If you grew up in the UK, it’s inevitable that you will have learnt about Winston Churchill defeating the Nazis seemingly all by himself, with the Allied forces in tow and a sprinkle of British exceptionalism of course.
I grew up believing that World War II (WW2) only involved white soldiers – after all that’s all that was in my textbooks, historical novels and feature films. It was almost as though Black people were yet to be invented. Only through my own research did I learn that Black African and Caribbean soldiers were heavily involved in WW2, playing just as big a part as the Western nations. This was because the British Empire, which spread through nations such as Kenya, Ghana and Jamaica, was a huge resource for the armed service, with soldiers being deployed from these countries using questionable methods. Some were told that Hitler was coming to seize their already colonised land, others were coerced into service. Britain recruited 600,00 Black African & Caribbean soldiers with more than 165,000 dying during the conflicts.
Most brazenly but perhaps not shocking; Black soldiers were paid up to three times less than their white counterparts, with a report in The Guardian highlighting this happened to more than half a million black African soldiers. It should come as no surprise that this fact has been buried in Britain’s national archives. If you think that wasn’t enough, the British Empire were using resources from the countries they’d previously pillaged to prop up the war effort, including cocoa revenues from Ghana.
Understandably after fighting in the war and returning home, these soldiers expected to be respected by the very Europeans that brought them to the war in the first place. This didn’t happen – African & Caribbean soldiers are more often than not referred to as the “forgotten soldiers” because quite literally, the British colonial government seemed to forget that these soldiers fought for Britain’s interests. Shortly after the war ended and Black soldiers were met with unpaid wages and broken promises, peaceful protests began in Accra (1948). A policeman acting on behalf of the British colonial government shot at Ghanaian former servicemen, who were among the most decorated African soldiers. This resulted in the Accra riots.
It took until 2017 for the first memorial dedicated to African and Caribbean soldiers to be unveiled in Britain. It is about time that the contribution of black people during WW2 (and WW1 for that matter but that is a whole other article) are included in the national curriculum and celebrated during Black history month. The refrain of “we fought in the war” being used as a rally cry for far right nationalists and Union Jack Twitter wouldn’t hold any weight if it was well-known fact that Caribbean soldiers fought for the same country that opted to discard their own landing cards during the Windrush.
This Black history month, let’s remember that there’s so much more to our history and let’s celebrate the often overlooked and unmentioned.