Twenty-Five Years After: Cipriani and the British West Indies Regiment after the First World War

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Cover of Twenty-Five Years After

Guest blogger Michael Joseph writes about his recent research in the TUC Library. Michael is studying for a DPhil in History at the University of Oxford. His doctoral research focuses on the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean from 1912-1939, considering the impact of the First World War on local and imperial politics in the region. (All publications shown are in the TUC Library).

Cipriani Boulevard in Port of Spain, Trinidad connects Lapeyrouse Cemetery with the Queen’s Park Savannah to its north. At one end of the street, named for his uncle and the city’s former mayor, Emmanuel Cipriani, lies the former race-course at which A.A. Cipriani enjoyed so much success as a horse trainer; at the other, the cemetery in which so many of the colony’s most prominent white, or French Creole, families, including his own, chose to bury their dead. This quirk of the urban landscape, however accidental, nonetheless highlights the unlikely journey which Cipriani made from his pre-war life as a member of the colony’s white cocoa plantocracy, to the leader of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association (TWA) and the so-called ‘Champion of the Barefoot Man’.

Publication by the Trinidad Workingmen's Association

Publication by the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association

Cipriani’s Twenty-Five Years After. The British West Indies Regiment in the Great War 1914-1918 (1940), of which the TUC Library holds one of very few extant copies worldwide, takes us some way to understanding this process. The pamphlet comprises fourteen chapters which narrate Cipriani’s prominent role in the formation of the Trinidadian contingent of the British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), and then provide a largely operational account of the BWIR’s wartime experiences in Egypt and Palestine. This section is then followed by further chapters which deal, for example, with the BWIR detachment in the East African campaign, and Cipriani’s struggle to secure a War Office inquiry into the racism perpetrated against the BWIR at the Taranto demobilisation camp. Although published in 1940, textual clues suggest that the pamphlet, some concluding remarks dated June 1940 aside, was completed between July and August 1921 and not substantially revised prior to publication.

Portrait and biography of author A.A. Cipriani

Portrait and biography of author A.A. Cipriani

Cipriani is an important figure in my work, both for his role in the BWIR and the TWA. My research examines the relationship between the First World War and ideas of citizenship across the Anglophone and Francophone Caribbean from 1912 to 1939. I explore how West Indians at home and across the diaspora understood the war as a political and economic moment, and how the transnational discussions which fed into this process relate to the major constitutional changes of the twentieth century: independence and départementalisation.

Report by Ciprian, President of the Trinidad Workingmen's Association "to represent the interests of the working classes".

Report by Cipriani, President of the Trinidad Workingmen’s Association “to represent the interests of the working classes”.

Cipriani was instrumental in transforming the TWA into a vibrant force for self-government and, in capturing him just prior to his election as president in 1923, Twenty-Five Years After provides a valuable insight into the development of his political consciousness. We can learn much from the way the text lingers on Taranto, where the overt racism and persecution practised by the camp commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Carey-Bernard, challenged Cipriani’s former certainties about Britain and its empire. Particularly revealing is the attention devoted to Carey-Bernard’s abuse of courts-martial to target the BWIR, and the way in which Cipriani dwells on the colour bar which excluded the West Indians from certain inter-regimental sporting events. These preoccupations point to the importance to Cipriani of concepts like ‘British justice’ and ‘fair play’, which supposedly lay at the heart of what it was to be British, and the profound impact of his realisation that access to them was, in reality, dependent on whiteness. His spirited defence of the BWIR men, both at Taranto and on his return to Trinidad, was among the main reasons for his post-war popularity among the colony’s black working class.

Indeed, we see in the pamphlet how this experience of advocating for the BWIR over the course of the conflict cemented his belief in the absolute necessity of West Indian federation. By the end of the war, Cipriani was convinced that the numerous colonial governments, which had proven unable or unwilling to make their voices heard individually in defence of their men, could only face the future as a single unit. Cipriani would become one of the policy’s most vocal advocates in the 1920s.

Although sometimes lost amid the radicalism of the mid-to-late 1930s, Cipriani’s importance in the evolution of the Trinidadian labour movement and the colony’s push for self-government is unquestionable. Twenty-Five Years After goes some way to allowing us to understand his intellectual development, and my thanks go to the TUC Library for allowing me to access it.

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