Mutiny! The story of the 8th West India Regiment

Mutiny! The story of the 8th West India Regiment

  • Article written by: Tim Lockley
  • Published: 16 Nov 2017
In 1802 the 8th West Indian Regiment rose up against officers at their post in Prince Rupert’s, Dominica. Tim Lockley explains the cause of the mutiny, and its immediate aftermath.

Mutinies, where ordinary soldiers or sailors refuse to obey orders and might even attack their officers, occurred quite often in the 18th and 19th centuries. The mutiny of the 8th West India Regiment in Dominica in 1802 was one of the largest (it involved most of the Regiment), and seemed to confirm white fears that training and arming black men was a bad idea in a region where whites were heavily outnumbered by slaves.

Plan of the island of Dominica, 1776

Plan of the Island of Dominica

This 1776 map of Dominica provided British authorities with a definitive map of an island they had captured from France in 1761.

View images from this item  (2)

Usage terms Public Domain

Dominica

The small island of Dominica occupies a strategic position in the Caribbean between the French islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe. The British had captured it from the French in 1761. The best military position on the island was Prince Rupert’s, a small headland surrounded on three sides by the sea and dominated by two large hills (the ‘Cabrits’). The fort located between these hills was virtually impregnable.

The problem for military commanders was that the fort was also very unhealthy. The land connection with the rest of the island was a swamp, perfect for mosquitoes that spread tropical diseases, and therefore every white regiment that went there suffered terribly. By 1802 it had become a place that could only be manned by black soldiers.

Plan of Prince Rupert's Bay in the island of Dominica

Plan of Prince Ruperts Bay in the Island of Dominica

This plan of Prince Rupert’s Head was made for the army in 1799. It shows precisely the location of every building and gun battery.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms © The National Archives, ref. MPHH1/18/1
Held by © The National Archives, ref. MPHH1/18/1

The 8th West India Regiment

Formed in 1798, the 8th West India Regiment had 14 white officers, 21 black sergeants and 475 black privates. It had been used successfully in offensive operations against the French West Indian islands in 1801 before being posted to Prince Rupert’s. About 80 of the men were Africans recently purchased from slave ships who had only joined the Regiment shortly before the mutiny.

The mutiny

On the evening of Friday 9 April 1802 a large portion of the men rose up against their white officers, killing five of them. Most were shot during the uprising, but one officer was tortured with bayonets before dying of his wounds. The remaining white men fled to the top of one of the two hills on Prince Rupert’s or escaped inland to get help. The mutineers were now in complete control of the fort.

Early the next morning the governor of the island, Alexander Cochrane Johnstone, was informed of the mutiny. He quickly assembled a force of white troops to travel by sea from the capital Roseau to Prince Rupert’s, a distance of 30 miles. They arrived on the evening of Sunday 11 April.

Two letters about the mutiny of the 8th West India Regiment, 1802

Military despatches

'Sir, The 8th West India Regiment at Prince Ruperts have mutinied; several of the Officers are shot...'

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms © National Archives, London
Held by © National Archives

Suppression

On the morning of 12 April, the mutineers agreed that Governor Johnstone could enter the fort and discuss the situation. He brought the white troops with him, and the two sides faced each other across the parade ground in the middle of the fort. Johnstone ordered the 8th West India Regiment to lay down their arms and most did so. Some, however, refused, and when a shot rang out everyone grabbed their weapons. The white troops immediately opened fire on the mutineers, and over the next several hours they captured all of the men of the 8th West India Regiment, killing anyone who resisted. By the end, around 100 mutineers were dead and the fort was back in white hands.

Two letters about the mutiny of the 8th West India Regiment, 1802

Military despatches

'Sir, I have just time to inform Your Excellency, that we have carried the Garrison ... We were allowed to enter the Garrison without being fire on ...'

View images from this item  (4)

Usage terms © National Archives, London
Held by © National Archives

Enquiries

There were several enquiries into the mutiny and most were very critical of the role of Governor Johnstone. In the weeks before the mutiny the governor had ordered the soldiers to dig drainage channels in a nearby swamp, in the hope of making the land suitable for growing sugar. This was not the usual work of soldiers, and both the Army and the government of Dominica said that he should not have done this. They also found out that Johnstone himself owned land next to Prince Rupert’s and would personally benefit from the work they were doing. When the Regiment’s accounts were looked at, it became clear that the men had not been paid properly for some time. Since the money had been sent from headquarters, it seems that someone had been taking the money for themselves. Again, the finger of suspicion was pointed at Johnstone, who was colonel-in-chief of the Regiment.

The surviving men of the 8th West India Regiment were also interviewed about why the mutiny had happened. They complained about the lack of pay and about the hard work in the swamp, but they were most upset about being used like slaves. They had heard rumours that the Regiment was going to be disbanded, and feared that they would be sold into slavery on local plantations.

Records from the Court of Inquiry investigation into the mutiny of the 8th West India Regiment, 1802

Military despatches

This document contains testimony about the mutiny from two of the surviving white officers, Captain Barr and Captain Cassin.

View images from this item  (10)

Usage terms © National Archives, London
Held by © National Archives

Aftermath

Although many of the ringleaders had been killed when the fort was retaken, the Army held court martials for another 23 men: 11 were executed, seven were whipped and five were acquitted. The white officer in charge of the fort, Major Gordon, was also court martialled for failure to pay the men properly and for using them as labourers. He claimed to be following orders from the governor and was acquitted. Governor Johnstone lost his job and was recalled to England.

The 8th West India Regiment was disbanded as a result of the mutiny. Of 475 ordinary soldiers who had been in the Regiment at the time of the mutiny, 148 were transferred to the 1st, 3rd and 4th West India Regiments and would remain as soldiers; 206 were reclassified as ‘pioneers’ (a more menial role in the Army), split into small groups and sent to other islands to work for white regiments; the rest were dead.

Book expressing concerns about the loyalty of black soldiers in the West India Regiments

Travels in Trinidad

Less than a year after the mutiny M'Calllum reflects on the policy of using black soldiers in the West Indies concluding that the risk of using men who have no ‘amor patriae’ or ‘love of country’ is too high. M’Callum’s widely-read book helped to spread a racist and negative image of the West India Regiments.

View images from this item  (1)

Usage terms Public Domain

  • Tim Lockley
  • Tim Lockley is a Professor of North American History at the University of Warwick. He is the author of Lines in the Sand: Race and Class in Lowcountry Georgia, 1750–1860 (2001); Welfare and Charity in the Antebellum South (2007) and Maroon Communities in South Carolina (2009). His part of the ‘Africa’s Sons under Arms’ AHRC project is entitled ‘Military Medicine and the Making of Race: the West India Regiments 1795–1865'

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.