Lawrence Wishart Blog: Soundings

Soundings blog: The colour of memory

Posted on 15/12/2020

John Siblon on the exclusion of black African war service from the memorial landscape. 

This is the first piece in the Soundings Turning Points blog series.

In 2002-3, I worked as a history teacher in Blantyre, Malawi. The students there followed a British curriculum and studied the First World War; namely the events on the Western Front. They were unaware that fighting had also occurred on the African continent. For a more textured learning experience, I took the students to a local cemetery, under the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC), previously the Imperial War Graves Commission ( IWGC), which had been established by the British government to bury bodies of service personnel killed in the war and to maintain their graves. The Commission also erected memorials for those whose bodies could not be found.(i) In the cemetery, there were three black African graves from the Second World War, but the First World War section contained only the graves of white South Africans, white German Civilians, and nine ‘coloured’ Cape Corps from South Africa.(ii) There were no graves of black Malawian servicemen. On enquiry, I was told that black African soldiers were commemorated in Zomba, close to the base of the King’s African Rifles (KAR). However, the only names inscribed there were those who died in the Second World War.(iii) This meant that, in terms of the First World War, there were no graves or Memorials to the Missing for black African servicemen in the whole of Malawi; even though one of the first engagements of the war took place in August 1914 at Karonga, in the north of the country, where the KAR fought off a Schutztruppen and Askari invasion at the cost of fifty lives.(iv) The official figures for war deaths in the First World War of men from Malawi were 1,741 out of 20,000 recruits.(v) So where were the bodies of the 1,741 men?

The question I asked myself then spurred me to undertake a PhD on the representation and commemoration of colonial Africans and Caribbeans in the post-First World War period. This has allowed me to research whether the absence and marginalisation of black bodies was due to their ‘race’ or to other factors, and whether their omission from the memorial landscape has affected our understanding of the war. I have since written a booklet on the service of the West Indians on the Western Front and I have had articles published on the memory of black colonial war service in Britain. I have also ensured that the black colonial contribution to the war effort is included in the materials I use for teaching the world wars, making space for critical reflection on why black colonial war service has been marginalised in the curriculum and the narrative of the war. I have spoken at conferences, festivals, schools, colleges, universities, and on the radio, to share my findings. What I have tried to do on each occasion is to explain that it is impossible to understand state-sponsored commemoration without first understanding the beliefs of the politicians, the military, and colonial officials who were responsible for post-war commemoration policy and, in particular, their views on Britain’s black colonial subjects.

My study of official documents in the CWGC archives reveals that, in 1918, Commission officials operating in Africa made a decision that where temporary graves of African ‘native’ soldiers were located, these graves should be collapsed and ‘allowed to revert to nature’. Instead, any names were to be registered on a memorial roll for the cemetery. This policy did not apply to anyone apart from black colonial soldiers, carriers and porters from East and West Africa. This deliberate exclusion of black bodies from the commemorative process was called ‘sent missing’: meaning that African corpses were to be considered as ‘missing’ and therefore not given a headstone in a war cemetery. It is estimated that 11,000 British, Dominion, Asian and African soldiers died in the African theatre, along with an estimated 200,000 African carriers, porters, and followers.(vi) The former are commemorated; the latter not. The absence of African graves in war cemeteries would lead a visitor to conclude that only whites fought in the war.

At the time, IWGC officials legitimised the memorial absence by explaining that Africans did not mourn their dead but instead left bodies for hyenas to eat.(vii) Whilst this cultural tradition was true for some East African ethnic groupings such as the Meru, Kikuyu, Maasai or Nandi, it was not the case for the majority. Most West African servicemen who served were from the Yoruba, Igbo, Ogboni, Egun, and Oro ethnicities and had been converted to Christianity or were Muslim Hausas from Nigeria who buried their dead. The IWGC also stated that ‘the sentimental and sacred feeling for one’s dead relatives does not appear to appeal to the native mind to the same degree as it does to the European’.(viii) This is also incorrect: relatives held mourning rituals for deceased African servicemen, whether a body was present or not. In the Luo ethnic group of Kenya, members of the community would join the family in circling a dead soldier’s house and shake spears to battle evil spirits in the soldier’s memory lest they invite curses from the spirit of the deceased man. In the absence of a body, the fruit of a yago tree was placed in a grave and buried ceremoniously.(ix) These rituals were well known to colonial officials, as missionaries dutifully recorded African burial traditions. IWGC officials also invoked the cost of commemorating the thousands of dead African servicemen. They suggested that, as ‘East African natives are mostly illiterate’, so the provision of headstones ‘would constitute an unnecessary expenditure’ and ‘not be appreciated’.(x)

Lord Arthur Browne of the IWGC justified the policy in 1923: ‘In perhaps two or three hundred years’ time, when the native population had reached a higher stage of civilisation, they might then be glad to see that headstones had been erected on the native graves and that the native soldiers had received precisely the same treatment as their white comrades’.(xi) Here, Browne demonstrates that, outside of Europe, the IWGC enacted policies which went against their own mission statement to provide egalitarian commemoration for all regardless of race, rank or creed. They designated ‘coloured’ men from the South African Native Labour Corps, Cape Coloured Corps, British West Indies Regiment and West India Regiment as Christian and ‘civilised’ and therefore worthy of commemoration. These official policies towards black servicemen, sanctioned by the British and colonial governments, demonstrate that the IWGC promoted a race, rank and religious hierarchy, with whites at the top. They believed in pseudo-scientific notions that black Africans were still child-like, uncivilised, and unworthy of commemoration, and so privileged white and Christian graves in cemeteries and public spaces.

In the present day, when the absence of Africans is raised – such as in the Channel 4 documentary shown in 2019 – the explanations given are that there was poor record-keeping of enlisted Africans; that their graves were ‘no longer maintainable’; that their names were placed on a nominal roll; and that they are memorialised in statues in Mombasa, Nairobi, Dar Es Salaam and Abuja. (xii) Only the last explanation is true, and even on these memorials, erected in lieu of headstones, the Africans are represented as merely the ‘hands and feet’ of the British army; disembodied and not fully human. There are no memorial rolls at any of these sites. The exclusion of black African war service in the memorial landscape was a deliberate, state-sponsored, act of forgetting, enacted to promote white supremacy and the British Empire. In an age where black lives should matter, we have a responsibility to ensure that any existing symbols of white supremacy are exposed for what they are and to provide more honest accounts of what happened in the past, no matter how difficult this might be.


i. In 1917, the Imperial War Graves Commission came into being, charged with the marking, burial and creation of war cemeteries for the dead of the British Empire in the First World War. In 1960, it changed its name to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

ii. https://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/91602/blantyre-church-of-central-africa-presbyterian-cemetery/.These records reveal that the Cape Corps originally had wooden crosses whilst all others had permanent iron crosses.

iii. https://www.cwgc.org/find-a-cemetery/cemetery/91601/zomba-memorial/.

iv. Peter Charlton, Cinderella’s Soldiers: The Nyasland Volunteer Reserve, Dolman Scott 2010, p57. Schutztruppen was the name given to the white Germans who served in the African colonies. The Askaris were native servicemen employed to fight for the German colonial regimes in Togoland, the Cameroons and German East Africa.

v. ‘War Effort: Numerical Records of Nyasaland’s Efforts in the War Against Germany’, 1922, UK National Archives, hereafter UK TNA CO 534/49, F.421.

vi. Hew Strachan, The First Word War in Africa, Oxford University Press 2004, p3.

vii. Michele Barrett, ‘First World War Colonial Forces and the Politics of the Imperial War Graves Commission’, in Rosalind C. Morris (ed), Can The Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, Columbia University Press 2010.

viii. ‘Equality of Treatment’, East Africa General File, 26 October 1918, CWGC WG 122, Part 1.

ix. Meschack Owino, ‘Bereavement and Mourning (Africa)’, online International Encyclopaedia of the First World War: https://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/bereavement_and_mourning_africa: accessed 21 July 2018.

x. Equality of Treatment’: East Africa General File, 26 October 1918, CWGC WG 122, Part 1.

xi. Ibid, 18 May 1923.

xii. Channel 4, The Unremembered; Britain’s Forgotten War Heroes, 10 November 2019.

John Siblon is a Head of History at City & Islington College in London and a PhD Candidate at Birkbeck College researching the representation of African and Caribbean servicemen in the aftermath of the First World War. He has campaigned for many years for a more inclusive curriculum and has written many articles on race, commemoration, and memory.

Turning points 
As part of our response to the growth in support for Black Lives Matter, we have asked people to share reflections on texts on questions of race that have been important to their own political, intellectual and personal development.

If you would like to contribute to the series please contact Kirsten Forkert <Kirsten.Forkert@bcu.ac.uk>  or Karen Patel <Karen.Patel@bcu.ac.uk for more information.