Far from Home;
A Brief Record of the Life, Military Service and Death of Joseph Gasford; A Black Bandsman of the 89th Foot; Late of St. Domingo and Gosport, Hampshire.
By John D Ellis.
Joseph Gasford was born in French governed St. Domingo, (modern day Haiti and the Domincan Republic), in 1785. Whether he was born enslaved or free, and whether Gasford was his original name, or merely an Anglicised version of the French slave name given to his African forebears remains unknown. Gasford was born in one of the first West Indies colonies to successfully rebel, (in 1792), against slavery.
Although at war with the French, the British, fearing that rebellion should spread to their own colonies, sent two expeditions to put the uprising down. The earliest of these expeditions saw the British Army fight major battles against the free former slaves in 1790s, and whilst unsuccessful, such was Britains fear of the spread of rebellion to their own colonies, that they returned again in the early nineteenth century.
Whilst the 89th Foot, (the regiment Gasford was to enlist in), did not serve in St. Domingo, it did have its 1st Battalion resident in Ireland when Gasford appears to have arrived there sometime prior to 1803. It is possible that he actively sought sanctuary amongst the British, who with abolitionist sentiment growing at home, were beginning to flex their moral superiority vis–vis slavery over their enemies; the new French Republic. Alternatively, and given the British practise of encouraging Black Republican Prisoners of War to re-enlist in the British Armed Forces, it may be that Gasford had been captured, (albeit at a young age), by the British at St. Domingo and chose military service with the British rather than endure long years of captivity in a POW camp.
It is popularly believed that most Black soldiers enlisted in white British raised regiments when such units were based overseas. However, whilst some were indeed recruited overseas, it would appear that the majority of Black soldiers enlisted in either Ireland or on mainland Britain. The historical presence of Black people in Ireland remains largely neglected by historians; however, it seems evident that ships returning to Europe from the Americas probably made Ireland their first port of call in order to replenish supplies and to trade. Likewise Army regiments left badly under strength by duty in the white mans grave of the West Indies, would return to the country to re-stock their ranks with Irish recruits.
Whether Gasford arrived as a sailor on a returning merchant vessel; as a servant in the retinue of an Army regiment; or as a manacled POW; in Athlone, County West Meath, on the 21st of October 1803, the eighteen year old Joseph Gasford enlisted for unlimited service in the 1st Battalion 89th Foot, (later the Royal Irish Fusiliers, but hereafter referred to as the 1st/89th). Most regiments had more than one Black soldier in their ranks, and serving in the 1st/89th when Gasford enlisted was one George Cocoa, a twenty-six year old Jamaican.
The 1st/89th sailed for Holland in November 1805, but after multiple shipwrecks; much loss of life; and the capture of a large proportion of the unit by the Dutch; the prisoners were exchanged and the unit reformed in England in 1806. Unfortunately, in Portsmouth in September 1806, Private George Cocoa was discharged from the regiment after being injured during a shipwreck. On discharge he was described as being 29 years old, 5/9 tall, had black hair, black eyes and having a black complexion. Nothing is known of Cocoas fate.
The 1st/89th were quick to replace Cocoa, and Gasford was soon joined by another Black soldier, one George Warner, a twenty four year old from St. Christophers, West Indies. Following reformation the 1st/89th sailed for South America in February 1807, but mid-passage they were re-directed to the Cape, and from July 1807 they found themselves in Madras, India where they were to serve until 1831.
Initially Black people had been employed as slaves and/or servants to Army officers, acting as an index of rank or opulence supreme for their masters, and indeed officers were to continue to employ Black and Asian servants until well into the twentieth century. However, by the mid-eighteenth century a combination of the perceived innate musical ability of Black people; the fashion for Turkish music; and reforms to Army manpower with the establishment of enlisted military musicians ensured that the use of Black soldiers as military musicians and symbols of regimental rank and opulence had become widespread amongst white British raised regiments. After undergoing instruction in weapons handling and drill, Gasford and Warner joined the regimental band of the 1st/89th.
Whilst the exact role of regimental bands was not to be regulated until the mid-nineteenth century, in the line infantry bands were taken where-ever the regiment went; playing in camp, at military displays and social soires, under enemy fire to keep up the morale of their comrades; or on occasion being called upon to down instruments to pick up muskets and beat off enemy attacks. Thus, as either regimental bandsmen, or at Company level as buglers, drummers and trumpeters, Black soldiers served on campaign from the West Indies to the Iberian Peninsular; North America to Waterloo; and in the East Indies from Assaye to Java, and Burma to Afghanistan.
Whilst the racial hierarchies of the time meant that few Black soldiers were ever promoted, in the regiments they entered they were trained, paid, and enjoyed the same conditions of service, (however foul they might invariably be), as their white peers; thus no doubt enjoying a level of equality and acceptance seldom found in civilian life. Indeed, the memoirs of at least one black soldier, (Ukawsaw Gronniosaw who served with the 28th Foot during the 1760s), suggest that the treatment he received in his regiment compared favourably to that received as a free man in either America or England. That is not of course to suggest that Black soldiers entered a racially tolerant melting pot.
The ranks of the common soldiery were largely constituted of the flotsam and jetsam of British, Irish and European society; as well as the patriotic and adventurous; although the exact ratio of the latter to the former is still a matter for debate; with Wellington firmly indicating his views when he called his soldiers the scum of the earth. Thus there is no reason to expect that any racism present in contemporary society was not also present amongst the ranks of the British Army. However, the records of Black soldiers suggest that despite hostility towards people of colour, they came to be respected as soldiers by both their white peers and superiors.
For the ordinary soldier, service in the East Indies during the nineteenth century consisted of long periods of boredom interspersed with brief but bloody encounters with various groups of natives. The latter, for their part, were often, (albeit not unsurprisingly), unwilling to either bow to, or accept further, Britains expansionist policies, and as a result the 1st/89th saw more than their share of action. In 1811 the regiment left Madras to participate in the capture of Java; earning the battle honour Java, and if either Gasford or Warner had lived beyond 1848 they would have been entitled to claim the Java clasp to the retrospectively awarded Military General Service Medal 1793-1814.
Between 1817 and 1819 the unit was employed against the Pindarees, (in the 3rd Mahratta War), before returning to Madras.
In 1825 Private George Warner was discharged to a pension of 1s per day. On discharge he was 43 years old, 5/6 and 1/2 tall, had black hair, black eyes, a black complexion and claimed to be a hairdresser by trade. Like Gasford, Warner was from a French West Indies colony, although not one that had managed to successfully throw off the yoke of oppression as St. Domingo had.
When the Napoleonic Wars finally finished the French regained control of most of their former colonies, and whilst moves were being made to abolish colonial slavery; France, like Britain, still retained it. Therefore it is likely that Warner feared that a return to St. Christophers, (particularly in light of his taking up arms for the British), would have endangered his hard earned freedom. Warners pension papers noted his intention to remain in Madras on discharge, and perhaps during his long service there, (eighteen years by 1825), that he had established links locally and possibly even married a native girl. However, at this point Warner disappears from military records, so nothing more is known of him.
Between 1825 and 1826 the 1st/89th participated in the 1st Burma War; earning the battle honour Ava. During this campaign the regiment lost 621 enlisted men; mainly due to disease, however, the British Army has always been slow to reward campaign service; and the few survivors of the 1st/89th had to wait until 1851 to claim the Ava clasp to the retrospectively awarded Indian General Service Medal 1799-1826. By which time unfortunately, Joseph Gasford had died.
Private Joseph Gasford was discharged as an out-pensioner of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and awarded a pension of 1s/2d per day on the 31st of November 1829, being “worn out…being impaired by cataracts…” On discharge he was of “remarkably good character, 43 years old, 5/6” tall, had black hair, black eyes, a black complexion and claimed to be a labourer by trade.
Exactly how and where Joseph Gasford spent the next twelve years remains unknown. However, whilst like George Warner he chose not to return to the West Indies, (and probably for similar reasons), Gasford opted to settle in England. Bar a few years in Ireland, and a very brief stay in England as his battalion was being reformed after the Dutch debacle; the majority of Gasfords service had of course been spent in the East Indies; probably leaving him with few links to the country he chose to settle in.
Yet by 1841, he had apparently eschewed well known areas of Black settlement like Liverpool and London, to live in Gosport, Hampshire. Exactly why Gasford decided to settle in Gosport will probably remain unknown, although its proximity to Portsmouth, (where George Cocoa was discharged), might indicate that the area was home to a Black community, and/or that Cocoa and Gasford remained in contact after the formers discharged.
During the nineteenth century Gosport was a busy and bustling port area; home to the victualling yards and service industries vital to nearby Portsmouth, where from of course, Britains maritime empire spread out across the globe. The 1841 census for South Street, Alverstoke, Gosport reveals a highly transient population, with many people being born outside the County of Hampshire.
Thus, whilst they cannot be identified on the 1841 census, (as it does not facilitate the identification of race), it is possible that Gosport had a well established, albeit small Black population, which was able to maintain some communication with the West Indies. In 1841 Joseph Gasford was living in one of the Rookeries of Hammond Court, South Street; sharing his dwelling place with a musician, a tailor, and two young spinsters.
His proximity to the former; a forty year old professional musician named James Huskisson, suggests that perhaps although Gasford was listed as a Soldier, (indicating that his pension was his primary income), that he may have relied on his musical skills to supplement his pension.
Joseph Gasford died aged sixty three on the 3rd of July 1848 at Hammond Court, South Street, Gosport. The Registrar; Richard Reeves McKinon, pronounced the cause of death to be a chest affliction of long standing, and the witness present at Gasfords death was one Sophia Williams. In 1841 Sophia, a widow in her thirties with three young girls, had lived two houses away from Gasford in Hammond Court, and the age of the youngest child; (Maria aged three), suggests that she had been widowed relatively recently. It can only be speculated as to the exact relationship between Joseph Gasford and Sophia and her family. It may be that Sophias role in Joseph Gasfords life and death was merely that of a dispassionate observer of his final days; it being customary in the Rookeries for widows to earn money by nursing the sick and laying out the dead. However, it is equally likely, (considering that they had been neighbours for so long), that the old soldier of colour, far from home, with his poor eyes and an increasingly bad chest, acted as a surrogate grandfather figure to Sophia and her children, regaling them with fascinating tales of adventure and battle in far off lands.
In conclusion, whilst Joseph Gasford is to date the only Black Army pensioner known to have resided in nineteenth century Gosport, he was but one of many hundreds, if not thousands, of Black soldiers whose service in the white regiments of the British Army, (as opposed to the far better known segregated coloured units of the East India Company and the West India Regiments), has been long forgotten both by the country they fought for and the communities they later settled in.
Notes and Sources.
The search for Joseph Gasford in civvy street was greatly assisted by the enthusiastic co-operation of Mr Shaughnessy and the staff of the Local Studies section of Gosport Library.
The 89th Foot later became the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and their history and traditions are still retained by their direct descendants; the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Regiment.
For Cocoa see Public Record Office [PRO] WO 121/80.
For Gasford see PRO WO 97/980. WO 120/62-66.
For George Warner see PRO WO 97/985.
The 1841 Census for Alverstoke, Gosport, Hampshire. HO 107/388/7.
Death Certificate of Joseph Gasford: GRO ref: September qtr. 1848. Averstoke, County of Southampton
JD. Ellis, The Visual Representation, Role and Origin of Black Soldiers in British Army Regiments During the Early Nineteenth Century, (Unpublished MA thesis. MA in Nineteenth Century Culture and Society. University of Nottingham, 2000).
The Prisoner records of Stapleton Prison near Bristol; which housed French POWs in the early nineteenth century, reveal that successful efforts were made by the British to enlist Black POWs into the Royal Navy. The majority of these men were sailors, however, at least one was a soldier captured at St. Domingo. See PRO ADM 104/416 Prisoners of War at Stapleton 1805-1811.
P. Fryer, Staying Power, The History of Black People in Britain, (Pluto Press, London, 1984).
H. Harris, The Royal Irish Fusiliers (The 87th & 89th Regiments of Foot), (Leo Cooper Ltd., London, 1972).
RG. Harris, The Irish Regiments, A Pictorial History 1683-1987, (The Nutshell Publishing Co Ltd., Tunbridge Wells, Kent, 1989).
Further Articles by John Ellis.