J'cans in the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902)?
Jamaican History MattersSunday, February 28, 2021
My aunt, now deceased, told me that her uncle, Stedman Morgan, her father's brother, born possibly in 1880 in Elim, St Elizabeth, had gone to the Boer War. She seemed quite certain of this. I, however, thought that she had made a mistake and meant the First World War (WWI). After all, what was a young country boy from St Elizabeth, about age 20, doing at the Boer War in the Transvaal in South Africa?
From another part of the family story, it appears that “Uncle Steddy” returned to St Elizabeth and died of pneumonia. It seems he came back ill from the war.
I still did not quite believe this story about the Boer War, but wondered how my aunt — born in 1918 — knew about this little-known and distant war in South Africa.
Jamaicans in Anglo-African wars
Then, recently, I came across lance corporal, later sergeant, William James Gordon (1864-1922) of Jamaica, who served with the West India Regiment (WIR) in the Second Gambia Campaign, West Africa. See his photograph courtesy of the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF). From an incident at Toniataba, Gambia, in 1892, Lance Corporal Gordon was awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest British honour for bravery by Queen Victoria. This was a rare honour. He is mentioned on the website of the JDF and is buried at Up Park Camp. His medal is in the JDF Museum.
So, Jamaicans serving with the WIR fought with the British Army in Africa in the Anglo-Ashanti Wars (1873-1900) and other military engagements. He was stationed in Sierra Leone before WWI. To us today, from our vantage point in history, it is ironic that men whose ancestors were slaves from Africa would be fighting with the British against Africans in Africa. But these men considered themselves citizens of the British Empire. They felt they too had a right to serve, and did so with pride and distinction. We should respect them and their achievements.
But, did they go to South Africa?
The Boers were white South Africans of Dutch descent (Afrikaaners) who had rebelled against British rule, establishing independent states in the Transvaal and Orange Free States. The Boer War was about maintaining British influence in South Africa and control of natural resources (gold and diamonds).
In reviewing the book Stories of My Grandpa and Glimpses of Old Jamaica, written by Gilfred K Morris and published in 2013, Dr Patrick Bryan points to Morris saying that his grandfather, Sam Morris of Maidstone, born in 1862, studiously followed the course of the Boer War and other events in South Africa, the Ashanti Wars, and the career of Winston Churchill.
While the British had recruited Indian and African soldiers to bolster its ranks to fight on the front lines in Africa and Asia, they were reluctant to have black and coloured recruits fighting in white wars. Michael Scott Healy, author of Empire, Race and War: Black participation in British military efforts during the twentieth century, informs that the British Army Acts of 1881 to 1884 did allow for the recruitment of black men from the colonies under certain conditions. He, however, points out that if there were recruits from Africa and the British West Indies (BWI) in these types of white wars, they would be support staff engaged in moving ammunition, digging ditches, tending horses, driving, cooking, etc. This policy carried over into the European battlefields in WWI. It was not what the BWI soldiers had expected, and it should not be surprising that some of these men were involved in the later movement for self-government in the BWI.
The Gleaner of the period carried regular reports on the Boer War and, in 1899 there was mention in reports about volunteers. Healy did say that Jamaican men came forward to volunteer and men of the Jamaica Militia, particularly, wanted to serve seeing it as a kind of crusade.
I saw on eBay a print for sale which has pictures and texts (not legible) and is titled “1899 Boer War Jamaica Militia Lt Col Pinnock in Command”. From research in The Gleaner publications of 1899-1904 and the Jamaica Handbook of 1900, I noted that Lieutenant Colonel Arthur H Pinnock of Bellevue Estate was the commanding officer of the Jamaica Militia (1879-1906), which, from the eBay pictures, was a mixed-race group.
Did the Jamaica Militia send volunteers to the Boer War?
White/coloured Jamaicans were more able to join the British Army directly or volunteer units. They served on the front lines. I learnt that Colonel Oscar Hyde East Marescaux (1865-1927), after whose father Marescaux Road is named, and who then owned Cherry Garden Great House, served with the King's Shropshire Light Infantry in the Boer War.
Sergeant Albert Stuart Louis (or Leonard) Verley (1878-1917), relative of Louis Verley of Abbey Court and Mona Estates, also fought with the French Scouts, a foreign volunteer unit.
Henry (Harry) Jocelyn Dodd (1878-1946) served with the Kaffrarian Rifles, a South African volunteer unit, between September to October 1901. He joined the constabulary force on his return to Jamaica. It is also believed that his cousin, Edward Pierce, served with the Royal Canadian Regiment, but died in Kimberley, South Africa, in 1899.
Lieutenant Ernest George Ffrench (1876-1934), army doctor based at Up Park Camp, was assigned to the Duke of Wellington's Regiment taking part in the Battle of Rhenosterkop, Transvaal, in November 1900. See photograph of Ffrench provided by his grandson, Keith Atkinson.
Lieutenant George Herbert Kirkham of Westmoreland also served and apparently spent the rest of his life between Tanzania and South Africa.
I still have no evidence that the Jamaica Militia sent volunteers to the Boer War, nor do I know whether my grand uncle went. But now it is not so far-fetched that he could have volunteered and served.
Isn't it interesting, though, that later generations of Jamaicans would be heavily engaged in the international movement to end apartheid (Afrikaans for “apartness”) in South Africa. Apartheid (same as US segregation) was formally enforced by the all-white Government of the Afrikaans/Boer-dominated National Party commencing in 1948. Jamaica was the first country, while still a self-governing colony, to impose trade sanctions against South Africa in 1957.
If anyone knows of other Jamaicans who went to the Boer War, please let me know. The participation of Jamaicans in this war could be the subject of more in-depth study.
My thanks to those who provided information for this article.
Marcia E Thomas is a history enthusiast. Send comments or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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