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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

The Unsettled Debt: African Soldiers and the Pursuit of Compensation

Written by Cameron Fisher and Christine Asielue for the Africa section.



Only a brief glance at the historical relationship held between Britain and Africa is needed to reveal that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was violated to terrible lengths during the World Wars. This article artfully examines this relationship and how exactly the nature of this relationship reflects on Britain's ideologies at the time.

 

In the tapestry of history, there are threads that often go unnoticed, stories left untold, and sacrifices left unrecognized. Among these forgotten narratives lie the tales of African soldiers who, during the tumultuous years of the World Wars, were conscripted to fight for colonial Britain.[1] Their valour on the front lines was unwavering, and yet the promises made to them have echoed through the decades unfulfilled. This article sheds light on the unspoken chapter of history, exploring the legal issues and implications surrounding the compensation owed to African soldiers and their descendants.


 

Unfulfilled Promises: The Quest for Compensation

 

The stories of history reveal a painful truth — the promises made to African soldiers during their recruitment were often broken, leaving behind a legacy of unfulfilled commitments. During the hardships of war, these soldiers died with zero dignity due to the atrocious circumstances that they were subjected to by their British former colonial masters; those who were lucky enough to survive prayed for the war to come to an end so that the promises of compensation and reunion with their families, that the British had made to them, could be fulfilled. However, as the dust settled and peace was declared, the reality that unfolded was starkly different from the pledges that the British had made in the heat of battle.

 

One glaring aspect of this historical injustice lies in the systematic denial of recognition and pensions for African soldiers.[2] Recognition, promotions, and the benefits of military service were distributed unevenly, with African soldiers often relegated to the margins of acknowledgment, if acknowledged at all.


 

Discriminatory Payments and Treatment

 

To compound these injustices, Britain would go on to pay these soldiers an end-of-war bonus according to their rank, length of service, and ethnicity, meaning that black troops received just a third of the pay of their white counterparts.[3] This discriminatory payment scheme is exemplified by the tragic story of the SS Mendi, a troopship that sank in 1917, resulting in the deaths of over 607 black African troops.[4] As slaves, getting little to no pay, they were forced to embark on this journey to fight for Britain,[5] but, unbeknownst to them, that this journey would be their last; their reluctant boarding of the ship would be one of their last memories. Despite the tremendous sacrifice of these warriors, the cries of their families for both the bodies of their dearly departed and the compensation that they were so greatly owed to be given to them was left unheard by the British government.

To this day, these families have been left in utter anguish due to the government’s denial to laud these soldiers as heroes and bring their bodies back,[6] leaving the sacrifices of these heroes unsung and forgotten in the cold dust of history.



Legal Context

 

The discriminatory treatment described above stands in stark violation of international laws and principles. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) underscores the right to equal protection under the law;[7] The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) reaffirms the prohibition of discrimination based on race;[8] and yet, the blatant disparity in compensation and the inhumane treatment of these soldiers on the SS Mendi and beyond raise serious questions regarding Britain’s compliance with these fundamental principles. Only in 2019 was there an attempt (made by the Labour party and General Lord Dannatt) to compensate these families, but whether this has landed is a mystery.


 

Contemporary Advocacy

 

In the face of this historical neglect, there have been stirrings of contemporary advocacy seeking justice for the descendants of African soldiers. Movements and initiatives have emerged, striving to rectify the wrongs of the past by raising awareness of them. Amnesty International and Refworld brought light to the issues by giving examples of the injustices and writing about the atrocities and the right to reparation. These two groups, amongst numerous others, continue to strive for justice in this area, in the face of several challenges, such as navigating the complexities of legal frameworks and the historical documentation (or lack thereof). The battle for acknowledgment and compensation is not just a quest for financial reparations, but, in fact, a much greater protest for recognition of the humanity and sacrifices of those who defended and protected Britain in the Wars, fighting against their will. Whilst the advocacy of these groups is applying pressure, this is not enough – until the starting source, the British government, takes responsibility for its ignorance and make efforts to rectify it, history will continue to overlook these misgivings, and is at high risk of repeating itself.

 

 

Conclusion

 

In unravelling the obscured history of African soldiers who fought for colonial Britain during the World Wars, a disturbing pattern of broken promises and systemic discrimination emerges. The unfulfilled commitments, discriminatory payments, and inhumane treatment not only constitute a historical injustice but also raise profound questions about the application of international laws and human rights principles.

 

The tragic tale of the SS Mendi stands as a poignant symbol of this injustice, unveiling the government’s true racial bias in recognition and compensation. This stark example forces us to confront the uncomfortable truth: that the sacrifices of these African soldiers were not only undervalued, but also systematically devalued based on their ethnicity. "To deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity;"[9] and still, the so-called “Great” Britain does just this. What does it mean when individuals are denied the recognition and compensation owed to them based on the colour of their skin? How can we truly uphold justice, if we continue to allow such blatant systemic injustices? The struggles faced by African soldiers resonate beyond their specific historical context, challenging us to recognize human rights and placing on us the collective responsibility to safeguard the dignity of every individual, if we are to truly call ourselves members of a civilised society.







References

[1] Munro, J. Forbes and Savage, Donald C, ‘Carrier Corps Recruitment in the British East Africa Protectorate 1914–1918’  

(7th edn, The Journal of African History 1966) 313-342

[2] Ibid

[3] Jack Losh, ‘Africans who fought for British army paid less than white soldiers’ (The Guardian 2019)

[4] Fred Khumalo, Dancing the Death Drill (1st edn, Jacaranda Books 2017)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid

[7] Universal Declaration of Human Rights (adopted 10 December 1948 UNGA Res 217 A(III) (UDHR) art 7

[8] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted 16 December 1966, entered into force 23 March 1976) 999 UNTS 171 (ICCPR) art 2 and 26

[9] Nelson Mandela, Speech at a joint meeting of the United States Congress, Washington DC (26 June 1990).




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