During the Second World War, over 9,000 men from several colonies, protectorates and mandate territories fought for the British Empire. These forces represented a significant shift in naval policy towards the recruitment of colonial manpower at a time of distinct pressures on British imperialism. This book examines the impact of colonial naval forces, by analyzing the 'official' and 'subaltern' sources in the United Kingdom, the Caribbean, East Africa, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong. The Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (TRNVR) was formed to defend the island's oil supply to British oil-fired ships. The book also looks at the experience of the Cayman Islanders who volunteered to serve in the TRNVR. An East African case study focuses on Kenya and Zanzibar before and after the Second World War. The Kenya Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (KRNVR) was the first colonial naval force in the British Empire; local naval forces were also formed in Zanzibar and Tanganyika. In the analysis of Southeast Asia and the Malacca Straits, the book discusses, inter alia, origins of Malaya's naval forces, and analyses the issues of force expansion and 'Malaysianisation' during the Malayan Emergency and decolonisation. There was an initial reluctance on the Navy to recruit the Chinese, but with their overwhelming majority in Hong Kong, their enlistment in the Hong Kong Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (HKRNVR) was unavoidable. The post-war evolution of Hong Kong's naval force as it adjusted to the roles of Communist China's emergence and Britain's declining world are also examined.
Race, indigenous naval recruitment and British colonialism, 1934–41
Daniel Owen Spence
The British Empire reached its greatest extent at the end of the First World War, but the Royal Navy’s ability to uphold Britain’s global interests was limited by economic downturn and the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. To mitigate this imperial overstretch, over 40,000 Asian, African, Caribbean and Pacific sailors were recruited into colonial navies and reserves by the time of the Second World War. These units physically and psychologically fortified British colonialism against internal and external dissidents, indoctrinating imperial discourses of power that reinforced racialised systems of hierarchy and control; ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ and ‘Orientalism’ delineated chains of command where paternalistic British officers instructed ‘native’ ratings in their ‘civilising mission’ to ‘develop’ the ‘character’ of a ‘modern’ navy. ‘Martial race’ theory, which ethnically categorised ‘natural’ soldiers, served to ‘divide and rule’ by promoting imperially loyal groups over those threatening the status quo, and for naval recruiters a distinctly ‘seafaring race’ theory evolved around maritime semantics with a similar imperial purpose. Utilising transnational research which reconciles ‘official’ and ‘subaltern’ sources from the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia, this chapter examines the social and cultural impact of naval-indigenous interactions upon racial identities, colonial ethnic relations, imperial power and decolonisation at the end of the British Empire.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book explores the influence of a 'seafaring race' theory upon colonial naval officials, in developing the cultural interaction between imperial and naval identities. It considers the key colonial concerns of oil and labour in Trinidad, and issues raised by naval recruitment and expansion. The book provides a point of ethnic comparison by examining the experience of the Cayman Islanders who volunteered to serve in the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (TRNVR). It analyses Hong Kong's naval development in relation to Japanese expansionism and the local impact of the European war. The book draws out common and contrasting themes to demonstrate the wider cultural, social and political significance of colonial naval forces to British imperialism during the endgame of empire.
The second half of the nineteenth century was one of uncertainty for the British Empire and its collective security. The British Navy League emerged in 1895 out of anxieties about the state of the Royal Navy and imperial defence, and established branches throughout the Empire. The First World War left Great Britain, the United States and Japan as the three major naval powers in the world, all with vested interests in the Pacific. By the end of 1938, Gambia and Zanzibar had also formed their own Naval Volunteer Forces, while Penang hosted a Malayan branch of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (RNVR). British naval and imperial power relied on psychological as well as physical fortification. The chapter shows that naval theatre continued to be deployed in support of colonial naval forces and imperial prestige until decolonisation.
The island, Trinidad, occupied a special place within the 'official mind' due to it being the largest oil producer in the British Empire, supplying 38" of its consumption in 1938. The Trinidad Naval Volunteer Force (TNVF) was inaugurated in October 1939. By 1945, the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (TRNVR) had grown to 75 officers and 1,215 ratings, representing 12 different Caribbean territories. In Trinidad, the main US naval base was built at Chaguaramas, adjoining the TRNVR's Staubles headquarters. The Ministry of Information (MOI) article, aimed at a different audience, attempted to relate the TRNVR to the British public. The implicit prejudice evinced itself in more overt racial discrimination towards TRNVR ratings at home and overseas. Non-racial colonial prejudice also permeated, with West Indian Europeans considered inferior to British personnel because of the debilitating effects of climate upon character.
During the Second World War, out of a population of just over 6,500, around 800 Caymanians served in the British Merchant Navy with another 201 in the Trinidad Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (TRNVR). Caymanians possessed a hereditary link back to Britain, a connection visibly reinforced by their lighter physical complexion compared to other West Indians. Although within a colonial naval force such as the TRNVR Caymanians garnered more respect than their West Indian colleagues, they were still viewed as inferior to regular British sailors. Upon their arrival at the TRNVR base in Staubles Bay, Caymanians encountered a foreign environment, poor facilities, professional neglect, and lack of proper uniform and medical care, causing many to fall ill. As with the sailors, the collective wartime experience at home strengthened Caymanian identity beyond skin colour, with the Islanders united in prayer for the safe return of their men.
The first British colonial naval force in East Africa briefly appeared in the Central African Protectorate, present-day Malawi, at the end of the nineteenth century. Public pressure on the legislature resulted in the Kenya Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (KRNVR) finally being established as part of the 1933 Kenya and Uganda Defence Scheme. Inadequate government funding led the KRNVR to seek financial support elsewhere. As in Kenya, rival European interests not indigenous inhabitants posed a greater impediment to Zanzibar's naval defence and war effort. To increase their operational efficiency, the C-in-C East Indies in January 1941 recommended that the KRNVR, Zanzibar Naval Volunteer Force (ZNVF) and Tanganyika NVF be amalgamated for combined operations directed from Mombasa. The situation was charged by the wartime influx of human traffic caused by Mombasa's status as East Africa's preeminent port, which destabilised the colony's racial order.
The East African Naval Force (EANF) was constituted on 1 July 1950, becoming the Royal East African Navy (REAN) on the Queen's birthday of June 1952. The REAN regularly provided Aid to the Civil Power. In emphasising its success in teaching East Africans skills of economic management and good governance, the Navy was demonstrating that it too played an important role in preparing East Africans for eventual self-rule. E.A.Nicholson's welfare programme for African ratings went beyond naval training and was again tied to colonial development. The programme improved the social and economic condition of the men, their families, and the community, and illustrated their 'progress' under Britain's paternalistic instruction. The collaborative relationship with the Sultanate continued to be vital to Britain's imperial power in the region, but was challenged by Arab nationalism.