Maria Ryan, Assistant Professor of Musicology, Florida State University
Between 1798 and 1808 the British Army purchased over 14,000 Africans, coercing them directly into service in the newly raised West India Regiments. These regiments formed just one element of a crowded military presence in Britain’s circum-Caribbean colonies, which also consisted of rotating British regiments, a naval presence, and militias of both white and free Black residents. Music mattered in all of these forces. Although some military music was intended to discipline or organize—canons marking the hours, bugles giving orders, or drums accompanying a flogging—other music was social, and was crucial in structuring relationships between different racialized people.
African and African-descended people in the Caribbean were undoubtedly aware of the British military’s role in upholding white supremacy. But their close proximity to, and even membership in, the military meant that they also saw its weaknesses, learned the desires and fears of white soldiers, sailors and officers, and absorbed their tactics and values. This included learning, developing, and sometimes exploiting the musical tastes and skills of the military. Through musical moments such as a Black militia band playing a waltz, Black naval washerwomen organizing a dance for stationed British soldiers, and mixed-race women hosting “dignity balls,” Ryan explores how negotiations of race and gender, taste and power, operated in scenes of music-making during slavery.
Caption: “8 W. India Regmt.” Quizem, Sketches of West Indian life, 1810-1814. Print Collection, National Library of Jamaica
This event was first published on October 18, 2021 and last updated on October 25, 2021.