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White conceptions of black capabilities in pro-slavery America

Dr Tim Lockley, School of Comparative American Studies

Published October 2014

As part of a four-year research project to better understand the role of black men in the British Army, “Africa’s Sons Under Arms”, Tim Lockley will explore the evolving nature of racial thought, explaining how medical research from the British West India Regiments influenced pro-slavery feeling and practice in America.

Illustration from Josiah Nott, Types of Mankind [Philadelphia, 1854]

The West Indian Regiments are part of British, West Indies and, resulting from their involvement in the British Empire, world history. Formed in 1795, the British West India Regiments brought together former slaves and men of African and African-Caribbean descent into the British infantry. Dr David Lambert and Dr Tim Lockley, along with two PhD students from the University of Warwick will be working with Dr Philip Hatfield from the British Library on a four year research project to better understand the role of black men as soldiers, and later veterans, in the British Army Regiments from 1795 up until the outbreak of the first world war.

As part of the West India Regiments project, Africa’s Sons Under Arms, Tim Lockley will explore the evolving nature of racial thought at the end of the 18th and the first half of the 19th century. Tim explains how medical research from the British West India Regiments influenced pro-slavery in America, laying down some of the ‘facts’ and information about slavery that allowed white settlers to justify enslaving black people.

Supporters of African enslavement in nineteenth century America used a variety of arguments to support a racial hierarchy where white men were masters and black men and women were slaves

“Supporters of African enslavement in nineteenth century America used a variety of arguments to support a racial hierarchy where white men were masters and black men and women were slaves. Those of African descent were thought to be uncivilised, brutish, savage even, and best suited to the manual labour that plantation-based economies needed.

Josiah Nott“Biblical sanction for African slavery could also be found by those looking hard enough. An important strand of this pro-slavery thought used medical science to support racial theories. Philadelphian physician Samuel George Morton and his fellow doctor Josiah Nott, from Alabama, have been credited with pioneering the theory of polygenesis to support slavery in America.

“Morton and Nott argued that broad physiological differences between the ‘races’ (particularly the shape of skulls and its impact on brain size) supported the idea that there were actually a number of different human species, not just one. But what has generally been overlooked is that doctors had been discussing medical differences between the ‘races’ for a long time. These were not simply outward physiological differences between the hair, nose, and skin (which had fascinated travellers since the sixteenth century); doctors, including those with the British West India Regiments, had been interested in the very divergent degrees of resistance to tropical disease possessed by those of African and European descent.

“Robert Jackson, who served in a number of medical capacities, including army physician, with the British army in the West Indies between 1774 and 1815, was very much aware of the differential impact of yellow fever. Working in Jamaica in the 1770s he noted:
“It has never been observed that negro, immediately from the coast of Africa, has been attacked with this disease…Europeans, males particularly, suffer from it soon after their arrival in the tropical countries.”

Robert Jackson

“The work of Jackson, and the direct observations of British army military commanders in the Caribbean, facilitated the formation of the West India Regiments. Black troops, resistant to the diseases that ravaged white troops, were intended to defend British West Indian possessions from French attacks.

“It was doctors who asserted that black people were “resistant to heat” and therefore most suited manual labour in a tropical climate. Moreover the best way to protect and sustain white military personnel was to use black soldiers, like those in the British West India Regiments, for “fatiguing and dangerous duties.”

“The nature of soldiering, with its demands for unthinking obedience, and reckless bravery also meshed neatly with white conceptions of black capabilities. Soldiers who would carry out orders without a thought for their own safety were in many respects a commander’s dream. It was but a small step to use these arguments to state that medical science had proved the necessity of African slavery on southern plantations.”

  • Funded by the Arts & Humanities Research Council, the “Africa’s Sons Under Arms” (ASUA) research project will study the West India Regiments in order to explore the relationships between the arming of people of African descent and the changing nature of racial thought from the late 18th to early 20th centuries. It will examine the soldiers as objects of medical scrutiny during their time in the Caribbean; as figures of public interest who served within the wider British army; and as participants in organised sport watched by local and visiting spectators.
  • More information of the project can be found here.
  • The University of Warwick research team is drawn from its Department of History, its School of Comparative American Studies, its Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies and its Global History and Culture Centre, along with the British Library team.

Dr Tim LockleyDr Tim Lockley is Reader of Comparative American Studies at the Unviersity of Warwick. He is currently leading the research project, "Africa's Sons Under Arms". The research seeks to answer questions such as, 'How did medical personnel attached to the West India Regiment come to understand the nature of the black bodies they dealt with?', 'How far did they arrive at a coherent body of thought regarding the racialised identity of black soldiers?', 'Were competing racial theories espoused by doctors and, if so, how were those differences resolved?' and 'Did physicians perceive any difference between WIR soldiers and enslaved people in the Caribbean?'