“This Regiment some months ago was sent to Aldershot and we with about ten other dark men were left behind and eventually sent to Northampton to the Reserve Battalion18th Middlesex. Our life here is intolerable.”
Private Donald Brown in his letter to the Colonial Office
Donald Brown was born in 1895 in Demerara, British Guiana, a British colony of South America.
The ‘coloured’ inhabitants of British Guiana (now known as Guyana) began to experience widespread dissatisfaction with the standard of living in the country, and in 1905 riots broke out in the major towns. The first trade unions in the country were formed at this time; British Guiana had become radically politicised.
On 8 July 1915, at the age of 20, Brown joined up at the recruitment office in Holloway, London. He trained under the 21st and 28th Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment. He first trained in Aldershot, followed by a camp in Northampton. Brown was admitted to hospital for syphilis on 25 October for 24 days.
On 15 March 1916 after having been in training for over half a year, Brown wrote a petition of complaint along with six other ‘coloured’ soldiers from Guiana, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Gold Coast (Ghana), and the West Indies, concerning their ‘intolerable lives’ as black soldiers while in training.
The petition caused some debate at the Colonial Office, memos written at the time show how different civil servants felt about the case . . .
“Neither the War Office nor we can’t help the householders’ dislike of having black men billeted on them.”
“I am very sorry for these men.”
“I think it must be recognised that these men give more trouble than they are worth.”
“The War Office would really assist us by laying down a hard and fast rule that coloured men are not acceptable for British regiments.”
“It is, I think, clear that this petition is the work of some (possibly well-meaning) busy-body: its literary style is not that to be expected from the signatories.”
‘I am aware that we induced them to accept Ceylonese in certain regiments: but that was a special case and [some] are moderately white in aspect.’
Nothing yet is known of what became of Brown or his black comrades, except that three months afterwards Brown was given 20 days detention for absenting himself without official leave (AWOL). His intentions in doing so are unknown.
Donald Brown’s Letter
SIR, We the Undersigned humbly petition that in the circumstances following we may be transferred to munition work or some other work useful to the country at the present time, or discharged the service. In July last we left our Native lands to come to England and join the Colours. We offered ourselves and were accepted, being drafted into the 11th Middlesex. This Regiment some months ago was sent to Aldershot and we with about ten other dark men were left behind and eventually sent to Northampton to the Reserve Battalion18th Middlesex. Our life here is intolerable. The men refuse to associate or have any intercourse with us: they will not sleep with us and it is therefore extremely difficult for us to obtain billets: householders do not want us and on one occasion two of us had to stay in the streets all night. We apparently are regarded and certainly are treated as an inferior race and no pains are taken to disguise aversion to us: it is difficult to enumerate the many grievances we have to bear, they are so many and continuous, but as before stated our life is intolerable and now we know that we are not wanted by our comrades. We have left our homes prompted by patriotism and a desire to do our share at the present juncture and we keenly disappointed at our reception.
We therefore humbly ask you to use your influence to effect what we have ventured to ask, namely that we be transferred to some other work or discharged. We are still willing to do what we can, however little, for the County.
We are, SIR,
Your Obedient Servants.
Private Donald Brown, 15636, 28th Bat Middlesex Regt. of Demerara, British Guiana
- Lynslanger, West Africa
- G. R. Ross, British Guiana
- Clarence Esliop, Ceylon
- James Obie, Accra, Gold Coast, West Africa
- Leopold D. Duncan, Jamaica West Indies
View ‘Treatment of Coloured people in the Army’ petition
Courtesy of National Archives
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