Visual Symbols and Military Culture in Britain’s West African Colonial Army (c.1900–60)

In: International Journal of Military History and Historiography
Timothy Stapleton University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada,

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Visual symbols like uniforms, emblems and ceremonies became central in inventing British military culture among West African forces reflecting orientalist and ornamentalist interpretations of empire. While uniforms fostered military identity, the versions devised for West African soldiers reproduced racial stereotypes and military fashion trends. Granting insignia and Colours to West African units transformed them from simplistic paramilitaries to honoured members of the British imperial milieu. Colours served as ritual objects enabling West African forces to recreate pivotal cultural events of the British regimental system. The public presence of uniformed West African soldiers promoted a sense of imperial majesty that reinforced British rule. Travelling to Britain, West African troops participated in parades and exhibitions initially displaying the epic scale of the empire, but eventually these military visitors became symbols of colonial reform. With independence, Britain’s former colonies in West Africa retained Western-style military symbols altered to highlight republicanism and modernist aspirations.

1 Introduction

It is easy to dismiss the history of military visual symbols such as uniforms, badges, flags and ceremonies as trivial and antiquarian. Nevertheless, such symbols have long constituted a routine feature of soldiers’ experience and played a central role in producing military identities and military culture broadly defined as a shared set of ideas and behaviours informing daily military life.1 As Kaushik Roy demonstrates, the British colonial reinvention of Indian military identities during the 19th century relied partly on the introduction of new visual elements like uniforms and insignia.2 Founded during the late 19th and early 20th century “Scramble for Africa”, Britain’s locally recruited army in West Africa presents an interesting case of the employment of symbols to foster a colonial military culture that upheld the colonial state. Britain’s West African soldiers wore symbols, carried symbols, participated in rituals around symbols and served as symbols themselves. British colonial officials and officers invented these visual symbols and the traditions around them in a program to forge an imagined military and imperial community in West Africa.3 These symbols conveyed ideas about military service meant to enhance soldiers’ morale and therefore make them more militarily effective, but they also said something about the West African soldier’s place within colonial society and the wider British Empire. It is possible to interpret these symbols as simultaneously “orientalist” in that they presented an exoticized image of West Africans as a racialized inferior “other” and “ornamentalist” in that they reflected a socially hierarchical empire and promoted affinities between centre and periphery.4 These symbols included military uniforms, emblems and flags, and the participation of West African soldiers in public events particularly in Britain. Unfortunately, and typical of colonial African history, Britain’s West African soldiers did not leave behind personal accounts of how they viewed these symbols leaving historians to rely on evidence authored by colonial observers.

2 Uniforms

Uniforms represent a central element of military life. In theory, uniforms promote the “militarizing of civilian bodies”5 transforming “individual strength into collective power”.6 The vast economic and technological resources mobilized by states to manufacture uniforms speaks to their importance in building militaries.7 Looking at the British military of the early 1800s, Scott Hughes Myerly states, “The uniform was the army’s trademark and symbol – a distinctive dress that immediately set the soldier off from everyone else”.8 While minor variations in uniform including badges or insignia promoted unit identity and morale, “very plain uniforms were associated with a lower status and a lesser – or absent – degree of honour.”9 Beyond emblems, the wearing of washed-out or worn-out uniforms often denotes membership in a veteran unit differentiated from other soldiers whose crisp new uniforms signify lack of experience.10 For African soldiers in European colonial service, uniforms granted additional prestige as a style of western clothing beyond the purchasing power of most African people and associating the wearers with colonial authority.11 While the formation of European-led locally recruited colonial forces in 19th century Africa introduced western-style uniforms to the continent, the specific types of uniforms worn by African colonial soldiers varied from those of their metropolitan counter-parts. Like other empires, imperial Britain enlisted soldiers from among conquered peoples portraying some of these communities as inherently martial and incorporating stylized aspects of their national dress into special military uniforms. This process began in the British Army with the establishment of kilted Scottish Highland regiments in the 18th century. It continued during the 19th century colonization of India where exotically dressed colonial units emerged including Gurkhas carrying menacing knives and ethno-religious regiments wearing different types of turbans with the Sikh version becoming central to broader Sikh identity. Concurrently, the 19th century British metropolitan army also adopted fashionable frontier military traditions and exotic costumes from other empires such as Eastern European themed light cavalry comprising Hussars and lancers.12 By the start of the 20th century, distinctively dressed West African soldiers added to this panoply of British imperial military styles.

The uniforms British authorities issued or sometimes sold to West African soldiers evolved over time. Garrisoning Britain’s early 19th century West African coastal enclaves like Freetown, the British convicts and conscripted West African liberated slaves of the Royal African Corps (RAC) wore basically the same uniform as the British Army.13 In 1863, limited resources meant that colonial officials in newly occupied Lagos issued the first enlistees of the Armed Hausa Police Force with a red woollen cap and white cotton shorts, but within a couple of years, they received better uniforms consisting of dark blue tunics and red Turkish trousers.14 By the 1880s and 1890s, as British rule in West Africa advanced inland, British officials and chartered companies raised new paramilitary formations such as the Gold Coast Constabulary, Sierra Leone Frontier Police, Royal Niger Constabulary, Niger Coast Protectorate Force and West African Regiment. These troops generally wore a simple blue serge uniform, and occasionally a light khaki field version, and red pillbox hat with bare feet though at times they sported puttees and boots or sandals. In keeping with British tradition, uniforms reflected military hierarchy with African NCOs wearing chevrons, red sashes and sometimes extra braid, and the very few African officers, a position soon abolished, donned more ornate uniforms similar to those worn by European officers.15 To some extent, these West African constabulary uniforms represented simplified and inexpensive versions of those worn by metropolitan British troops, though red caps and bare feet reflected a touch of the exotic.

The formation of a regional British military structure in West Africa at the turn of the 20th century corresponded with the move towards a more explicitly exotic uniform for West African soldiers. Upon forming the original West African Frontier Force (WAFF) in Nigeria in 1898, Frederick Lugard designed a new uniform he hoped would become common to all British colonial troops in West Africa. From a practical perspective, light khaki drill uniforms suitable for the tropical environment replaced the heavier and more expensive blue serge. While Lugard eventually oversaw the implementation of a single uniform for almost all the West African formations, he believed that retaining some differences between the battalions served as an advantage “promoting esprit de corps”.16 Submitting colour illustrations to the Colonial Office, Lugard based his uniform designs on what he saw as the traditional Hausa attire of northern Nigeria also popular, so he claimed, among Yoruba men in western Nigeria. At the time, British officers like Lugard imagined that the Hausa and Yoruba ethnic groups possessed inherent martial characteristics and colonial military recruiting focused on these peoples. Lugard’s proposed Hausa-style uniform featured a knee-length West African-style tunic and comprised simplified “work dress” with a wedge cap and a more ornate “full dress” version adding a blue cummerbund, brown sleeveless Zouave jacket and black fez with a tassel. Both varieties featured soldiers in bare feet.17

A modified version of Lugard’s design, with a shorter tunic but with more vibrant colour, came into effect at the beginning of the 20th century as the WAFF absorbed West African constabularies turning them into component territorial regiments. During normal workdays, WAFF soldiers wore a plain khaki blouse and shorts, and a green Kilmarnock hat, and during formal occasions, they added a cummerbund in regimental colour, a red Zouave jacket with yellow braid for infantry and a blue Zouave jacket with yellow braid for artillery, and a red fez with regimental colour tassel. Additional to the usual rank markers, African sergeants and sergeant majors sported elaborate gold braid on the front of their Zouave jackets. WAFF troops usually walked barefoot but they received Indian-style leather sandals called Chupplies to protect their feet in rough terrain or on long marches, and the British-style parade boots of some units disappeared.18 The lack of boots likely resulted from British stereotypes of Africans as primitive and London’s frugal approach to administering African colonies. Years later, a British officer who served with the Nigeria Regiment in the 1930s recalled that “The Hausas had enormous feet, and looked all wrong in boots; those who had to wear them were met with ridicule by the others”.19 Conversely, British officers and NCOs seconded to lead the WAFF wore the standard army tropical uniforms including sun helmets and tall leather boots. Like other colonial militaries in Africa and elsewhere, this distinction between the uniforms of British leadership and West African troops served to reinforce a racial hierarchy. Such distinctions, however, were nothing new as the class-system of the metropolitan British Army meant that officers had long worn slightly different uniforms from NCOs and privates. In British colonial forces such as in West Africa, existing British military symbols around class blended with new symbols around race. As Jane Tynan argues, separate uniforms for colonial troops contributed to “encoding social inequities”.20

In fashioning West African soldiers’ uniforms, British authorities drew on various elements to invent a new regional and colonial military tradition. British involvement in the Egyptian Army informed the custom of West and East African colonial troops wearing characteristically Turkish-style fezzes and this practise spread to the armies of other European powers in Africa.21 Among African colonial forces, the Kilmarnock hat and Zouave jacket became distinct aspects of the WAFF uniform. Originating in Scotland, the Kilmarnock hat worn by West African troops appears copied from Britain’s older colonial Gurkha Regiments recruited in Nepal.22 The presence of the West India Regiment (WIR), encompassing a mix of impressed “liberated Africans” and African-descended men from the Caribbean, in British West Africa during the 19th and early 20th century introduced Zouave military culture to the region. The concept of Zouave units with unusual uniforms began when the French army recruited North African Berber men during the French occupation of Algeria in the mid-1800s. French Zouave units eventually comprised white French troops and by the 1860s, this colourful military style gained popularity in the United States and Latin America. The presence of French Zouaves alongside British soldiers in the Crimean War (1853–56) prompted an admiring Queen Victoria to request a British regiment adopt the glamorous Zouave attire. Consequently, the WIR that had employed a standard British Army uniform during the first half of the 19th century, converted to the Zouave tradition during the late 1850s adopting a red Zouave jacket, red fez wrapped in a white turban, blue pantaloons and white spats with boots. The implementation of the Zouave uniform symbolized the transition of Britain’s black Caribbean soldiers from a generally indistinct part of a broad colonial military to exotic “native” troops popular during imperial parades and led by seemingly professional white British officers identifiable by their standard army attire.23 Military efficiency seemed a secondary concern in the transformation of the WIR into Zouaves. During the 1873–74 Asante Campaign, for instance, a British medical officer complained that the WIR Zouave uniform was too heavy for tropical conditions and caused health problems such as severe headaches.24 By the 1890s, the Gold Coast Constabulary’s blue Zouave jacket with red piping along with red cummerbund, red fez and white spats reflected some Zouave influence.25 As the only West African unit under British War Office authority and that remained outside the WAFF structure of the Colonial Office, the Freetown-based West African Regiment (WAR) retained a plain-looking uniform though with red fez and cummerbund, and bare feet until the unit’s disbandment in 1928.26

In British colonial West Africa, honour guards of WAFF troops sporting red fezzes and red Zouave jackets and carrying rifles, and sometimes similarly dressed marching bands, became regular participants in public events such as the arrival or departure of a governor, royal or diplomatic visits, the opening of new facilities, monarchs’ birthdays and coronations, durbars, military tattoos and holidays. The appearance of uniformed African soldiers at official ceremonies created a martial ethos reminding both colonizers and colonized of the military might reinforcing British rule, and inspiring a sense of grandeur associated with the British Empire. In colonial West Africa, people living in towns observed uniformed colonial soldiers marching through the streets, participating in official ceremonies, or standing guard on the governor’s residence. In rural areas, occasional “flag marches” by soldiers reminded people of the colonial state and its coercive power. At a 1938 hospital opening in the Gambia, as a local newspaper reported, “The soldiers in their full ceremonial dress with their fixed bayonets glittering under the brilliant sunshine added to the dignity and majesty of the occasion”.27

Despite the British stereotype that African soldiers should perform their duties in bare feet, military authorities of the interwar era began to look at introducing better footwear for West African colonial forces. From the formation of the WAFF around 1900, West African soldiers received one pair of leather “Chupplies” every year with a second pair held in reserve in unit stores.28 Photographic evidence suggests that these sandals saw rare use during the force’s early years. Nevertheless, conducting field operations without footwear resulted in injuries collectively known as “cut feet” that could hobble soldiers for a few weeks. West African troops fighting in German East Africa during the First World War received standard British Army boots, though officers claimed they slowed the men down and injured their feet, and that the troops discarded them. In 1921, WAFF regiments conducted extensive trials of several types of footwear including a newly designed canvas topped boot and the regular military boot. The Gold Coast Regiment reported that both versions proved “too heavy and cumbersome, the men’s movements being greatly hampered thereby”.29 During the experiment, the Nigeria Regiment equipped different battalions with different types of footwear. In the Kaduna-based 1st Battalion and 1st Artillery Battery, canvas topped boots seemed awkward and clumsy and soldiers “complained that the toecap hurt and bruised the toe joints”. The far northern-based 5th Battalion (Mounted Infantry) wore standard army boots during dismounted operations finding that they provided good protection against thorns and reptile bites, but they also proved “heavy and cumbersome”. Based on these trials, officers recommended the continued use of the Chupplie, but with improved ankle protection and a thicker sole and worn with thick woollen socks. This also represented the least expensive option. None of the official correspondence about Chupplies and boots mentioned symbolism or stereotypes with authorities stressing that West African soldiers “must become accustomed to wearing footwear”.30 While some WAFF units of the 1920s permitted men to wear their Chupplies around barracks and during regular duties, official policy restricted these sandals to marches across country or on stony roads. Officers worried that constant use would result in the Chupplies “wearing out in a short time”.31 In 1927, experiments with a more substantial “Gurkha Pattern” Chupplie and leather sock manufactured in India led to the RWAFF (the renamed Royal WAFF) adopting a similar bush shoe produced in West Africa.32 A decade later, given Italy’s 1935 deployment of chemical weapons in Ethiopia and the growing prospect of another global war, the RWAFF and other colonial formations began harmonizing their uniform including boots with the metropolitan British Army.33 While the soldiers from remote and marginalized communities who made up Britain’s West African military for most of its history never demanded footwear, the enlistment of West African men with western education in the late 1930s created some expectation for boots and general equal treatment with white troops. For instance, delays issuing boots contributed, in part, to a 1939 mutiny by troops from Freetown’s westernized Krio community, who had not previously served in large numbers in colonial forces, but now comprised a newly formed Sierra Leone artillery unit.34

During the Second World War, within the new context of reducing racial distinctions and improving military effectiveness, Britain’s African soldiers switched to standard British Army “battle dress” uniforms including boots, though an Australian-style slouch hat marked them as different from metropolitan troops who wore berets. Nonetheless, the old colonial uniform including red fez, shorts and Zouave jacket, but now with boots and puttees, remained the West African force’s ceremonial attire until independence in the late 1950s and 1960s. There is evidence from British officers’ accounts that some West African troops of the 1950s were still not accustomed to constantly wearing boots preferring to take them off during field activities.35 Although the existing records hardly reflect the voices of West African soldiers, there was no obvious objection to items like red fezzes or Zouave jackets. Many accounts by former British officers who served in West Africa between the 1920s and 1950s agree that West African troops took greater pride in their uniforms and military appearance than metropolitan British soldiers did, and that the former greatly enjoyed performing ceremonial parades before large public audiences.36 During the decolonization era of the late 1950s or early 1960s, however, distinct colonial-style uniforms became less popular among Western-educated West Africans with one newly commissioned Nigerian officer describing the red fez and jacket as “fit only for performing monkeys”.37 Similarly, a British officer who served in the Sierra Leone Regiment of the 1950s recalled that the Zouave-style uniform “was not popular with the soldiers because it caused the civilian population to dub them ‘the barrel organ monkeys’ whenever they appeared on parade”.38 Upon independence, and reflecting ambitions to become sovereign and respected modern states, the governments of the former British colonies in West Africa replaced exotic colonial dress uniforms with western-style ceremonial uniforms almost identical to those of the metropolitan British military. In Ghana’s army, soldiers discarded their old red Zouave jackets and fezzes donning new scarlet tunics and peaked hats reminiscent of British guards regiments.39 To some extent, and ironically, West African independence led to greater westernization in regional military culture.

Additional to their uniform, some of Britain’s West African colonial soldiers wore military decorations or medals symbolizing individual achievements such as long service, participation in specific military campaigns and bravery in combat. Unit commanders submitted written nominations for these awards adjudicated by higher authorities. For most of the colonial era, the racial hierarchy of Britain’s colonial forces meant that African soldiers were not eligible for some of the highest military awards, though they received special African versions of decorations like the Distinguished Conduct Medal. Long-serving and particularly illustrious African senior NCOs sometimes received the British Empire Medal as a career capstone using the letters BEM after their names. At the same time, medals remained rare with most soldiers never receiving one.40 While it is difficult to reconstruct what West African colonial troops thought about decorations, regional archives contain numerous requests from serving and former soldiers for replacements of lost medals or granting of decorations they thought they deserved. There are many examples. At the end of the First World War, the Nigeria Regiment’s Sergeant Major Ojo Ibadan successfully applied for replacement medals stolen from his house in Ibadan while he had been away fighting in Cameroon. The new medals arrived from the office of the prime minister in London.41 In 1931 ex-soldier Billi Kanjarga of the Gold Coast Regiment, a veteran of the Cameroon and East Africa campaigns with 15 years service, received three First World War service medals hitherto illegally denied him because of a 1917 court martial conviction of neglect for letting a German prisoner escape.42 These men clearly attached some value to their medals.

3 Insignia and Colours

In general, 19th and 20th century British military authorities employed symbols, ceremonies and written and oral histories to encourage the development of regimental identity and esprit de corps. Ideally, a British regiment constituted an “imagined community” based on a special shared identity, family-like comradeship and common sense of honour that transcended military hierarchy and could motivate soldiers to sacrifice their lives. Visual symbols of regimental identity included distinct rituals and ceremonies, badges and buttons with unit-specific heraldic symbols, and flags called Colours. In the British Army and its colonial offshoots, the Colours stood at the centre of regimental life. While units once took Colours into battle to indicate their location and serve as a rallying point, the increasing range and accuracy of weapons at the end of the 19th century confined their use to important ceremonies. New officers and soldiers learned about the symbols displayed on the Colours, and all ranks were expected to treat the Colours with great reverence. When present on parade, the Colours merited a salute from passing troops, and when not in use they were exhibited in the regimental officers’ mess or battalion headquarters. Rules overseen by military authorities and the College of Heralds governed the design of British Army Colours ultimately approved by the monarch. Each battalion in a regiment carried two of these flags; the King’s or Queen’s Colour usually of standard army configuration and the more distinct Regimental Colour the appearance of which reflected the unit’s history and symbols. Emblazoned on the Regimental Colour, names of past engagements in which the unit had distinguished itself called “battle honours” highlighted a glorious history. Army authorities vetted regimental applications for “battle honours” and regulations limited the number exhibited on Colours. Colours constituted the subject of the most important regimental rituals. The presentation of new Colours involved a handover by the monarch or representative and consecration by clergy, a ceremony called “trooping the Colour” comprised a formal parade where the Colours were marched before all ranks, and old or worn-out Colours were “laid up” in a church during a funeral-like event. A municipal government honoured a battalion by granting it the “freedom of the city” comprising a parade through the streets with bayonets fixed, drums beating and Colours unfurled. Carried on parade by junior officers and escorted by several sergeants, the Colours represented the most important physical manifestation of regimental identity.43

Formed in a haphazard manner during the “Scramble for Africa”, Britain’s West African paramilitaries of the late 19th and early 20th century lacked official insignia and Colours. Compared to metropolitan British units, the military culture and identity of these colonial forces appeared incomplete. The absence of Colours meant the absence of the usual military rituals associated with these almost sacred objects. Unofficial attempts to create insignia demonstrated a desire on the part of British officers and perhaps the African rank-and-file to foster these aspects of military life. Photographs from the start of the 1900s show WAFF artillerymen, a small elite group in the Gold Coast and Nigeria, sporting a flaming grenade hat-badge and a few soldiers wearing metal unit shoulder titles such as “NNR” for Northern Nigeria Regiment.44

The unique status of the Sierra Leone-based WAR as the only British West African unit under War Office, rather than Colonial Office, jurisdiction likely facilitated its development of military cultural symbols. In late December 1907, at a poorly attended ceremony in Freetown, the governor of Sierra Leone presented Colours to the WAR. The Bishop of Sierra Leone consecrated the Colours as the WAR band sang hymns and the regiment then performed a “trooping” of the Colours. Immediately, the new Colours served to inspire a mythical glorious unit history. During the presentation ceremony, the governor’s speech highlighted that the regiment had been “born in war” formed, as it was, during the 1898 Sierra Leone Rebellion and then quickly dispatched to the Gold Coast to help suppress the 1900 Asante Uprising. While the governor neglected to mention the 1901 mutiny by WAR troops in the Gold Coast, he hinted at the regiment’s redemption stating that its increased “discipline and military value” merited the granting of Colours and that this signified the start of “its full military life”. The ceremony concluded with the WAR band playing “God Save the King” and the unit, carrying its new Colours, marched back to barracks with the band playing and the men singing a song specially composed for the event.45 At this time, none of the other British West African colonial units possessed Colours.

Participation in the First World War boosted the status of African and other colonial military units within the British Empire. In 1917, the League of Empire, a British organization devoted to fostering imperial patriotism, presented a silk Union Jack and shield to each of the WAFF, the King’s African Rifles (KAR) and several other colonial formations in appreciation of their wartime service. While the presentation ceremony at the Colonial Office in London had no impact on West African soldiers fighting in Africa, it foreshadowed the awarding of official Colours that would play a central role in developing military culture within these formations.46 In 1916, given the role of West African soldiers in the Togo and Cameroon campaigns, the British War Office approved the issue of official Colours to each WAFF battalion normally under Colonial Office authority. The subsequent deployment of West African units in the East African campaign confirmed Britain’s obligation to recognize their war contribution through presentation of Colours. This would align West African forces more closely to British military traditions. During 1919 and 1920, with the global conflict over, British colonial and military officials, heraldry experts and academics devised the WAFF Colours and the badges, symbols and mottos they would bear. The first step involved creating WAFF insignia. While the idea of adopting a palm tree symbol appears to have originated in the Colonial Office, the officers of the Gold Coast Regiment (GCR) proposed a lion emblem as this animal inspired awe among the troops and appeared on the 1900 Asante service medal. The palm tree, already featured on some British colonial crests in West Africa and seen as a regional symbol, won out with support from the leadership of the Nigeria Regiment, Sierra Leone Battalion (SLB) and the Gambia Company. From the early 1920s, and unlike most British infantry regiments each with its own badge, all WAFF regiments displayed the palm tree on hat badges, buttons, documents and signage, and at the centre of unit Colours.47

Designing the Colours for WAFF regiments involved considerable discussion, consultation and debate. In 1920, at Kaduna, the Nigeria Regiment and WAFF inspector general held an officers’ conference on Colours. Later that year, the British College of Heralds produced prototype designs and language scholars at London’s School of Oriental Studies provided insight on the proper spelling of Arabic and Hausa mottos. These consultations led to the alteration and finalization of the WAFF palm tree insignia with a longer trunk and realistic-looking leaves based on a similar image on existing West African silver coins issued by the British mint. As in the British Army, each WAFF battalion received a mostly standardized King’s Colour in the form of a Union Jack with the name of the force and territorial regiment at the centre, and a distinctive Regimental Colour bearing local symbols. Each WAFF Regimental Colour featured a special territorial symbol in the flag’s corners, a particular background colour and sometimes a unique motto. Reflecting Colonial Office priorities and expertise, religious sensitivity influenced the scheme of the WAFF Colours. Concerned about offending the force’s many Muslim soldiers, authorities rejected a suggestion that WAFF Regimental Colours copy the WAR Regimental Colours comprising a George’s Cross. Simultaneously, a proposal to adopt Islamic green for all WAFF Regimental Colours clashed with some officials’ desire to use an existing official territorial colour.48

Within the WAFF, each territorial regiment received distinct Regimental Colours. For the Nigeria Regiment, each battalion’s Regimental Colour comprised Islamic green, indicated the respective battalion number in the upper left corner and bore the Koranic quotation “Victory is for God Alone” in Arabic script, which remains the Nigerian Army’s motto today. Nigeria Regiment officers initially proposed a rising sun as their regimental symbol, but it proved difficult to embroider the device on the flags. As the largest military formation in British West Africa, the Nigeria Regiment used numbers to distinguish the Colours of its different battalions. For the GCR, comprising a single battalion at the time, the official territorial colour of “old gold” already displayed as an unofficial patch on officers’ headgear became the background colour of the Regimental Colour. The GCR’s Regimental Colour also included the unit’s preferred lion emblem in each corner and the motto “Always Ready” in Hausa language written in Arabic script. The Sierra Leone official territorial colour of blue was adopted for the SLB Regimental Colour featuring a badge of an elephant, an animal already employed in some colonial crests in the territory, in each corner, but the unit’s leadership rejected the idea of a motto. While the Regimental Colours of the Nigeria Regiment and GCR displayed the battle honours “Ashanti 1873–74” and “Ashanti 1900”, the SLB Regimental Colour lacked battle honours as its predecessor unit, the Sierra Leone Frontier Police had not fought in those conflicts. As with all British Army Colours, the final designs received royal approval from King George v.49

The case of the Gambia Company, a unit too small to warrant Colours, illustrates the importance associated with these symbols in promoting British military culture. In 1921, as officials discussed appropriate WAFF military emblems, the Gambia’s governor and the Gambia Company commander requested Colours for the unit. They argued that the Gambia Company represented the colony as a separate WAFF component just as its counterparts in Nigeria, Gold Coast and Sierra Leone, and its men had performed well in Cameroon and East Africa during the First World War. They claimed that the honour would enhance “‘Esprit de Corps’ and would be beneficial from the point of view of discipline and efficiency”. Without Colours, the Gambia Company remained an incomplete and second-rate military formation. Nevertheless, British Colonial Office and military authorities thought “the idea was absurd”50 and the matter dropped until the company expanded and received regimental status during the Second World War. In 1951, the Gambia Regiment received King’s and Regimental Colours, but the distinction did not last long.51 With the disbanding of the Gambia Regiment in 1958, given impending British decolonization and financial limitations, the unit conducted a final march through Bathurst concluding with a ceremonial handover of its Colours to the governor.52

In early 1922, British junior officers transported the new WAFF Colours, manufactured at significant expense in Britain, by ship to the appropriate units in West Africa where governors presented them in a series of elaborate and well-attended public ceremonies. Concerned about potential religious objections among Muslims, colonial authorities omitted the Christian consecration of the WAFF Colours customary in British Army regiments including the WAR of Sierra Leone.53 In separate ceremonies held in March and May 1922, Nigeria’s governor Sir Hugh Clifford presented Colours to the four battalions of the Nigeria Regiment at Kaduna, Ibadan, Lokoja and Calabar. Once again, Colours inspired the telling and retelling of mythical military histories. At each location, the governor’s speech outlined the special history and military attributes of each battalion mentioning, for instance, the precision drill of the troops at Kaduna, the wartime bravery of Battalion Sergeant Major Belo Akure of Ibadan, and the historic location of Lokoja as the WAFF birthplace. In these ceremonies, he stressed the important contribution and sacrifice of the regiment during the Great War and particularly at the 1917 Battle of Mahiwa in East Africa described as “the heaviest engagement ever fought upon African soil in the recorded history of the Continent”.54 In a clear example of “invented tradition”, Governor Clifford suggested that 17 March or Saint Patrick’s Day, the anniversary of the First Battalion receiving its Colours at Kaduna, become the Nigeria Regiment’s “Regimental Day” to be celebrated with a feast. This tradition persisted until after the Second World War.55

In late May 1922, on a hot Saturday morning in Daru, Sierra Leone, Governor A. R. Slater presented the new Colours to the assembled officers and men of the SLB. Over two thousand spectators including official guests such as the WAFF inspector general, WAR officers from Freetown, colonial administrators, officials from neighbouring French territory and twenty-two Sierra Leonean chiefs attended the ceremony. About one hundred demobilized Sierra Leonean veterans of First World War operations in Togo and Cameroon appeared at the event provided with railway passes by the colonial government. Both the governor and WAFF inspector general gave speeches reviewing the battalion’s history and explaining the role of the Colours as the most important unit symbol granted by the king as a reward for war service. “They have been won”, the governor stated, “by the valour and faithfulness of all who have fought in the battalion in the days gone by. Many of those are dead. This flag is their flag as well as yours and in the years that are to come when you are fighting for the honour of this flag, remember that the spirits of the dead will be watching to see whether you are worthy of the regiment that they served in and loved.”56 Governor Slater’s emphasis on the Colours as symbols of dead military ancestors was probably not accidental and likely resonated with the traditional beliefs of many Sierra Leonean troops.

Around the same time, a similar process related to designing and issuing Colours took place within British East Africa’s KAR. This formation’s Colours, unlike those in West Africa, comprised a common pattern given the KAR’s status as a single regiment with battalions in different territories. In 1923, the governors of Kenya, Uganda, Tanganyika and Nyasaland presented Colours to the four KAR battalions. In 1930, KAR soldiers received an approved badge modelled on those of the British Army’s Rifle Regiments.57

Following each world war, the British War Office compiled a list of eligible battle honours and invited regiments to assemble committees to make proposals as to which they were entitled. To qualify for a battle honour, the headquarters and at least half of a battalion had to have been present at the relevant engagement. In addition, regiments were restricted to displaying ten battle honours per conflict on their Colours and all battalions of a regiment displayed the same battle honours. While War Office authorities vetted applications for battle honours, regimental committees tried to claim as many as possible to bolster their unit’s historical glory.58 Britain’s West African regiments participated in these processes. After the First World War, WAFF officers wrote brief accounts of their units’ wartime service and submitted them to the War Office as evidence in support for battle honour claims. In 1924, for instance, the Nigeria Regiment received the battle honours “Duala, Garua, Banyo, Cameroons 1914–16” and “Behobeho, Nyangao, East Africa 1917–18”. The difficulty in reconstructing the history of a small unit during large operations resulted in debate over the battle honours due to the Gambia Company. Ultimately, the Gambia Company gained “Cameroons, 1915–16” and “Nyangao, East Africa, 1917–18”, though it did not have Colours on which to emblazon these names.59 In the aftermath of the Second World War, authorities issued another call for battle honour recommendations and requested the location of Colours belonging to battalions formed during wartime expansion and disbanded during demobilization.60 As a result, the Nigeria Regiment and GCR gained battle honours related to the Second World War’s East Africa and Burma campaigns, and the Sierra Leone Regiment and Gambia Regiment received battle honours related to Burma.61 Aligned to the granting of battle honours, West African regiments adopted the British military practise of identifying a special regimental holiday named after one of its most famous engagements. In turn, 24 January became Myohaung Day commemorating a battle in Burma and some West African militaries still celebrate this event today.62

After the 1922 award of Colours, WAFF units performed “Trooping of the Colours” ceremonies to highlight important events taking place within the wider British Empire. Attended by European and West African civilians, these impressive public military performances served to promote imperial loyalty and identity, and the presence of British officials and West African chiefs reinforced imperial hierarchy within the context of the Indirect Rule system. With their Colours and military rituals, Britain’s West African soldiers were no longer non-descript lowly occupation troops supervising colonized people, but an integral part of British imperial pageantry and propaganda. Describing a 1931 “Trooping” ceremony in Kumasi, Gold Coast, attended by Asante chiefs and many people, a colonial newspaper reported, “When the soldiers marched past the Flag, with their usual grandeur and precision, the scene became intensely animated and spectacular. All who witnessed it felt the dignity of the occasion, which was all the more enhanced by the presence of the school children.”63 In late March 1937, to mark the upcoming coronation of George vi, the GCR “Trooping of the Colours” in Kumasi attracted a “large attendance” including every European resident of the town and the Asantehene (king) and chiefs of the Asante Kingdom. Presided over by Governor Arnold Hodson, the parade included honour guards from the two GCR battalions and the regiment’s light artillery battery. The event concluded with a special inspection of the GCR’s coronation contingent, comprising British officers and West African soldiers soon to depart for Britain. During a critical moment in the ceremony, Private Yessufu Hausa permitted a snake to bite his leg rather than break his rigid “present arms” drill position. Officers highlighted this incident as an example of the GCR soldiers’ “discipline” and “devotion to duty”.64 In 1953, 3rd Battalion Nigeria Regiment celebrated Elizabeth ii’s coronation by “trooping its Colours” at Lagos racecourse before one of the largest crowds ever assembled in the city.65

Association with British royalty augmented the status of West African soldiers. In 1925, King George V became the WAFF’s royal patron accepting appointment as the formation’s first colonel-in-chief. In turn, WAFF inspector general Colonel S. S. Butler recommended to the Colonial Office that his force receive the title “Royal” suggesting that the name King’s African Rifles (KAR) aligned the East African colonial army with the monarch. Approved by the four West African governors, the War Office and the king, the title Royal West African Frontier Force (RWAFF) came into effect in early 1928. Authorities expressed relief that the new title would not alter the formation’s popular nickname of “Waffs”. Consequently, all RWAFF badges, buttons and Colours changed to reflect the new designation. For British officials and officers, the adoption of RWAFF signified more than superficial nomenclature. Referring to the title “Royal”, a British colonial official wrote, “there is no doubt in the substantial value in its appeal to the African soldier and to the West African generally. I believe these things count for a good deal in fostering and maintaining the African loyalty.”66 A humorous story from the SLB, however, illustrated that perhaps West African soldiers did not immediately appreciate the royal association. Given the commanding officer’s poor Pidgin English, the working language of the unit, his announcement of the new title and the king’s special role in the force inspired cheering among the troops who erroneously believed it meant the commander’s replacement.67 The “Royal” designation led to changes in the design of the West African force’s dress uniform and Colours. In 1932, consistent with Britain’s other prestigious royal regiments, RWAFF soldiers’ Zouave jackets gained blue collars and the hitherto differently coloured Regimental Colours transitioned to a uniform blue.68

During the 1930s, most RWAFF units received new Colours. By 1936, the SLB and all six battalions of the Nigeria Regiment possessed new Colours presented by colonial governors at elaborate ceremonies. On 12 May 1937, George VI’s coronation day, Governor Hodson handed Colours to the relatively new 2nd Battalion GCR in Accra before a “very large gathering” of Europeans and Africans including chiefs. In this instance, instead of retiring the old Colours originally issued in 1922, they were given to the older 1st Battalion GCR to become that unit’s Colours. The ceremony ended with a 21-gun salute fired by the GCR artillery battery. In his address, the governor explained the significance of the new royal blue Regimental Colour and stated, “To honour your Colours is part of your creed. It is the trait of the fighting caste. It is stronger even than death itself.”69 Despite lack of soldiers’ accounts, it would be a mistake to believe that such sentiments made no impact on the young men of the RWAFF on the eve of the Second World War.

The 1950s decolonization era witnessed another round of honours for Britain’s West African army. This time, military ceremonies and titles aimed at bolstering loyalty to the British Commonwealth and encouraging newly self-governing West African territories to retain nominal affiliations with Britain when they became independent states. With the dissolution of the RWAFF regional structure in 1956, the British government tried to affix royal titles to the separate West African regiments now under local command. In January 1956, Queen Elizabeth II undertook a royal tour of Nigeria, where regions were about to gain self-government, attending a Myohaung Day service at Lagos Cathedral and presenting new Colours to the 2nd Battalion Nigeria Regiment in a ceremony attended by fourteen thousand spectators in Lagos. After inspecting the 1st Battalion at Kaduna, the 3rd Battalion at Enugu and the 5th Battalion at Ibadan, she announced from Kano that the Nigeria Regiment was renamed the Queen’s Own Nigeria Regiment (QONR).70 Following the Queen’s tour, the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester visited Nigeria in 1959 and attended a military tattoo by the QONR in Kaduna.71 In April 1960, emphasizing the royal connection six months prior to Nigeria’s independence, the queen inspected a QONR detachment visiting Buckingham Palace.72 In November 1961, in a royal visit to newly independent Sierra Leone, the Queen presented new Colours to the renamed Royal Sierra Leone Regiment in Freetown.73 Despite these honours, including knighthoods for West African political leaders, all Britain’s former colonies in West Africa eventually severed ties with the monarchy and declared republics; Ghana in 1960, Nigeria in 1963, the Gambia in 1970 and Sierra Leone in 1971.

The transition of West African states into republics necessitated changes to military symbols. Across the region, during the early 1960s, the palm tree badge of the defunct RWAFF gave way to new national crests and republican eagles. In 1959, British officers and officials seconded to independent Ghana, anticipating the country’s declaration of a republic, decided that each of the three battalions of the Ghana Regiment (formerly GCR) should continue the British practise of carrying two Colours. Except for the unit’s name change, the Regimental Colour remained the same as in colonial times, including the retention of colonial battle honours, while the Queen’s Colour changed from a Union Jack design to the national flag of Ghana with the Ghana Army crest in place of the central Ghana star. The flagpoles utilized removable tops easing the replacement of the British lion by a republican eagle, and the crown insignia on the Queen’s Colour was sewn on in such a way that it could be easily detached. Since Queen Elizabeth ii’s pregnancy forced her to cancel a 1959 visit to Ghana, Prince Phillip presented the new Colours to the Ghana Regiment and oversaw the trooping and withdrawal of the old colonial Colours.74 Similar processes took place in the other republics of former British West Africa with, for example, the “Queen’s Own” and “Royal” designations dropped in Nigeria after 1963.75

4 Visits and Tours

During the colonial era, Britain’s West African soldiers sometimes travelled to the imperial metropole to attend important events such as coronations, royal funerals, parades and exhibitions. These ostentatious ceremonies displayed the hierarchical structure of Britain and its empire with the monarchy at the top and others living under its apparently gracious protection.76 Like other colonial soldiers from the Caribbean or India, West African troops’ participation in such events constituted a form of imperial propaganda that demonstrated the power of British rule to transform supposedly primitive peoples into loyal subjects and competent soldiers defending the empire. Over the long term, though, those Britons and others who witnessed and interacted with visiting West African troops may have questioned how much longer they would need imperial tutelage.77 The growing medium of photography multiplied the public exposure of West African soldiers in Britain as their images appeared in newspapers, magazines and postcards. These photographs illustrated the exotic appearance of the West Africans but they also consistently portrayed the soldiers as dignified military professionals. Whether these images of West African soldiers represented them as racialized “others” or “domesticated exotics” is open to interpretation. While West African soldiers at these events symbolized colonial transformation, their presence also illustrated the integration of West African colonial regiments into Britain’s larger imperial military. This message appeared obvious to people in Britain, but the West African troops also undoubtedly took it home with them.

Some soldiers from Britain’s West African paramilitary formations visited Britain in the late 19th century for training and this led to their participation in public ceremonial events. In July 1893, eight members of the Armed Hausa Police Force from Lagos attended military instruction in Britain. They also paraded at the Colonial Office where Colonial Secretary Lord Ripon presented them with medals for gallantry during the previous year’s conquest of Ijebu in western Nigeria and the troops played “a prominent part” in the wedding ceremony of Prince George and Princess Mary, the future king and queen.78 In addition, a few West African bandsmen attended the British Army’s music school at Kneller Hall in London. By 1908, however, officials discouraged individual or small group training visits citing expense and the growing availability of military instructional resources in West Africa.79 For the next few decades, West African soldiers visited Britain as part of contingents for specific events.

In June 1897, with the conquest of West Africa ongoing, delegations from West African paramilitaries including the Sierra Leone Frontier Police, Royal Niger Constabulary and Gold Coast Constabulary visited Britain for the celebrations around Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. Events such as this demonstrated imperial military power and unity. Contradicting racial stereotypes, the Gold Coast detachment included both a “native officer” and a European officer, and most of the West African soldiers wore British Army parade boots. Accommodated at London’s Chelsea Barracks, the West Africans and other colonial troops toured prominent places like the Houses of Parliament, enjoyed theatrical performances, received a special Jubilee Medal and interacted with Londoners. Sierra Leone Frontier Police bugler “Little Tom” won a bugling competition among the colonial detachments. The West African troops, together with colleagues from other parts of Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and Canada, formed a five-hundred-strong colonial contingent inspected by the Duke of Connaught during a public parade at Chelsea Barracks and joined the grand jubilee procession through London led by celebrated Victorian military leader General Frederick Sleigh Roberts.80

Given the delayed coronation of Edward vii, 150 West African soldiers spent almost three months in Britain during the summer of 1902. Arriving at Plymouth in early June, the West African contingent’s core consisted of thirty-two men from the GCR, forty-nine from the Southern Nigeria Regiment, and thirty-two from the Northern Nigeria Regiment. The delegation also included two dozen men from the Lagos Battalion (formerly the Armed Hausa Police Force) and groups from the SLB and WAR of Sierra Leone. In early July, the West African coronation detachment, including a mountain gun carried by Nigerian porters dressed in long robes, and commanded by WAFF inspector general Brigadier G. V. Kemball marched to the Colonial Office for an inspection by Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. Addressing the troops, Chamberlain pointed out that many of them wore medals earned in wars in West Africa therefore highlighting their importance in expanding British rule in the region. As during the 1897 Jubilee, West African troops visiting Britain for the 1902 coronation wore footwear, though in this case they sported Chupplies instead of parade boots. The men of the WAR, separate from the WAFF structure, remained an exception always appearing barefoot. While the West African troops initially stayed at Alexandra Palace in north London, they eventually moved to the British Army establishment at Aldershot to practise drill and occasionally toured London.81 In Britain, published photographs of the West African detachments included positive captions such as “the Northern Nigeria Regiment – a smart and soldierly-looking set of men” and “the Lagos Regiment, who have fought for us before and are ready to fight again”.82

In May and June 1908, a one hundred-strong contingent from the Freetown-based WAR travelled to London for the Royal Naval and Military Tournament.83 Initiated in the 1880s, this public event raised money for military charities such as widows’ funds by staging competitions including tug-o-war, bayonet fighting and equestrian sports as well as demonstrations of military skills and operations. Quickly becoming an important segment of the London social season, the tournament introduced colonial themes in 1890 reflecting the unfolding “Scramble for Africa”.84 The 1897 tournament featured a re-enactment of the recent British conquest of the Benin Kingdom in Nigeria, but with white British troops in “black face” playing the role of Britain’s Niger Coast Protectorate Force and Benin’s king and warriors.85 Around the same time his unit received its Colours in 1907, WAR commandant Colonel A.F. Montanaro proposed his soldiers’ involvement in the tournament. At the Olympic Exhibition Centre in west London, the WAR’s display involved a mock-up of a West African “jungle” with a clearing on one end and a wooden log stockade on the other. While some Sierra Leonean soldiers dressed in traditional African costumes performed a “devil dance” and put mock prisoners on trail in the stockade, others in uniform demonstrated a military operation involving small groups advancing along parallel jungle paths, crossing a river and converging to assault the fortification.86 The WAR contingent did not compete in the competitions focusing entirely on this theatrical performance. Attending the tournament, members of the British royal family such as King Edward vii, Queen Alexandra and the Prince of Wales seemed fascinated by the West African soldiers.87 A journalist pointed out that many WAR troops wore medals earned fighting wars in support of the British Empire stating, “These cheerful black warriors are becoming very popular with the crowd”.88 During their stay in London, the Sierra Leoneans billeted at the Exhibition Centre and could only leave the complex under the supervision of a British officer or NCO.89 Besides the tournament, the WAR soldiers visited Windsor Castle and paraded at Buckingham Palace where the king inspected them, and they occasionally dined at local tearooms. Departing from the custom of normally barefoot West African troops wearing footwear in Britain, the WAR contingent went with bare feet that, in combination with their red fezzes, attracted attention from curious Londoners.90

In 1924, three Nigerians from the colonial military visited London for six months to participate in the British Empire Exhibition. Held at what became Wembley Stadium, and modelled on similar shows in the 19th century, the exhibition sought to revive flagging British domestic interest in the empire that faced disquiet in India and the dominions, and competition from other world powers like the United States. Among large pavilions devoted to colonial territories including India and East Africa, the West African exhibition consisted of a “walled city” modelled on Kano in northern Nigeria and contained displays of trade goods and culture from Britain’s colonies in that region. The Nigeria Regiment’s RSM Belo Akure, his wife Obiyi and Battery Sergeant Major (BSM) Belo Ojo joined the dozens of other West Africans peopling the “walled city”. For visitors, watching these soldiers provided an imperially defined performance of West African colonial military identity. The sergeant majors played a theatrical role standing guard over the pavilion, they interacted with visitors and posed for photographs, and colourized pictures of them wearing medals and exotic uniforms sold as souvenir postcards. Decorated veterans of the First World War, the sergeant majors represented the contribution of West Africans to Britain’s efforts in that recent conflict. Indeed, RSM Akure appeared an authentic war hero with decorations for bravery during conquest wars in Southeastern Nigeria in the early 1900s and in both the Cameroon and East Africa during the First World War. During the grand Empire Pageant, a re-enactment of British Empire history involving around fifteen thousand participants that lasted for several days, RSM Akure carried a flag emblazoned with the word “Nigeria” and BSM Ojo rode a horse along with traditional cavalry from northern Nigeria.91

The involvement of West African soldiers in imperial victory parades became contentious. With racial violence in British ports at the end of the First World War, British authorities excluded African and Caribbean soldiers from the 1919 London victory celebrations. When WAFF officers and West African governors complained, officials responded that there had been no time to bring African troops to Britain for the event. The emerging West African press decried the hypocrisy of sending African troops to fight for Britain while excluding them from the victory parade.92 Imperial authorities did not repeat the mistake. In June 1945, West African soldiers serving in Burma marched in a British Empire victory parade in Rangoon to mark the end of war in Europe.93 In June 1946, a large West African detachment joined the Victory Parade in London with the West African soldiers sporting the same battle dress uniform as the other British troops and preceded by their unit Colours.94

The experience of West African soldiers visiting Britain changed after the Second World War. The conflict shifted British attitudes towards empire with paternalism giving way to ideas about working in partnership with colonized people toward common economic development.95 West African soldiers visited Britain more frequently after the Second World War, including by air, with their travels reported in British and West African newspapers as up-beat human-interest pieces. Unlike their predecessors of the late 19th and early 20th century, the individual West African soldiers who visited Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s enjoyed freedom of movement suitable for trusted military professionals. Among the first to attend post-war courses were Sergeant Majors Umo Bassey and Abuekwee Shadrach from Nigeria and Sergeant Major Tay Amanya from Gold Coast, who spent two months in England in 1947. Sightseeing in London, the trio stayed at YMCA hostels and navigated the underground railway system. They visited the Royal Military Tournament, London’s Zoological Gardens, Madame Tussauds Wax Museum, Buckingham Palace and the Horse Guards Parade.96 West African military musicians returned to Kneller Hall. In 1958, a Nigerian newspaper featured a picture of QONR bandsmen Private Ignatius Nwauzora and Corporal Hamid Osazuwa playing the clarinet and cornet, respectively, at the British Army music school.97 A program to Africanize the hitherto all-white officer corps also resulted in West African soldiers journeying to Britain where they became symbols of colonial reform. In 1948, the army flew Sergeant Victor Ugboma to Britain where he became the first Nigerian soldier to appear before a War Office officer selection board and subsequently attended officer training. At the end of 1949, a Nigerian newspaper published a photograph of a smiling Army Cadet Officer Shodeinde, a former company sergeant major and war veteran, “who flew to the United Kingdom to complete his officer’s course”.98 During the 1950s, a small number of West African officer candidates attended RMA Sandhurst, including Lieutenant Hassan Usman son of the Emir of Katsina in northern Nigeria.99 Simultaneous with these individual training visits, West African regiments continued to dispatch contingents to Britain for important ceremonial events. In June 1953, West African forces sent 35 officers and 107 other ranks from Nigeria, Gold Coast, Sierra Leone and the Gambia to Britain to join the colonial contingent for the coronation of Elizabeth ii.100 In 1960, a few months before Nigeria’s independence, a QONR band and detachment, sporting Zouave jackets, fezzes and shorts, attended the Royal Tournament in London.101 A few West African troops, particularly long-serving senior NCOs, visited Britain several times. RSM Sesay of 1st Battalion Sierra Leone Regiment flew to Britain for the funeral of George vi in 1952 and returned for Elizabeth ii’s coronation the next year. The Nigeria Regiment’s RSM Chari Maigumeri, notable for his previous service in the German colonial army in Cameroon, attended the 1937 coronation of George vi, the 1946 victory parade, the king’s funeral in 1952 and the 1953 coronation.102 It is unrealistic to think that these West African senior soldiers’ experience in Britain did not influence their engagement with colonial military culture at home.

5 Conclusion

Visual symbols like uniforms, emblems, rituals and public events became key elements in the creation of British colonial military culture in West Africa within the context of a broader British imperial world. Arguably, distinct features of West African soldiers’ uniforms, particularly quasi-Zouave attire, could be understood as an orientalist program to portray these troops as racialized “others”. Yet, from an ornamentalist perspective of empire, the exotic West African uniform emerged at the end of the 19th century when many other colourful costumes enjoyed popularity within British imperial military circles, some worn by white metropolitan troops and others by colonial soldiers in India, the Caribbean and Africa. Though some elements of West African uniforms originated with racial stereotypes, particularly the lack of shoes, there is little evidence that exotic uniforms were meant to demean West African soldiers. While West African troops took pride in their uniforms, these distinct costumes began to fall out of fashion in the middle 20th century given concerns about military efficiency, heightened sensitivities over perceived racism and a desire to reflect modern aspirations. Like civilian fashion trends, exotic colonial uniforms became popular, but then declined with changing contexts. During the early 20th century, the granting of insignia and particularly official Colours to West African forces signified their transition from colonial paramilitaries to full members of the wider British military tradition. The result of thoughtful design, badges promoted unit identity and the Colours served as important ritual objects at the centre of events that defined military culture. Though the images of palm trees, lions and elephants reflected stereotypical West African themes, these were no different from insignia of other British formations with their own designs and ethos including exotic animals. Visits by West African troops to Britain comprised a visual spectacle integrating them into the imperial military structure, but the context changed during the colonial era. In the 19th and early 20th century, the presence of West African and other colonial contingents in British imperial parades and exhibitions displayed the majestic scale, diversity and transformative potential of the empire. At times, West African soldiers performed theatrical roles reinforcing British ideas about exotic and primitive Africa. After the Second World War, given imperial decline, West African military visits to Britain symbolized colonial reform and new ideas about equality.


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Jane Tynan, “A Visual and Material Culture Approach to Research War and Conflict”, in The Routledge Companion to Military Research Methods, eds. Alison Williams, K. Neil Jenkings, Matthew F. Rech, and Rachel Woodward (London, 2016), 306, 314.


Daniel Roche, The Culture of Clothing: Dress and Fashion in the ‘Ancien Regime’ (Cambridge, 1994), 229.


Jane Tynan, “‘Tailoring in the Trenches’: The Making of First World War British Army Uniform”, in British Popular Culture and the First World War, ed. Jessica Meyer (Leiden, 2008), 71–93.


Scott Hughes Myerly, British Military Spectacle: From the Napoleonic Wars through the Crimea (Cambridge, 1996), 8.


Myerly, British Military Spectacle, 87; the point is repeated by French, Military Identities, 86.


Maren Tomforde, “‘My Pink Uniform Shows I am one of Them’: Socio-Cultural Dimensions of German Peace-Keeping Missions”, in Armed Forces, Soldiers and Civil-Military Relations: Essays in Honour of Jurgen Kuhlmann, eds. Gerhard Kümmel, Giuseppe Caforio, and Christopher Dandeker (Wiesbaden, 2009), 37–57.


Timothy H. Parsons, The African Rank-and-File: Social Implications of Colonial Military Service in the King’s African Rifles, 1902–1964 (Portsmouth, NH, 1999), 117.


Allan Carswell, “Scottish Military Dress”, in A Military History of Scotland, eds. Edward M. Spiers, Jeremy Crang, Matthew Strickland (Edinburgh, 2012), 627–647; Roy, “Regiments”, 127–148; Tarak Barkawi, Soldiers of Empire: Indian and British Armies in World War ii (Cambridge, 2017), 25; Thomas S. Adler, Hinterland Warriors and Military Dress: European Empire and Exotic Uniforms (New York, 1999).


Ricketts to Murray, Sierra Leone, 17 November 1828, in “Accounts and Papers relating to Diplomatic and Consular Establishments; Colonies”, 1830, Vol. xxi, 50; Padraic X. Scanlan, Freedom’s Debtors: British Antislavery in Sierra Leone in the Age of Revolution (New Haven, CT, 2017), 125.


Major H. A. Leveson, “The Houssa Contingent”, The Times, 4 September 1873, 10; Lady Glover, Life of Sir John Hawley Glover (London, 1897), 115.


London Illustrated News, 23 November 1895, 13; Getty Images, “Hausa Members of the Royal Niger Constabulary, Nigeria 1895”, Hulton Archive, Huty1600406,, accessed 17 June 2020; “Sierra Leone Frontier Police, June 12, 1897”, Alamy Stock Photos, Image Number R58826; “Frontier Police: Sierra Leone”,, accessed 17 June 2020.


The National Archives, Kew, London [hereafter TNA], “Uniform for Native Soldiers, WAFF”, 10 October 1898, emphasis in original minutes.


TNA, CO 445–4, “Uniform, WAFF”, Colonel F.D. Lugard to Colonial Secretary, 8 October 1898; Timothy Stapleton, “Martial Identities in Colonial Nigeria, (1900–1960)”, Journal of African Military History 3 (2019): 1–32.


A. Haywood and F. A. S. Clarke, The History of the Royal West African Frontier Force (Aldershot, 1964), 39, 49, 289.


Oxford Records Development Project [hereafter ORDP], Weston Library, Oxford, R. M. Allen, 30 September 1980.


Tynan, “Visual and Material Culture”, 313.


Parsons, African Rank-and-File, 118. For the fez as an Ottoman national headdress see Selim Deringil, “The Invention of Tradition as Public Image in the Late Ottoman Empire, 1808–1908”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 35 (1993): 8–9.


Roy, “Regiments”, 133; “The Gurkha Hat”, The Gurkha Museum,, accessed 17 June 2020.


Richard Smith, “Loss and Longing: Emotional Responses to West Indian Soldiers during the First World War”, in The British Empire and the First World War, ed. Ashley Jackson (New York, 2016), 419–428; Richard Smith, Jamaican Volunteers in the First World War: Race, Masculinity and the Development of National Consciousness (Manchester, 2004), 110.


Albert A. Gore, A Contribution to the Medical History of our West African Campaigns (London, 1876), 76.


Getty Images, “West African Constabulary at Chelsea Barracks”, June 1897, 97r/28/huty/7376/11.


“Postcard dated 1924 Band of West African Regiment”,, accessed 17 June 2020.


The Gambia Echo, 25 April 1938, 3.


Haywood and Clark, West African Frontier Force, 289.


TNA, CO 445/57, “Boots: Native Rank-and-File”, Lieutenant Colonel G. Shaw, Commanding Officer, Gold Coast Regiment, Kumasi, to Colonial Secretary, 18 May 1921.


TNA, CO 445/56, “Boots: Native Rank-and-File”, 23 August 1921; “Footwear Report”, Lieutenant Colonel J. Sargent, Acting Commandant Nigeria Regiment, Kaduna, 18 July 1921.


TNA, CO 820/1/17, “Report on the Nigeria Regiment 1926–27”, 22 February 1927.


TNA, CO 820/2/11, “Chupplies, 1927”; CO 820/10/11, Report on the Sierra Leone Battalion, 1931.


TNA, CO 820/25/4, “Report on Nigeria Regiment, 1937”.


Festus Cole, “Defining the ‘Flesh’ of the Black Soldier in Colonial Sierra Leone: Background to the Gunners’ Mutiny of 1939”, Canadian Journal of African Studies 48 (2014): 275–295; for boots in Britain’s East African forces see Parsons, African Rank-and-File, 118–119; for western-educated African police demanding boots in 1930s Rhodesia see Timothy Stapleton, African Police and Soldiers in Colonial Zimbabwe, 1923–1980 (Rochester, NY, 2011), 156–157; expectations for footwear went beyond the military as in 1936 football players in colonial Brazzaville demanded the right to wear boots during games, see Phyllis Martin, Leisure and Society in Colonial Brazzaville (Cambridge, 1995), 110–112.


ORDP, H. J. Bartholomew, 18 February 1981; J. K. Chater, n.d. served in Nigeria during the 1950s and early 1960s.


For some examples see ORDP, W. Catcheside, 25 September 1980; A. J. Chrystal; A. C. Davidson-Houston, 19 September 1980; J. R. Filmer-Bennett; F. H. G. Higgins, 25 October 1980.


N.J. Miners, The Nigerian Army, 1956–1966 (London, 1971), 103.


Stewart West, “The Military, Policing and Decolonization in Sierra Leone, 1953–57”, Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies, Working Paper Number 4, May 2013.


John Keegan, World Armies (London, 1983), 217; Nigerian Army Magazine, Vol. 1, 1963, 10.


For decorations in other African colonial forces see Parsons, African Rank-and-File, 119; and Myron Echenberg, Colonial Conscripts: The Tirailleurs Sénégalais in French West Africa, 1857–1960 (Portsmouth, NH, 1991), 141.


National Archives of Nigeria Ibadan, University of Ibadan, CSO 34/1919, “Sergeant Major Ojo Ibadan,” 3 January 1919; Milner to Governor of Nigeria, Downing Street, 9 June 1919.


Public Records and Archives Administration Department, Accra, Ghana [hereafter PRAAD], CSO 22/6/4, Ex-“Private Billi Kanjarga, Award of Medals, 1930–31.”


French, Military Identities, 85–90; Myerly, British Military Spectacle, 95–99.


National Army Museum, London [hereafter NAM], 1978-07-7-29, “British Officers and African NCOs of the Battery of the Gold Coast Regiment, 1906”; NAM, 1978-07-8-4, “The Gold Coast Regiment Battery, c.1909”; and NAM, 1978-07-7-29, “Sergeant Major Bobie, 2nd Northern Nigeria Regiment, 1901”.


“Presentation of Colours to the West African Regiment”, Sierra Leone Weekly News, 4 January 1908, 4–5; David Killingray, “The Mutiny of the West African Regiment in the Gold Coast, 1901”, International Journal of African Historical Studies 16 (1983): 441–454.


“Flags for Colonial Regiments: A Tribute of Gratitude”, Western Daily Press, 7 May 1917, 5.


TNA, CO 445–46, “Colours for Gold Coast Regiment”, 16 April 1919; CO 445–48, “Colours for WAFF”, 4 September 1919; CO 445–51, “Colours for WAFF”, 7 June 1920.


TNA, CO 445–51, “Colours for WAFF”, minutes plus Colonel G. T. Mair, Commandant Nigeria Regiment to Colonial Secretary, 3 May 1920; TNA, CO 445–53, “Colours for WAFF: Submits Proposal for King’s Approval”, 6 December 1920.


TNA, CO 445–51, “Colours”, minutes plus Colonel G. T. Mair, Commandant Nigeria Regiment to Colonial Secretary, 3 May 1920; TNA, CO 445–53, “Colours for WAFF: Submits Proposal for King’s Approval”, 6 December 1920.


TNA, CO 445–45, “Colours for WAFF: Gambia Company”, 8 March 1921; Telegram, C. H. Armitage to Colonial Secretary, Bathurst, 11 February 1921.


TNA, CO 820/73/4, “Colours: King’s and Regimental, West Africa”, Governor Gambia to Secretary of State, 6 April 1951.


“Handing Over Regimental Colours to His Excellency the Governor”, The Gambia Echo, 27 January 1958, 1.


PRAAD, “Consecration of the Colours, 2nd Battalion, Gold Coast Regiment”, 1946.


TNA, CO 445–60, “Presentation of Colours to the Nigeria Regiment”, 15 May 1922.


TNA, CO 445–60, “Presentation of Colours to the Nigeria Regiment”, 15 May 1922; “Medals for RWAFF”, Nigeria Review, 28 February 1948, 1.


TNA, CO 445–60, “Presentation of Colours to Sierra Leone Battalion”, 13 June 1922.


Hubert Moyse-Bartlett, The King’s African Rifles: A Study in the Military History of East and Central Africa, 1890–1945 (Aldershot, 1956), 261.


French, Military Identities, 89.


TNA, CO 445–66, “WAFF – Battle Honours”, 25 August 1924.


National Archives of Nigeria, Kaduna, ZARPROF 4149, “Battle Honours Awards and Regimental Colours”, Memo from Lagos Sub-Area, 15 July 1946.


Haywood and Clark, West African Frontier Force, 283.


E. D. A. Turay and A. Abraham, The Sierra Leone Army: A Century of Tradition (London, 1987), 156.


“Trooping the Colour”, West Africa Times, 23 March 1931, 1.


PRAAD, CSO 22/6/95, “Trooping of the Colours of the Gold Coast Regiment, RWAFF”, 30 March 1937; CSO 22/6/96, “Trooping of the Colours of the G.C. Regt”, 25 April 1937.


“Nigerians Troop the Colour”, The Times, 3 June 1953, 9.


TNA, CO 820-2-14, “Title of WAFF”, 1927, minute by S. J. Cole, 18 July 1927; Colonial Secretary L. Amery to George V, 13 March 1928; for the position of colonel-in-chief, see French, Military Identities, 166.


Haywood and Clarke, West African Frontier Force, 320.


PRAAD, CSO 22/4/32, “Regimental Colours of Units of the Royal WAFF”, 1932; “Regimental Orders, Gold Coast Regiment”, Kumasi, 11 June 1932.


PRAAD, CSO 22/4/33, “Regimental Colours Gold Coast Regiment, Royal WAFF”, 1936–37, “Speech of His Excellency the Governor”, 12 May 1937; Colonel M. A. Green to Colonial Secretary, Accra, 13 May 1937.


“Boisterous Welcome to the Queen at Lagos”, The Times, 30 January 1956, 6; “Nigerian Forces Honoured”, The Times, 31 January 1956, 6; “Nigeria Royal Tour in Last Phase”, The Times, 16 February 1956, 8; Haywood and Clarke, West African Frontier Force, 479–480.


“Display for Duke of Gloucester”, The Times, 20 May 1959, 9.


“Royal Engagements for Coming Months”, The Times, 19 April 1960, 12.


“Dam Workers Postpone Strike for Royal Visit”, The Times, 27 November 1961, 9.


PRAAD, RG 14/4/86, “Regimental Colours”, 1958–59; “Duke in Ghana, 1959”, British Pathé,, accessed 17 June 2020.


Miners, Nigerian Army, 103.


Cannadine, Ornamentalism, 109–111.


John MacKenzie, Propaganda and Empire: The Manipulation of British Public Opinion, 1880–1960 (Manchester, 1984); Melissa Bennett, “‘Exhibits with Real Colour and Interest’: Representations of the West Indian Regiment at Atlantic World’s Fairs”, Slavery and Abolition: A Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies 39 (2018): 558–578.


“The Hausa Constabulary”, The Derby Daily Telegraph, 6 July 1893, 4.


TNA, 96/358/10, “Request for Bandsmen to Receive Instruction at Kneller Hall”, Governor Sir Frederick Hodgson, Gold Coast, 8 March 1900; CO 445/27/2685, “Instruction of Bandsmen at Kneller Hall”, 24 January 1908.


“Inspection of the Colonial Troops”, The Morning Post, 12 June 1897, 7; “The Diamond Jubilee”, Chelsea Observer, 26 June 1897, 2: Getty Images, “West African Constabulary at Chelsea Barracks”, June 1897, 97r/28/huty/7376/11; “Sierra Leone Frontier Police, June 12, 1897”, Alamy Stock Photos, Image Number R58826; Turay and Abraham, The Sierra Leone Army, 28; John Mitcham, Race and Imperial Defence in the British World, 1870–1914 (Cambridge, 2016), 102–104.


“Coronation Contingents”, Sunderland Daily Echo, 7 June 1902, 6; “Mr. Chamberlain and the West African Troops”, The Times, 8 July 1902, 12; “Coronation Medals Stolen”, The Manchester Courier, 15 August 1902, 5; “Naval and Military Intelligence”, The Times, 1 September 1902, 8; see photographs published in “From Africa’s Sunny Shores”, The Navy and Army Illustrated, 9 August 1902, 525.


“From Africa’s Sunny Shores”, The Navy and Army Illustrated, 9 August 1902, 525. For more on colonial photography see David Killingray and Andrew Roberts, “An Outline History of Photography in Africa”, History in Africa 16 (1989): 197–208; Rachel Ama Asaa Engmann, “Under Imperial Eyes, Black Bodies, Buttocks, and Breasts: British Colonial Photography and Asante ‘Fetish Girls’”, African Arts 45 (2012): 46–57.


“The Royal Naval and Military Tournament”, The Field, Vol. 111, 2 May 1908, 724.


“The Royal Military Tournament of 1885”, The Illustrated Naval and Military Magazine 3 (1886): 263–270; Jeffrey Richards, Imperialism and Music: Britain, 1876–1953 (Manchester, 2001), 212–218.


See photographs in NAM, 1966-12-43-167; and NAM, 1966-12-43-168, “Capture of Benin, Military Tournament, 1897”.


“The Royal Naval and Military Tournament”, The Field, Vol. 111, 2 May 1908, 724; “The Prince and Princess at the Tournament”, The Times, 25 May 1908, 7; “Presentation of Colours to the West African Regiment”, Sierra Leone Weekly News, 4 January 1908, 4.


“Their Majesties at the Tournament”, The Times, 23 May 1908, 12.


“The Prince and Princess at the Tournament”, The Times, 25 May 1908, 7.


Jeffrey Green, Black Edwardians: Black People in Britain, 1901–1914 (London, 1998), 14.


“The King and the West African Regiment”, The Mercury, 5 June 1908, 3.


Philip Grant, “Belo Akure – A Nigerian First World War Hero at Wembley”, Wembley History Society, July 2017,, accessed 17 June 2020; Daniel Stephen, The Empire of Progress: West Africans, Indians and Britons at the British Empire Exhibition, 1924–25 (Basingstoke, 2013).


John Siblon, “Negotiating Hierarchy and Memory: African and Caribbean Troops from Former British Colonies in London’s Imperial Spaces”, The London Journal 41 (2016): 299–312; James K. Mathews, “World War i and the Rise of African Nationalism: Nigerian Veterans as Catalysts for Change”, The Journal of Modern African Studies, 20 (1982): 501–502.


“Victory Parade in Rangoon”, The Times, 16 June 1945, 3.


Haywood and Clarke, West African Frontier Force, 474; “The Victory Parade: The West African Contingent Passes the Saluting Base, 8 June 1946”, Alamy, Image ID G38GEH.


David Killingray, Fighting for Britain: African Soldiers in the Second World War (Woodbridge, 2010), 257.


“RWAFF Trio Home from England”, The Gold Coast Observer, 17 October 1947, 299.


Daily Times, 10 January 1958, 9.


The Nigerian Citizen, 25 December 1925, 5.


“First Nigerian Officer?”, Nigeria Review, 10 April 1948, 1; “New Nigerian Army Officer”, Daily Times, 20 June 1959, 3; Miners, Nigerian Army, 36.


National Record Service, Banjul, The Gambia, CSO 84/293, “Coronation Military Contingent”, 7 October 1952, Secretary of State for the Colonies to West African Inter-territorial Secretariat, 30 September 1952.


“Royal Tournament March Past 1960”, British Pathé,, accessed 17 June 2020.


ORDP, C. H. R. Hyde, 7 August 1980, Diary 1st Battalion, Sierra Leone Regiment, 1951–1953; “Iron Cross RSM for Coronation Parade”, The Times, 7 May 1953, 3.

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