Letter arguing for the recruitment of black soldiers to serve in British Army in the Caribbean, 25 December 1794


This is an extract of a letter written in late 1794 by General Sir John Vaughan, commanding officer in the Windward and Leeward islands, to Henry Dundas, the secretary of state for war. Vaughan makes the case for recruiting a regiment of black troops to serve in the Caribbean on three grounds.

Firstly, he says that the hot climate of the West Indies is bad for the health of Europeans, and that as a result ‘great mortality’ has occurred in the white regiments. Using black soldiers would reduce the need to use white soldiers and therefore help save white lives.

Secondly, he says that using European troops is more expensive because the Army constantly has to train new recruits to replace those who die, and then transport them from Europe. Black recruits would live longer and not need frequent replacing.

Finally, he states that the British had already successfully adopted a similar policy in India using native people as ‘seapoys’ (also spelled ‘sepoys’) the name given to Indian troops who were employed by the East India Company.

Letters from British Army commanders were very important in persuading officials in London to support the creation of the West India Regiments.


No 6/

Martinico twenty fifth December 1794


I have always thought that the Climate of the West
Indies; the mountainous Country of which most the Islands
are formed; and in particular the Number of Blacks
which are to be kept in order; required the adoption of some
Plan, from which we could avail ourselves of the Service
of the Negroes –

The Example of the Seapoys in the East Indies, is a strong
Proof of what is capable of being effected by Troops of their

While our Enemy did not use this means of Defence
there was not the same pressing Inducement for us
to adopt it – for we remain’d on equal Terms; and
probably had we set the Example, they would soon
have kept pace: But the reverse is now our situation
for the enemy has gain’d Guadaloupe, from arming
and disciplining the Negroes and Mulattoes, and
except in the instance of the Island Rangers, commanded
by M.de Soter, and a few about a hundred fit
for any duty, of the Black Carolina Corps – we have
been overlooking the support, which by exertion [may]
be derived from opposing Blacks to Blacks.

This is an Encouragement that Soter’s Corps, has been
already of the greatest Utility; keeping the Interior
of the Country free from parties of any kind in a

which our Troops are not formed to execute.

Let it also be consider’d, the vast drain which it is to
England, from her Population to support a War in
this country, or even to maintain proper Garrisons
for Defence; and it is very obvious from the Change
in Politics of late years, that these Colonies will require
a greater Force to keep them, than there was formerly
any Cccasion for.

The policy of establishing a great part of the force in
this country; of Blacks commanded by White Officers,
appears so necessary in my Opinion, that I am
anxious to lose no time in recommending it to His
Majesty’s Ministers, to take it into the serious
Consideration, and to direct the Execution of it, on
such principles, as they may judge to be most applicable
to attain the Object in View.

I recommend to them to begin by raising a Corps of a
Thousand Men; divided into ten Companies;
to be in all Respects upon the same Footing as the
marching Regiments – And commanded by a
Colonel, Lieut Colonel, Major – Ten Captains,
twenty-two Lieutenants, eight Ensigns, the usual staff –
with four Sergeants and four Corporals per Company.
I am confident that it would be beneficial to the
service to allow the full Compliment of Captains,
and to grant the same Pay to the Field Officers as if
they had Companies.

There offers two Ways of raising this Corps – Either

by Grants from the Colonies; or by procuring the
Negroes immediately from Africa:

The latter would be attended with considerable Expence
as it is a great Loss of Time, to ^obtain answers to questions, or
to require further Explanations of Plans, between England
and the West Indies; I think no Time should be
lost; but that strong and pressing Recommendations
should be sent directly by His Majesty’s Ministers
to induce the Colonies to make Grants, or Gifts of
a Number of ablest and most Robust Negroes,
for the purpose of raising this Corps; in the levying
of which a due Proportion should be observed, according
to the Populousness of the Islands; in the margins
is mark’d the Number which consideration I should
determine as just.

[margin note]
Antigua 150
Barbados 200
St Kitts 150
Dominica 100
Grenada 200
Tobago 100
St Vincent 100
St Lucia

Should this plan to recruit succeed but in part, probably the
Corps could be completed by inlisting free Negroes, at a
moderate Bounty.

Or if it that should fail, there remains but another
method, that of procuring the men from Africa; which
if done should be managed with great Precaution
by using means from the first outset, to attach them
to our Interest, and to gain their alliance from good [missing text]
and the inducements offer’d, previous to any other

I conceive the latter Description, though the most expensive
in Formation, would be the most to be relied on.

I shall willingly, if there is any Difficulty, on this
point, offer myself as the Colonel of this Corps, and in

doing this, I beg to add that it is without any view to emo =
= lument, as I should wish not to derive any from this
situation, which I would only fill, if it is judged that
the Commander in Chief, can give a countenance, and
Recommendation by his Authority.

In deciding on this whole matter, I beg it may be taken into
consideration, what great Mortality ensues among
our Troops from the Fatigues of Service in this climate.
Let it only be calculated as a Matter of Expence, and let the
total amount at a moderate average be shown, of the value
of the lives /according to the real sums they have cost Go =
= vernment/ of the Soldiers who have perished there within
this year; and I am convinced that every thinking
person will be struck with the great Necessity that Exists,
for the preservation of the Soldiers, and thereby saving
an extraordinary expence to the nation; of directing
without Loss of Time, the Formation of the Corps which
I have now the Honor to recommend: In the
Calculation must be remember’d the vast Expence of the
Transport Service, which must annually take place
to recruit our own Troops.

Before I conclude, I beg to observe, that whether the
War should continue, or Peace take Place, the Benefit
to be derived from this Regiment, and the same Reasons
which I have given for its Formation, remain
equally strong.

And I am convinced that unless we can establish

and procure the full effect of such a Body of Men, to
strengthen our own troops, and to save them in a
thousand Situations, from Service, which in this
Country will always destroy them; that the Army of
Great Britain is inadequate to supply a sufficient
Force to defend these Colonies.

I have the Honor to be , With the Greatest Respect, Sir Your most Obedient and
most humble servt
John Vaughan

To the Right Honble
Henry Dundas

Full title:
b. West Indies and South America. iv. Windward and Leeward Islands. Commander-in-Chief, West Indies. Vaughan to Dundas ‘Secret No 6’ Martinique.
25 December 1794
General Sir John Vaughan
© National Archives
Usage terms

© National Archives, London

Held by
National Archives

Related articles

Creating the West India Regiments

Article by:
Tim Lockley

Before 1795, enslaved men were used as armed reinforcement only in times of emergency. Tim Lockley explores how the threat of invasion and yellow fever forced colonial powers to re-evaluate and witnessed the beginnings of the West India Regiments.

Related collection items