To mark the publication of his new book, 'Black Poppies', Stephen Bourne reflects on researching Britain's black community and the First World War.
He felt British. He was descended from slaves taken from West Africa but English was his first language. His schoolbooks were written by British people; he lived under British law; he was brought up to admire British poets and British musicians and British scientists and British politicians and British nobility. His allegiance was to King George V, to his Mother Country and to British people all over the world. When Britain declared war on Germany he felt included.
Jackie Turpin, writing about his father Lionel, a Guyanese Merchant Seaman in Battling Jack: You Gotta Fight Back [Mainstream Publishing, 2005].
Though I am not a military historian, when the opportunity came to me to write a book about the contribution of black soldiers to the First World War - to coincide with the 2014 centenary - I was extremely eager to extend the story of the First World War.
My intention was to include Britain’s wider black community. My publisher – The History Press – were in agreement, and so I divided Black Poppies into three sections: military, home front and the 1919 anti-black ‘race riots’ when returning white servicemen clashed with black communities in some of our seaports, such as Cardiff and Liverpool.
Before embarking on this journey, I already had some knowledge of the lives of black servicemen and the experiences of the black community in the First World War. These included memories of my adopted aunt, Esther Bruce, a mixed race Londoner born in 1912. When I was younger, she shared with me many anecdotes about her early childhood. However, in spite of the restrictions imposed on me by the absence of funding from cultural and research bodies, further research did enable me to uncover some extraordinary stories that I had not been aware of.
For example, I was deeply moved by the tale of Private Herbert Morris, a sixteen-year-old Jamaican lad who joined the British West Indies Regiment but was traumatised by his exposure to the noise of guns on the front, where he stacked shells. Consequently he was executed for desertion, though pardoned in 2006. Also moving is the story of Isaac Hall, another Jamaican, working in Britain, who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector when conscription was introduced in 1916. He suffered bullying and horrific injuries during his internment at Pentonville Prison but was saved from his ordeal by the pacifist, Dr Alfred Salter.
Apart from Aunt Esther’s stories, first hand testimonies have been almost impossible to find, though I did manage to access Norman Manley’s memoir of his experiences after he enlisted as a private in the British army in 1915. Fortunately it was published posthumously by the Jamaica Journal in 1973. Sweet Patootee’s superb documentary Mutiny (1999) includes interviews with survivors of the British West Indies Regiment. I also found an interview with the acclaimed British-born singer Mabel Mercer in a 1975 edition of Stereo Review in which she recalled her career on the British stage as a music hall entertainer during the First World War. It was a tough life for young Mabel, and contrasted with her later career as a glamorous star of New York cabaret from the 1940s.
Black Poppies concludes with a ‘snapshot’ of Britain’s black community in 1919, a watershed year which witnessed, amongst other things, the beginnings of jazz music in Britain and the influential work of some of our earliest black-led publications and organisations, including the African Progress Union. Though black settlers have been part of our landscape since at least the 15th century, it is generally accepted that the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 marked the beginning of the modern black community in Britain. It is possible that 1919 will now stand out as a landmark year.
Black Poppies – Britain’s Black Community and the Great War is available from the History Press. Stephen Bourne’s previous books include Mother Country – Britain’s Black Community and the Home Front 1939-1945 (The History Press, 2010) and The Motherland Calls – Britain’s Black Servicemen & Women 1939-1945 (The History Press, 2012). For further information: www.thehistorypress.co.uk www.stephenbourne.co.uk