I first drafted this post in the summer of 2017, moved to respond to news of a poll indicating that a large majority of people in the UK felt the British Empire was a legacy to be proud of. But I never published it. At the time, it felt too personal and there were discrepancies I couldn't satisfactorily resolve, as you will see. A bit over three years on and the issues that had inspired me to write this post in the first place are still here; the legacy of empire remains a hotly contested topic. But the responses to that legacy and the context of empire are now, I think, moving (if slowly) in the right direction.
Lack of basic knowledge about Britain’s Empire is one of the issues that has been identified in the debates. I didn’t go through the UK school system, so I can only refer to what others have said about the absence British imperial history in the primary and secondary school curriculum. But TV programmes such as David Olusoga’s Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016), and Olusoga's book of the same title, have begun to present that history. Several Who Do You Think You Are episodes have exposed various celebrities’ imperial roots.*
If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know that as a researcher I spend a fair amount of time finding out how British archaeologists lived and worked in countries that were, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, informally or formally administered by Britain. But for this post, I’m going to look at how the British empire affected one branch of my own family tree.
One of my great grandfathers was Joseph N. Maxwell. I’ve never seen a picture of him, but I do know a bit about his life thanks to two eighty-odd year old letters, kept in the family. Blurry photographs of photocopies of them are currently lurking in a folder on my computer. They are petitions written by my great grandmother Rosilia Maxwell in February 1932 in order to plead with the government of Grenada for the continuation of badly needed pension funds. Her husband Joseph had died the previous September, only four months into his retirement, after a total of 32 ½ years of public (government) service. Rosilia was now the sole provider for several children under eleven years of age.
In order to support her case, Rosilia outlined her husband’s professional career in some detail. He had retired as Senior Warder at Richmond Hill Prison after 22 ½ years in prison service, and he had previously worked in Grenada’s Public Works Department. While he worked at the Prison, the Maxwells had lived on a house nearby which it seems came with the job; one of the major expenses she had was paying for the construction of a new house for herself and her children to live in.
I know from experience that it can be very difficult to find documentation of roles beneath the top layer of Departmental officials in printed records (such as Blue Books, Handbooks, or Civil Service lists). Records of British colonial administrations are also patchy - Operation Legacy is reflective of that.** So I have no idea at present in what capacity Joseph worked for the colonial Public Works Department. But before that, Rosilia declared, Joseph had served in HM forces, as a gunner in the St Lucia Garrison Artillery, during which time “…your Excellency’s petitioner’s late husband Joseph N. Maxwell served as a soldier in the Boer War.”
To discover more about his Boer War service, some years ago my mother went to the National Archives in Kew. There, in WO97 files (War Office discharge papers) she found a likely candidate. A “Joseph Maxwell”, born in 1870, a British subject in Barbados. This Caribbean island had been a British colony since the 17th century. This Joseph worked as a groom, probably in St George parish where his parents lived, until 1892. In August that year he joined the Royal Artillery’s St Lucia Company as a gunner. He signed his name on the recruitment form clearly and legibly, declaring his intention to serve in the Artillery for the next twelve years of his life. A 5 foot 7 inch man with a dark brown eyes and black hair. Complexion: black. He was 22.
Barbados was the headquarters for Britain’s military forces in the Caribbean. The first few years of Joseph’s military service were, shall we say, chequered. His record indicates that about six months after he joined up he was in civil custody, eventually he was tried and imprisoned for a hefty nine months for lashing out at the civil police. He returned to duty in January 1894, only to be put on trial toward the end of 1895 and imprisoned again (with hard labour this time) for nearly three months. No charge was recorded for the second imprisonment.
But, this wasn’t enough for him to be kicked out of the Artillery. By February 1896 he was back on duty. Perhaps he decided prison sentences weren’t getting him anywhere. In fact, his service record indicates that before he was finally discharged in 1901 as “medically unfit for further service” he had been granted “GC [good conduct] pay” twice, in October 1899 and October 1901. What could have occasioned this change?
Joseph’s first lot of “GC pay” came just four days before war between Britain and the South African Boers was officially declared on 11 October 1899. I have no idea whether Joseph actually went to South Africa, or what he might have been doing there if he did. On the form listing his “Service at Home or Abroad” the column for “countries” only says Barbados. I’m not a military historian, so perhaps there’s more that can be inferred from these records that I’m not aware of. (If you know more do get in touch!)
However, troops from the Caribbean were involved in the Boer War, as my great grandmother's letter attests. Interestingly (given my great grandfather's post-war profession) one of the roles these Caribbean soldiers had was guarding prisoners of war. Boer prisoners were held in British run concentration camps in South Africa; but they weren't only held there. POW camps were established in a variety of places including St Helena (where Napoleon had been held earlier in the century), Ceylon (Sri Lanka), India and in the Caribbean at Bermuda (newspapers reported plans to house prisoners in other islands, including Barbados, were later abandoned because the war ended).
History works best, I think, and is most effectively communicated when it’s human – by which I mean the messy, confusing, wonderful, depressing stories of everyday life. Those stories cut across every stereotype and assumption about class, race, gender, nationality. People are people no matter where they’re from or what they look like. Now, there’s only so much you can do as a historian with what’s left, but you can have a go at building up a history. So here’s my attempt. Fragments of one man and one woman’s story to illuminate a small bit of Britain’s imperial history. Maybe it’ll resonate with other people. If it does, my job is done. For now.
Benbow, Colin, 1982. Boer Prisoners of War in Bermuda. Bermuda College.
Boer, Nienke, 2017. Exploring British India: South African prisoners of war as imperial travel writers, 1899-1902. Journal of Commonwealth Literature: 1-15.
Derby Daily Telegraph, 1902. The Boer Prisoners at Barbados. [British Newspaper Archive]. 23 May.
Olusoga, David, 2016. Black and British: A Forgotten History. London: Pan Macmillan.
Royle, Stephen. St Helena as a Boer prisoner of war camp, 1900-2: information from the Alice Stopford Green papers. Journal of Historical Geography 24 (1): 53-68.
Sheffield Evening Telegraph 1902. West Indies and Boer Prisoners. [British Newspaper Archive], 3 July.
The National Archives. Service Record: Joseph Maxwell. TNA WO97/5488.
* These include (for the Caribbean islands), Moira Stuart (2004, Antigua & Dominica); Colin Jackson (2006, Jamaica); Ainsley Harriott (2008, Jamaica & Barbados); Gwyneth Paltrow (2011, Barbados); John Barnes (2012, Jamaica); Liz Bonnin (2016, Trinidad & Martinique); Noel Clarke (2017, Trinidad, Grenada & Carriacou); Marvin Humes (2018, Jamaica); Naomie Harris (2019, Grenada & Jamaica).
** See Dr Mandy Banton's excellent talk about colonial administrative records here. The Museum of British Colonialism has also been doing excellent work drawing attention to Operation Legacy.