Jamaica was the largest of the British Caribbean island colonies, with a population of 850,000 in 1914. The capital city Kingston had a population of 50,000. Jamaica was originally settled by Spain but was occupied by Britain in 1655. It had a British governor from 1657 and was recognised as British by Spain in 1670.

Like many other Caribbean countries, although there was no fighting in Jamaica itself, it made a large contribution to the war effort by sending men, finances and supplies.

Outbreak of war

WO 408/43 (7)

Map of Jamaica 1911-1942 war years WO 408/43 (7)

At the start of the war, Jamaica was the only Caribbean colony to have a permanent Imperial garrison with a battalion of the original West India Regiment stationed on the island. As soon as war was declared, the Governor brought laws into force laws to establish the Jamaica Volunteer Defence Force and to allow the Jamaica Constabulary Force to undertake military as well as ordinary police service. (CO 141/77). The Jamaica Militia Artillery provided a further company. All of the forces provided protection for Jamaica in case of invasion.

The Governor called on the patriotism of Jamaicans to defend their island and £10,000 was set aside for defence of the island. 

War effort

CO 1069/369 (33)

Jamaica War memorial, unveiling and dedication, 11 November 1922 CO 1069/369 (33)

The Jamaica Volunteer Defence Force was made up of three units. The St Andrew Rifle Corps (known later as The Kingston Infantry Volunteers), was made up of 120 men. The Jamaica Corps of Scouts was made up of 200 armed and mounted scouts and a separate unit of 100 bicycle scouts. Finally the Jamaica Reserve Regiment, the biggest of the three units, had over 1,100 volunteers by the end of 1915.

The volunteer force was a purely a defensive force for the island. Volunteers were not required to serve outside the island unless individuals chose to do so.

In April 1915, a War Contingent Committee was created with the initial aim to raise funds to send 200 Jamaican volunteers who couldn’t afford to fund their travel abroad and other associated costs of joining the British forces. Together with the Kingston Women’s Fund Committee, the fundraising was so successful that plans for an island unit developed, and the British West Indies Regiment was created (separate to the West India Regiment). Soldiers from Jamaica made up two thirds of the regiment which represented the whole of the Caribbean.

Jamaica supported the war effort through gifts of its own produce as well as military support. In a telegram of 1 September 1914, the Governor declared: ‘The people of Jamaica unanimously desire to contribute to the Imperial Government in some way towards the expenses of the war other than its own local defence.’ (CO 137/704/58).

In October 1914, the Legislative Council agreed a gift of £50,000 worth of sugar. By November 1914, shipments of donations of oranges and grapefruits for wounded soldiers and cigarettes for the troops were beginning to be shipped to the UK (CO 137/705). 

British West Indies Regiment

In May 1915 the British government announced that contingents for active service would be accepted from Jamaica, Barbados, British Guiana and Trinidad and Tobago, following the work by the Jamaica War Contingent Committee. This was quickly extended to include all the West Indies. Following the arrival of the first contingent, an announcement in the London Gazette in October 1915 declared that a corps had been formed and would be called ‘The British West Indies Regiment’.

Jamaicans living overseas were also recruited. The United Fruit Company managed the Jamaican fruit trade, and had a strong operation in Central America. Many Jamaican labourers worked in the Central American plantations. Men were therefore recruited from Central America, as well as the Panama Canal where Jamaicans and other British West Indians had moved for work. From May to August 1917, 2,100 recruits made the journey to Jamaica to join up.

In June 1917 a law was passed making all male British subjects between the ages of 18 and 41 living in Jamaica eligible for military service (with some exceptions). However, due to various delays and the American military’s transport needs, conscription was never enforced beyond the initial recruitment stages.

Although 185 men from the regiment were killed in the fighting, far more died from sickness. Many men were serving in climates that they were unused to. In 1916 the troopship Verdala which was carrying the third Jamaican contingent was redirected to Nova Scotia where, without adequate clothing, many men were incapacitated or died of frostbite and pneumonia (CO 318/338/32, CO 318/339/91).

Despite fighting alongside troops from Britain, the West Indian regiment was still not treated equally. In 1918 the pay of British soldiers was increased, but the increase was withheld from the West Indian regiment until the West Indian Contingent Committee wrote to the government with signatures of seven ex-West Indian Governors in protest (CO 318/347/51).

Key figures

Brigadier General Sir William Manning

Governor of Jamaica until May 1918

Sir Leslie Probyn

Governor of Jamaica from 1918

St William Wellington Wellwood Grant

Served in the 11th battalion British West Indies Regiment

Key documents

FO 383/239 (1)

Civil-military camp, Kingston Garden, Jamaica, 1916. FO 383/239 (1)

  • Jamaica Gazette, extraordinary publication: Governor's proclamation of war and military laws, August 14 and 20 1914 CO 141/77
  • Jamaica, correspondence, 20 October 1914: report of Governor W Manning on Jamaican response to the outbreak of war CO 137/705 f 99-109
  • Details of contributions to the war effort in sugar, fruit, cigarettes and donations CO 137/705
  • Services rendered by Jamaica during the war: Jamaica number 148, ff 91-96, 5 April 1919 CO 137/731/9
  • Contribution by Jamaica to the war effort: payment towards reduction of the War Debt; provision of a military contingent, 1917 T 1/12087
  • Report from the Commanding Officer of the troops and the medical officer of troops on board SS Verdala concerning the cause of sickness amongst the West Indian contingent on board. War Office, ff 565-574, May 1916 CO 318/339/91
  • SS Verdala had been diverted to Halifax, Nova Scotia, because the possibility of a German raider being at large in the Atlantic had lead to decision that no troop ships should cross unless under convoy. Such convoys were available at Halifax. Admiralty expresses regret that it was not realised that troops on the Verdala were not equipped for the Canadian climate, and that there was then a delay in reporting this fact to the Admiralty following arrival at Halifax. Admiralty, ff 287-292, 29 June 1919 CO 318/338/32
  • Protests against the British West Indies Regiment being debarred from benefits under Army Order 1 of 1918. Encloses a printed copy. West Indian Contingent Committee, ff 266-288, 1918 Dec 30 CO 318/347/51

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