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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > Books on military subjects

The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age.

Buckley, Norman Roger. The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998. 360 pp. Tables, maps, images, notes, bibliography and index. ISBN# 0813016045. $55.

The British Army in the West Indies cover

"A Portal to the New Military History in the Caribbean and Beyond"

The most important contributions of Roger Norman Buckley's book The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age are the research directions in which it points future scholars. Intended as a corrective to the relative dearth of information about the British military in the West Indies compared to its presence in other regions such as Africa and India, Buckley endeavors to apply social history techniques to bring to life the experiences of this seemingly forgotten "phantom army" (p. xiv). Including chapters on the challenges of adjusting to a new physical environment, the formation of the West Indian garrison, the social composition of the troops, the tension within the garrison and with the planter society that housed it, and on the general military experience of the revolutionary wars in the British Caribbean, the book is ambitious in its scope and pulls together an impressive variety of sources. Buckley has carried out archival research in ten countries, consulted an impressive array of printed material, and made use of archaeological and artistic artifacts (buttons, paintings, engravings, fragments of children's toys, novels, etc.) to offer his readers an indication of the broader social context of the British army's activities in the Caribbean theater. This lofty goal represents both the book's value and its ultimate shortcomings as it inevitably raises more questions than it can possibly answer.

Buckley has five aims in this first comprehensive study of the British army in the Caribbean for the years 1793-1815: 1) to reconstruct "the inner life" of the garrison, meaning its organization and social conditions, 2) the relationship between the royal garrison and Creole society, 3) to demonstrate that the garrison was a "vital institution of Creole society and an important instrument of social change." 4) to recreate the sense of drama and adventure experienced by the men, women, and children who served the garrison, and 5) to stimulate interest in a future comprehensive history of the British army in the Caribbean, beginning with its first deployment in Barbados in 1652. He is most successful in his first, fourth, and final goals. There is much discussion of the conditions in which the members of the garrison lived and worked, including many anecdotes and individual stories, and each chapter does suggest a multiplicity of directions for future research. Less clearly drawn is the relationship of the military to society, both on the islands themselves and between those societies and that of England itself. Readers will find themselves wondering both how the experiences of the British army in the West Indies compared to those of other British colonies (Canada, Africa, India, Australia) during that era, and how their conditions compared to those the armies of other colonial powers in the Caribbean.

Reflecting the profession's growing interest in environmental history, Buckley attempts to trace the impact of the increasing British military presence on the physical condition of the islands. The author notes the "environmental-altering proclivity" of the garrisons, as they sought to tame and control their surroundings. Buckley recounts the striking abundance of the descriptions of nature found in travelers' accounts and ships' logs during this era, and points out the stark contrast of the Caribbean climate and vegetation to anything previously experienced by the newly-arrived men and women. As it is, the section is mainly descriptive and fails to make a clear link between ecological change and the expansion of the capitalist economy, as suggested by one of the book's main themes, or to make use of the methodologies of the new studies in environmental history; future students of the region undoubtedly will take up this implied challenge and may produce analyses of ecological exploitation by conquering forces pioneered by Warren Dean for Brazil and Elinor Melville for Central Mexico.

The section describing the formation of the West Indian garrison reveals many interesting aspects of the relationship between the military and society in the British Caribbean, but also lays bare some problems as well. Noting that settlers preceded soldiers in the island, Buckley accepts the common assertion that the militarization of society often accompanies the extension of capitalism. His discussions of the development of the criminal justice system and the extensive use of prisoners as soldiers more than indicate a clear link between the needs of the propertied classes and the rise of standing armies to extend and protect ones power both within and against foreign threats. Yet, the subsequent chapter dealing with the perpetual tensions between the army and the Creole society over prestige, funds, the role of the slave in island culture muddies the overall picture of this very relationship. There is reference to the "Africanization" of the garrison (p. 128), but Buckley does not develop in great detail the ideological implications of this significant social change, how it might compare to other European colonial regiments in the region, or what is the impact of this development to the abolition process. By the end of the book, it is unclear both whose purposes the army was serving and what was the relationship of the islands (and their planter leaders) to the central power base in England. Buckley quotes Stephen Saunders Webb, saying "There can be no empires without armies" (p. 45) and goes on to discuss armed force as the defining characteristic of empire, but extends Webb's conception to include not only internal compulsion, but also the necessity to maintain a guard against external threats as well. Buckley includes much information about the historical development of domestic standing armies, but the nature and characteristics of colonial armies remains less clearly drawn.

There is much highly colored language, such as repeated references like "10 million Africans stolen from their homelands in West Africa and transported against their will to the America . . . . Here was the epitome of evil" (p. 42). There are many anachronistic analyses such as a description of contemporary uniforms as something "no thinking person would possibly wear" (p. 120) or a condemnation of child service in the military as "ludicrous, dangerous, and, most importantly, immoral" (p. 124). Buckley recounts many equally appalling examples of English prisoners or unfortunate lower-class men being "crimped," or kidnapped, into service as soldiers in the Indies, but he reserves his harshest criticism and vitriolic language for those brought over from Africa against their will. If one can draw distinctions between better and worse forms of forced relocation and servitude that leads to harsh conditions and, typically, a painful early death, Buckley raises interesting questions not only about race, class and impressment and forced service, but also about the influence of race on the way we interpret the past.

The book could have benefited from some more careful editing. There are several extended passages that seem extraneous; for example, the first chapter, which deals with the soldiers' adjustments to their new tropical environment, is particularly overburdened with high flown descriptions and metaphors far beyond that which is necessary to make Buckley's point. Furthermore, there are many instances of repetitive assertions, sometimes within the space of a few pages, and often across chapters; issues of health and the prevalence of annoying mosquitoes are just two examples. Some of the book's organization is confusing; for example there is no mention of homosexuality in the section on the soldier's domestic and sexual relations; discussions of sodomy appeared briefly in a later chapter's section on criminality and British military justice. Obviously, this could simply reflect the prevailing attitude of the era which viewed homosexual behavior as a abhorrent crime against nature, but by limiting its discussion in this book to the section on criminality, Buckley unintentionally reinforces the old notion that this is where it properly belongs.

The meticulously researched and often engagingly written book by Roger Norman Buckley, The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age is likely to win its author the gratitude of future scholars for the avenues of investigation that it opens up for the next generation. The experience of women in the forces, criminality in the British Caribbean, the nature and operation of police duties and their relationship to the militias, the connection between black battalions and white forces (and the development of the abolitionist cause in general), and the concrete relationship between capitalist expansion and the development of a regularized military presence in the region all beckon the researcher in need of a topic. Furthermore, the general nature of the book raises the question about differences and similarities of the experiences of the militias stationed on the various islands.

Reviewed by Karen Racine, History Department, Valparaiso University.

Originally published by H-LatAm. (June, 2000).
Citation: Karen Racine. "Review of Roger Norman Buckley, The British Army in the West Indies: Society and the Military in the Revolutionary Age," H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews, June, 2000. URL:

Reprinted by permission of H-Net,
Copyright © 2000, Published by H-LatAm: H-Net, Humanities & Social Sciences OnLine.