regiment to form another. Slavery was abolished in 1833, therefore black soldiers recruited were now free, but remained serving in their regiments. After emancipation, West India Regiment recruits included men liberated from illegal slave ships, as well as black soldiers captured from enemy French and Dutch colonies. Now free men soldiers were given the same rights as white soldiers. Significantly, they were also formally recognized as a part of the British Army. The West India Regiment did get a change in the uniform, as Queen Victoria was impressed by the exotic appearance of the French North African Zouave Infantry, and so they adapted the style that would remain until 1914, when all British Army uniforms were standardized. There were many battles throughout the 1800s and the West India Regiment also participated in the historic World War I, which began in 1914.