These photographs are of West India Regiment soldiers in Sierra Leone celebrating on Christmas Day. Major General Charles Howard Foulkes (1875–1969) took the photo while he was serving in the British Army as a 2nd lieutenant in the Royal Engineers in Sierra Leone during the Hut Tax War (1897–99). The photo is part of a larger personal album that Foulkes created during his service in Africa and the Caribbean.
We do not know the identities of the soldiers. Nor do we have more details regarding the specific context of the celebrations beyond what is written in the caption. Interestingly, Foulkes did not comment on the photos in his accompanying journal. However, it is clear in the image that soldiers from the West India Regiment were holding a Christmas masquerade celebration, including stilt-walking and drum and fife music. And white officers from the Regiment were present.
Christmas celebrations are historically significant for people of African descent throughout the Americas, as the holiday was one of the few times when they were allowed to gather and celebrate without the immediate gaze and control of their masters or bosses. People of African descent would often use such moments in order to organise themselves against the colonial slave regime. For example, Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion, which was led by Sam Sharpe – also known as the ‘Baptist War’ – began on Christmas Day in 1831.
The West India Regiment soldiers in this photo are performing a form of masquerade that today is alternatively recognised as ‘Junkanoo’, ‘Moko Jumbie’ and ‘Shaggy Bear’. With roots in West African rituals, this masked stilt-dancing and music was prasticed in varying forms across the Caribbean at least since the mid 18th century – in particular in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, and the Bahamas.
Using musical instruments intended for military drilling and regulation, these soldiers created grass-roots cultural connections across the British Empire.