The past, as they say, is a foreign country – and it can confound your expectations. Fighting For King and Empire: Britain’s Caribbean Heroes (BBC Two, last Wednesday, 9pm) told the story of black men who often defied a colour bar to fight for an empire that denied their right to self-governance. They did it because their hatred of Hitler was so great.
As one interviewee said, they feared that a German victory would bring back slavery. But they also did it out of loyalty to a Britain that was prejudiced without being fascist. It’s a subtle distinction but an important one. This beautifully put-together film followed the lives of Caribbeans who had to navigate their way through a complex racial order. They could encounter a delightful degree of acceptance. Other times, there was curiosity: one man recalled white RAF pilots running their fingers through his wiry hair for luck.
Then there was conflict. American white soldiers, especially from the segregated South, did not tolerate mixing with Caribbeans while off duty. Fights ensued. Non-American blacks gained a reputation for being people not to bark orders at. They had a habit of standing their ground and were more than happy to land a punch.
When the war was over, sadness set in. Some returned to their islands to find them too small to contain men of such heroic ambition. Many moved to Britain, expecting to discover a rich homeland that would welcome its former comrades with open arms. Instead, to the white man’s eternal shame, they encountered racism. But, for all this, the Caribbean arrivals persevered and many prospered. Today, parts of Britain are as shaped by Jamaican culture as parts of Jamaica are shaped by Britain. Over time our empire evolved from dominion by a superpower to a coalition of equals – which is what it should always have been.
Fighting for King and Empire had a cause at its heart: those soldiers from overseas have been largely forgotten. Now that their story is getting a proper telling, one hopes their memory will be engrained in the national consciousness. They’ve long deserved a documentary as good as this one.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (15/5/15).