Alfred Burton Ellis was an officer in the 1st West India Regiment and had risen to the rank of major by the time The History of the First West India Regiment was published in 1885. Like all officers of the time he was white, while almost all the ordinary soldiers were black.
Burton Ellis wrote this book so that the history of his Regiment – and West India Regiments in general – would be better known to the British public. At a time when the armies of Britain’s European rivals – France, Germany and Russia – were growing in size, he wanted to show that Britain’s Caribbean colonies could be a useful source of soldiers to defend the Empire.
The History begins with the creation of the Regiments at the end of the 18th century. Then, year by year, it describes where the 1st West India Regiment was based, what service it did, what battles and skirmishes it took part in and any awards or praise it received.
The whole of Chapter XXVI (26) is about the Morant Bay Rebellion (11 October 1865). Ellis has no interest in the poverty and inequality that caused the Rebellion and no sympathy for the protestors. To Ellis they were simply ‘insurgents’ who had to be suppressed, and he describes the actions of the soldiers in a very matter-of-fact way, even though they were very controversial at the time. Ellis also states that this was a ‘crucial test’ of the ‘fidelity’ of the 1st West India Regiment – meaning how loyal and trustworthy they would be to their white officers and to the British authorities more generally. Noting that most of the black soldiers were locally born and may even have known some of the rebels, he is pleased that they did not hesitate to follow orders and assist in putting the Rebellion down.