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Barbados Volunteer Force

Barbados, as the most eastern and prominent of the Windward Islands, has ever since its settlement been considered of the greatest importance in a military point of view. Hence numerous have been therecommendations for its defence made by succeeding governors in their addresses to the Legislature. Barbados was never invaded by a foreign enemy. It capitulated to Sir George Ayscue, the leader of the forces of the Commonwealth, on the 17th of January 1652, after a siege of three months’ duration.

The Barbados Militia (established in 1640) is probably the oldest in the British Commonwealth, serving until British troops arrived in 1780. The Garrison was then established making it the second oldest of it's kind. In the early seventeenth century the militia was largely funded and led by local plantation owners, but by the 1640’s it had been reorganized and restructured into a more formal military force. In many respects they could be considered private armies, as they were raised and paid for locally usually by people with a vested interest in protecting the colony. The British Army was strictly regulated and controlled and these regiments were never listed as part of the establishment.

The system of importing white servants was followed to a greater extent in Barbados than in any other colony. After their servitude expired, they became in some instances owners of parcels of land, or tenants at will. At a later period the law of the country obliged every estate to maintain a certain number of whites, in proportion to the number of acres and slaves which belonged to the estate. The proprietors therefore in many instances granted lots of ten acres to poor settlers and former servants, from whence arose the appellation of the “ten-acresmen.”

The majority of the militia was composed of these men, who in their mode of life formed their own clan in associations and intermarriages. Conscious of being of the same complexion and of similar descent as the masters, they assumed a greater pride than is usual among that class of men in Europe; labor in the field would have degraded them to the standing of a slave, and they preferred therefore living in a state of idleness, or at the utmost cultivating a few acres of land as a garden or provision-ground.

The exaggerated reports of the population of Barbados misled the historians of that period. M. du Blanc was sent in February 1666, by M. Clodoré, the Governor of Martinico, to Lord Willoughby, to complain of the depredations committed upon the French by James Walker, the master of an English merchant-vessel. M. du Blanc appears to have been much surprised at the splendour of Lord Willoughby's establishment, and the wealth of the island; he estimated its military force at from 18,000 to 20,000 infantry, and nearly 3000 cavalry.

The pre-eminent colonial interest in the militia's organization and the maintenance of its strength (as well as the strength and state of the island's fortifications) derived from a concern over external attack by foreign forces, particularly the French.

There was also a great concern with the suppression of slave revolts and, in the earlier periods, revolts or other threats to the public order by white indentured servants, notably the Irish. Due to the unrest, the laws regulating the slaves were strongly enforced. By the 1800's, there were laws prohibiting slaves from leaving their plantations without permission and stopping them from beating drums or any other instruments used by slaves to communicate with each other. There were also laws requiring the return of runaway slaves and leniency for those killing slaves.

In 1649 the African slaves made an attempt to throw off their bondage: the boldest had planned a conspiracy to massacre all the white inhabitants, and to make themselves masters of the island. They kept their secret so close that their masters remained wholly in ignorance of it until the day previous to the one they had appointed for carrying their plot into execution. A servant of Judge Hothersall, his courage failing, or perhaps being actuated by gratitude to his master, revealed the secret; effective measures were immediately taken to secure the ringleaders, and the scheme was frustrated: eighteen of the principal conspirators were condemned to death, and executed”.

When slave plots were suspected or discovered in the 1670s, 1680s, 1690s, and in 1701, militia units were rapidly alerted, and several militia units, in conjunction with regular British troops, were responsible for suppressing Barbados's one actual slave rising in 1816.

As in other colonies, the militia functioned as a police force and, for example, it was sometimes used to patrol slave gatherings and dances when officials feared these activities had the potential for disrupting the public order; and militia units were also employed to capture runaway slaves (and indentured servants), especially the small bands of maroons which sought refuge in the island's forested interior prior to the 1660s.

For most of the slave period, the militia normally included two or three mounted regiments, composed of about six troops each, one troop of life guards (a cavalry unit of about one hundred men, the governor's personal escort which was primarily used on ceremonial occasions), and from six to seven foot regiments, each including from eight to ten or twelve companies. The mounted units were disbanded in 1795 and the militia was reorganized into eleven parochial regiments, later definedas battalions or corps. By 1683, the garrison amounted to 6,160 officers and men, divided into three regiments of horse and six of foot.

From the latter half of the eighteenth century onward freedmen comprised a small portion of the Barbados militia, usually as a separate regiment led by white officers. While the militia itself was mostly white, much of its work was performed by blacks. In the Caribbean, The British military often employed local slaves to work as “pioneers.” The pioneer’s role was to perform labor intensive tasks, as a way to conserve the health of white soldiers.

There had scarcely been a more fruitful subject in the addresses and messages of succeeding Governors to the House of Assembly than the militia, their organization and maintenance. By the early 19th century, no Governor upon entering on his administration failed to recommend it to the attention of the Legislature as defective or objectionable in its regulations. The Militia Bill of 1799, which had expired, was therefore renewed in 1805 from half-year to half-year. A Bill ultimately passed the Legislature, and received the sanction of the President administering the government on 17 January 1809. The cessation of militia service, for a period much longer than was ever remembered in the island, rendered the passing of this law highly desirable in those stirring times.

The Act passed the Legislature on 13 August 1831 was entitled “An Act to consolidate and amend the several Acts relating to the militia of this island, and to provide for the better organization of the same.” Every male inhabitant from the age of eighteen to fifty-five years, who possessed five or more acres of land, or an income not below twenty pounds currency in his own right or through his wife, or who occupied a house at a rent of twenty pounds currency per annum, was liable to serve. Exemption may be purchased under certain conditions for one year. The persons serving in the militia were obliged to equip themselves according to a standard rule, and were liable to be called on the first Friday of each month, and to be under arms from eight o'clock in the morning until noon. The militia was divided into the life-guards, artillery and eleven regiments.

The Governor’s proclamation of 13 December 1845 ordered the enrolment of the militia in January 1846; giving notice that the penalties imposed by the law would be enforced against all persons refusing or neglecting to enroll themselves. In consequence of this proclamation there were enrolled 119 officers, 19 surgeons and paymasters, 93 quartermasters and serjeants, and 1502 privates, making a total of 1733 men.

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Page last modified: 16-07-2017 17:46:36 ZULU