Image: © IWM (E(AUS) 2078)

In the fourth of a series of scholarly articles marking the Armistice centenary, Dr Mandy Banton, senior research fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, explores the ‘hostile environment’ many colonial ex-servicemen and unemployed seamen faced at the end of the war and finds parallels with the present ‘Windrush Generation’ scandal.

A great deal is known about Empire and the Great War – provision of men, money and commodities to the war effort; repercussions in the colonies as veterans returned; race riots in British cities in 1919. Yet, little has been written about the experiences of individuals from that Empire.

After the war men seeking jobs, subsistence, or passage home approached the Colonial Office. A Singaporean Malay ‘howled and wept, and, tearing off his coat and shirt, flung himself, raving, on to the floor and invited a messenger to cut his throat.’ Just an isolated snapshot; we hear no more of Usop bin Brahmin.

Many colonial ex-servicemen and unemployed seamen fell through the net of official repatriation schemes, or had been away so long that England had become home. Their stories, revealed in files in the National Archives in Kew, show the reluctance of government and the voluntary sector to assume responsibility, and the varied attitudes of colonial governors.

Black men who had married white women were in a particularly difficult situation. The Caribbean seamen, Theophilus Savis, Cyprian Robinson and James Gillespie had lived in England for more than 20 years when not at sea. All had white wives. All had children. Gillespie left the sea when he married in 1916 and opened a fish and chip shop in Barry, South Wales. It was destroyed in the 1919 riots. Robinson was described as ‘a man who has served on transports during the war in the danger zones and has deserved well of his country.’

There were anxious discussions in British officialdom about sending white wives overseas. The Colonial Office imposed a blanket ban on them going to Africa. An official wrote, ‘I cannot face the consequences of letting an English woman – of whatever social rank – go to West Africa as the wife of a black man.’

It was suggested that a destitute Nigerian married to a Frenchwoman should be repatriated to Nigeria, and she to France, ‘if she is willing to go’. Separation of families was seriously proposed as an acceptable solution, although some officials worried that the poor law authorities would accuse them of conniving at desertion if wives and children were left unsupported.

Decisions were often left to colonial administrations. The governor of Jamaica had no objection to the admission of white wives, but believed it was ‘most undesirable in the interests of the wives’. The administrator of St Vincent wrote, ‘no facilities should be given for the repatriation of any coloured native … married to a European. Mixed marriages … are bound to have bad results and there are not a dozen coloured men in the colony who are in a position to maintain a European wife in decent comfort.’

Such negative, indeed hostile, opinions sometimes proved correct. Lottie Bryan wrote from Jamaica stating that her husband, a former munitions worker in Sheffield, was unable to support her and their baby. Her father, interviewed by the police, said he and his wife were anxious for her return, and happy to support her and the child.

A very different story is that of a Jamaican civilian, which serves as a stark illustration of the vulnerability of individuals to unsympathetic officialdom, and prevailing racial attitudes. David Russell left Jamaica at the turn of the century and spent two or three years at sea. After working in ‘travelling shows’ in Austria he settled in Leipzig in 1905 and married a German woman. On the outbreak of war he was interned as an enemy alien, and his wife and four children, also officially British, were deported to the UK. They disembarked at Hull in January 1915 and were admitted to the workhouse.

There is a little flesh to add to the bare bones of this story, but no conclusion. In Ruhleben internment camp Russell suffered from frostbite and was exchanged and sent to England in 1916. He was hospitalised, reunited with his family, supported by the Social Welfare Association, and accommodated by the Church Army in Hull.

In the summer of 1917, he walked to London – this was a man who had lost most of his toes. He was eligible for repatriation but Colonial Office officials found him employment with the machine gun manufacturer Vickers in Kent. However, by summer 1918 the whole family was in Gainsborough. The clerk of the urban district council urged that they be sent to Jamaica, stating that Russell’s illiteracy and injuries made it difficult to find him regular work in England.

Officials were willing to repatriate Russell, but not his family. Some were sympathetic, but one wrote, ‘I have no sympathy with European women, even Germans, who marry black men and I would not stir a finger to help her. The local workhouse can look after her and the children.’

By summer 1919, the family, now with six children, was in Nottingham. Three years later the Poplar Board of Guardians appealed to the Colonial Office for a passage ‘home’. Russell had again walked to London. The governor of Jamaica refused to admit the family. Officially, he feared they would be a financial burden, but no enquiry was made as to the possibility of assistance from Russell’s Jamaican family – he was known to have brothers and sisters – as happened in other cases.

It is interesting to compare Russell’s story with that of Joseph Smith, a Barbadian former prisoner of war in Austria. By January 1919, Barbados had agreed to fund repatriation for him and his family as soon as his white wife had been delivered of her baby. Only this newly expected child was Joseph’s. Showing the type of casual racism, which is far from unusual in the records, the authorities in Stepney considered it unsuitable to leave five white children – girls aged between 5 and 14 – with their black stepfather while their mother was in the maternity home, and insisted they be accommodated temporarily in an orphanage.

Why was Barbados prepared to take, and finance, Smith, his wife and six children, but Jamaica not prepared to take the Russell family? In December 1918, a Colonial Office official considering the Russell case had commented, ‘at least at present I cannot think that we should ask Jamaica to pay for the passage of a German wife and half-German family.’ Was this the real problem? Mrs Smith was British. Was she perhaps also a war widow, and therefore looked upon with compassion?

David Russell was not the only person who would have preferred not to go ‘home’. Eight west Africans managed to hide their true origins and were ‘repatriated’ to the Caribbean. They were later found to be from Sierra Leone, the Gold Coast and Nigeria and complicated, and costly, arrangements were made for their return.

How many sought repatriation solely because no alternative seemed to exist? Charles Edward Slaven, another merchant seaman, was 66 in 1919 and unable to find work. He had been based in the UK since at least 1895 when he married his London-born wife Ada Louisa. They had a 23-year-old daughter, and 16-year-old son. Was ‘returning’ to Antigua really a welcome option for this family? Or does it suggest an official mind concerned to avoid supporting a family from the public purse?

Does it, in fact, chime with the present ‘Windrush Generation’ scandal?

Dr Mandy BantonDr Mandy Banton (left) is former principal records specialist (diplomatic and colonial) at The National Archives of the UK, and an historian with a PhD from SOAS. She was elected a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in February 2017.


Also in this ‘Armistice’ series:
World War 1, India and memorialisation
South Africa in World War One
Used, abused and forgotten? The First World War’s Caribbean heroes
The ugly truth of Africa’s forgotten war dead