During the 18th and early 19th centuries, many British Army regiments employed black musicians. Being a trumpeter was not a purely ceremonial role. Commanders relied on musicians to communicate orders to their troops during combat so they always had a prominent role on the field of battle. On active service, one trumpeter was allotted to each cavalry squadron in order to sound the calls issued by commanding officers. Different instructions had different bugle calls.

The Ipswich Journal of 14th August 1790 spoke for many of its readers when it expressed great pleasure at the transportation of trumpeters Carter and Othello of the”Queen’s Dragoons“. In a story familiar to garrison towns throughout the ages, the two soldiers had often been “disorderly in town“, and as the Journal suggested, “… there was but little reason to hope that their refractory disposition would men against the winter evenings.

However, the antics of the trumpeters had apparently not gone unnoticed within their regiment, as finally, after going AWOL, escaping from the Corporal of the guard, and then, after capture attempting escape from the guardroom by climbing out of the chimney, the pair were tried by court-martial, flogged and transported. (The severity of sentence no doubt reflects the exasperation of their Commanding Officer).

Bar the severity of the sentence, there is little in the antics of Carter and Othello, that one can not now read of in any newspaper, nor hear in the guardroom of any regiment. However, what made Carter and Othello different from the majority of their enlisted regimental comrades was the fact that they were Black! (The Army of the eighteenth and nineteenth century did not differentiate between soldiers of African and/or Asian origin, simply describing them all as ‘Black’).

Initially, Black people had been employed as slaves and/or servants to Army officers acting as individual indicators of rank, status wealth for their masters. However, by the late eighteen century a combination of the perceived “innate musical ability of Black people”, the fashion for “Turkish music” and the establishment of enlisted military musicians, ensured that the use of Black soldiers as military musicians, (and acting as symbols of regimental status), was widespread in British regiments. However, there were few regiments that were to have as high a profile Black presence, nor enjoy as long a tradition of employing Black soldiers as the 4th Dragoons.

Despite the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries witnessing the horror of slavery, with thousands of Africans being purchased for the “West India Regiment”, there is no evidence to connect the 4th Dragoons with slavery. In fact, the muster and pay sheets existing for the regiment, and dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reveal that Black soldiers were trained and paid exactly the same as their White peers.

Likewise, pension records also reveal that Black soldiers received the same “rights” as Whites. Military service was one of the few ways of obtaining a pension, and as the majority of Black people in Britain prior to the twentieth century appear to have come from overseas and were therefore ineligible for parish relief, one suspects that being in receipt of a pension was a necessity!

Initially, at least, it would appear that the regiment employed Black soldiers as kettle-drummers as the earliest reference found is by an unknown Scottish observer, who in Stirling in’1715 said of a parade by the regiment “This was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is a more showy regiment In Europe … ….. The six drummers were mores with bres (i.e. brass) drums … .. and they roade upon grey horses.

Years later in 1748, an inspection of the regiment noted that “The Drummers are all Black“. An un-attributed military costume study in possession of the Hugonin family, entitled The 4th Queen’s Own Dragoons 1802., reveals that by 1802 the 4th’s Black soldiers were being employed as trumpeters, and depicts one figure seated upon a white horse wearing “a lavish turban with an unusual plume, green in front and red at the back. He wears a white jacket with red wings, collar and cuffs, although regulations provided that trumpeters of royal regiments should have red coats with blue facings. His trumpet and bugle are slung with yellow cord, probably mixed with red … .. His breeches are white and knee-boots black …

Yet another Black trumpeter, (this time dressed slightly less outlandishly in a shako rather than a turban), appears in James Pardon’s 1820s portrait of Lieutenant-Colonel James Hugonin. Finally, and in what is the only known visual representation of a Black soldier serving with a British raised regiment in battle during the nineteenth century, Henry Martens’ The Charge at Salamanca, 22nd July, (c.1850s), depicts a Black trumpeter in the second rank of the 4th as they come into contact with the French cavalry. (Again the Black soldier is depicted wearing an ordinary trumpeters uniform). The visual depiction of Black combatants in British regiments was almost certainly problematic for nineteenth-century artists, as their inclusion inferred equality between Black and White.

Something which might not have been a problem for the 4th, (Martens’ painting was commissioned by, and is still in the possession of the regiment and has probably never been formerly viewed by the public), but was almost certainly problematic for a nineteenth-century public more used to images of flamboyant non-combatant London based Black Foot Guards musicians.

The widespread practice of employing Blacks as enlisted men in British raised regiments, and as equals with their White European peers, appears to have come to an end in the mid-1840s due to the deteriorating image of Blacks in Britain, and the ‘racist’ diatribes of the plantocracy and their supporters. The last reference to a Black trumpeter serving in the 4th corresponds with this, dating from 1842. (The length of time Black soldiers served in the 4th – for approximately 127 years – is only rivalled by the 29th Foot, whose Black presence lasted 90 years, from the 1750s to 1840s).

Until recently little was known of these Black soldiers, however, with War Office records now more accessible. and the Black and Asian Studies Association collating references to Black people in Britain prior to the twentieth century. it is now possible to build up a partial picture of the 4th’s Black soldiers.

In the village of Ashford in Kent on the 19th of March in 1750. Camo and Willian the twin sons of John and Mary Brigade, (Breged), “A Black of Riches Dragoons” were baptised, Unfortunately, Camo was to be buried in the same parish just over a year later. At the time, the regiment was most likely serving in detachments, as in Suffolk in 1750, Toby Gill, “a Black and … a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment and a drunken profligate fellow” raped and murdered a local woman. Gill, whose guilt appears to have been beyond doubt, (he had been found sleeping next to the dead body), went to the gallows shortly afterwards, and his corpse hung in chains at Blythburgh, Suffolk.

In 1753 John Brigade was discharged to pension being “greatly afflicted with rheumatism”. He was aged sixty and had served in the 4th since 1730. Like many old soldiers, he disappears from military records on discharge, and nothing more is known other than that by 1757 he and Mary were probably resident in Newhaven, Sussex where a daughter, Charity, was baptised.

In 1755 Thomas Walter, a Barbados born drummer of the regiment was discharged to pension being “afflicted with rheumatism”, Walters was sixty years old, and had served with the 4th since 1724.

The Gordon Riots in London in 1780 were the 4th’s first active service in sixty years, but the regiment acquitted itself well undertaking ” .. an unpleasant but necessary duty”. The following year Jeremiah Salisbury, the son of Jacob and Betty Salisbury an “adult Negro Trumpeter in His Majesty’s 4th Regiment of Dragoons” was baptised in St Thomas’ church, Salisbury, That Jeremiah Salisbury was referred to as being a trumpeter is evidence that the role of Black soldiers in the 4th had changed since 1715.

In battle the role of a trumpeter was an extremely important one; they were the battlefield communication system, accompanying troop commanders and other senior officers and being responsible for relaying orders over the din of battle, however, once such orders as charge, reform and retreat had been given, trumpeters drew sabres and participated in whatever action their unit was engaged in.

Unfortunately, trumpeters suffered a major disadvantage in battle, and because fashion and tradition dictated that they were dressed in the reverse colours of their regiment, they became popular targets for enemy fire, (the greatest incentive for killing a trumpeter was the obvious damage that would be done to the enemies ability to communicate).

Serving alongside Salisbury at that time was Thomas Holland, an Asian who had been in the 4th since 1777. Whilst Salisbury’s military service both before and after his baptism is unknown, more is known of Holland who was later discharged to pension in 1799 aged thirty-nine years “being worn out through the length of service”.

The year 1792 saw the 4th once more serving in Scotland, this time in Edinburgh where “… an observant Scotsman” noted, “… The Trumpeters were Africans, dressed in semi-oriental costume, and wearing turbans”.

In addition to Thomas Holland, (and possibly Jeremiah Salisbury), another of the 4th’s Black trumpeters in 1792 was William Harris, a labourer of Senegal who had enlisted in the regiment in October 1788 aged twenty years.

At this point, it might perhaps be worth noting that, firstly, and in common with other regiments, the 4th appears to have recruited its Black soldiers from the Black population already resident in Britain and Ireland and estimated to have been 10,000+ strong by the late eighteenth century. Secondly, the names of the 4th’s Black soldiers were anglicised and alone give no indication of their owners “race” or ethnicity, making it impossible to identify Black soldiers from muster and medal rolls. Such Anglicisation was not “racially” motivated, (more likely it was aimed at simplifying record-keeping), and no Black soldier of the 4th was inflicted with any of pseudo-classical or ironic “slave-names” given to the enslaved Africans of the “West India Regiment” by their White British officers.

William Harris was to serve with the 4th for twenty-six years, and in 1800 he was joined by Alex Figaro an eighteen-year-old Afro-American labourer from New York, who had enlisted in the regiment in Lancashire. Even though the practice of employing Black soldiers was long-standing and widespread in the Army, few were promoted. In the nineteenth century Army literacy was the key to promotion, and whilst Blacks were often as literate as Whites, they were not promoted in the same proportions. Partly this was a result of the lack of opportunities for advancement their musical role offered, but it was also no doubt due to the distaste many Whites felt towards Black soldiers holding positions of authority.

However, this was not the case in the 4th, and it is now known that Alex Figaro was to eventually become the regiment’s first Black non-commissioned officer, serving as Trumpet-Major until he was discharged to pension “having completed his period of service” and being …. most exemplary .. ” in 1824. (Figaro’s records noted his intention to reside in London after discharge).

Whilst Figaro was lucky enough to undertake all of his service “at Home “, (i.e. in Britain and Ireland), Harris was to spend the latter part of his service in the Peninsula as a trumpeter with the regiment’s #6 Troop. Whilst it is impossible to identify the Black trumpeter who served with the 4th at Salamanca, (as depicted by Martens), it is known that Harris was present at both Talavera and Albuera. However, many years “in the saddle” eventually caught up with Harris and in 1814 he was discharged to pension “being completely worn out in service”.

On discharge Harris was illiterate, 46 years old, 5’7″ tall, had black hair, black eyes a black complexion and was a labourer by trade. He did not claim his General Service Medal in 1848, and so it is likely that he had died in the intervening years.

The pension records of the 4th’s Black soldiers appear to suggest that as one retired another was recruited to take his place, (although as proportionately few soldiers received pensions it is unlikely that the full extent of the 4th’s Black presence will ever be known – especially if one takes into account the Black wives and children of White soldiers). So as William Harris retired in 1814, Thomas Frederick, a twenty-three-year-old Afro-American labourer from New York enlisted in the regiment in Dublin in October 1814.

Over the next few years Ireland’s Black community provided the 4th with at least two more recruits: Joseph Seceen from Martinique, aged eighteen and claiming to have been “a Warrior” in civilian life, enlisted in Dublin in 1817. Edward Francis, an eighteen-year-old Jamaican labourer enlisted in the following year. Both men fell victim to peace-time reductions in the regimental establishment, being discharged in 1818 and 1821 respectively.

Both then followed a path familiar to many Black “journeyman soldiers”, (Black former soldiers were three times more likely to re-enlist than Whites, probably for socio-economic reasons), with Seceen serving in both the Irish 18th Foot, (1819-1822), and the 2nd West India Regiment, (1822-1838), and Francis in the Grenadier Guards, (1824-1840).

Whilst serving with the Grenadier Guards Francis achieved enduring fame both at a regimental level, and as a manifest symbol of “Black pride” when, whilst walking down the Strand, ” .. he was accosted with the question: “Well, blackie, what news from the devil?” Francis immediately knocked the questioner down, remarking: “He sends you that – how you like it?” One suspects that the Black soldiers of 4th would have expected no less a quick-witted and physical response to what today would be referred to as a “racial insult”, Francis was, after all, one of their own.

Whilst peacetime brought the 4th reductions in their establishment, for other regiments it brought disbandment. When the 18th Hussars were disbanded in 1821, a number of enlisted soldiers transferred to the 4th. Like the 4th, the 18th had seen action during the Napoleonic Wars. The 18th’s capacity for ill-disciplined looting at Vittoria had provided the origin of Wellington’s description of the enlisted soldier as being “the scum of the earth”, but it was acknowledged by Wellington himself, that the regiment’s later actions at Waterloo more than made up for its earlier misdemeanour.

Amongst the men who transferred into the 4th in September 1821 was one James Godwin, a thirty-two-year-old Jamaican former carpenter, and holder of the Waterloo Medal, who had served as a troop Trumpeter ” … in Portugal then France 1813 to 1814. In Flanders and France 1815 to 1816″. Despite whatever scandals might have tarnished the reputation of the 18th, Goodwin’s reputation on arrival in the 4th appears to have been exemplary, and it was noted that “he has distinguished himself in action.”

In 1822 the 4th received the order to go to India and subsequently served there until 1842, seeing service in Afghanistan. In 1837 Thomas Frederick was discharged to pension due to disease and disability. Like the majority of the 4th’s Black soldiers, he had earned the respect of his White peers and superiors, being referred to as “a good an efficient soldier, seldom in hospital, trustworthy and sober.” A year prior to Frederick’s discharge James Goodwin had been promoted to Trumpet-Major, a position he was to hold until March 1840, when after thirty-one years of service he was discharged to pension.

On discharge Goodwin was described as “a good an efficient soldier, seldom in hospital, trustworthy and sober”. He was fifty-two years old, 5’/10″ tall, (a tall man when the average height was 5’6″-7), had black hair (also described as being woolly), black eyes and a black complexion. (It is likely that James Goodwin was the last Black soldier of his generation to serve in the 4th, and although it has been suggested that he was succeeded as Trumpet-Major by an Asian named “Bush” Johnstone who served until 1842, no evidence has yet been found that actually Johnstone existed).

The factors influencing the place of settlement after discharge of black soldiers have yet to be fully examined, however, it is unlikely that Goodwin ever realistically considered returning home to Jamaica. A decorated Black veteran of the Peninsular and Waterloo, skilled with weapons and accustomed to a certain degree of equality and familiarity with Whites, was a figure unlikely to be welcomed by the plantocracy.

Instead, he chose to settle in London, perhaps attracted to the city by economic opportunity. or by the presence of an established Black community. By 1840 Black Londoners had “become very much part of white society, It undertaking a wide variety of occupations, such as ‘footmen, coachmen, page-boys, soldiers, sailors, musicians, actresses, prostitutes, beggars, pimps. highway robbers, street sellers and so on”.

Whilst the majority of the 4th’s former soldiers, (Black or White), simply “disappear” from records after discharge from the regiment, James Goodwin left sufficient tracks to be traced In 1848 he applied for and was awarded the General Service Medal 1793-1814, with clasps for Vittoria, Orthes and Toulouse. During the 1850s he would have heard of the 4th’s participation in the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War, and seen the reformation of the 18th Hussars.

There is little doubt that he would have shared in the benefits of local celebrity that many Peninsular and Waterloo veterans had begun to enjoy, as the campaigns, and those who participated in them started to attract mythic status in the British national consciousness.

On the twentieth of October 1865, at 41 Vere Street in the Parish of St Clement Danes, James Goodwin, a Chelsea Out-Pensioner of the 4th Dragoons, died of old age.

With his death, as the last known surviving Black soldier of the 4th Dragoons, (and one of the last Black survivors of Waterloo), a long tradition of service and mutually reciprocated acceptance and tolerance came to an end, however, whilst a succession of military writers re-wrote a Napoleonic military history devoid of Black characters, (Thomas Hardy’s 1875 novel) Trumpet Major contains no Black characters, even though many trumpeters were Black and the Trumpet-Major of the 2nd Dragoon Guards upon who Hardy based the novel was actually Afro-Caribbean), the 4th Dragoons stubbornly refused to forget its Black soldiers.

As previously mentioned, the regiment’s painting of Salamanca, (probably commissioned in the 1850s by which time Black people were being subjected to increasing “‘racial” intolerance), contained a Black figure. Likewise, when David Scott Daniel wrote the regimental history The Story of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars in the late 1950s, several references were made to the historical presence of Black soldiers.

In conclusion, initially at least, one suspects that the 4th employed Black soldiers as a fashionable statement of the regiment’s status and individuality. Yet this practice quickly becomes a strong regimental tradition, and indeed one with an entirely practical purpose, as the Black trumpeters of the regiment fulfilled a vital battlefield role, and were, with a few notable exceptions, held in the highest regard, enjoying a tolerance they would not have found elsewhere.

John D Ellis

Notes & References.


  • L E Buckell, “The 4th Queen’s Own Dragoons, 1802.” In JSAHR, Winter 1957.
  • D. Dabydeen, “The Role of Black People in William Hogarth’s Criticism of Eighteenth Century English Culture and Society”, in J.S. Gundara and I. Duffields (eds.), Essays on the History of Blacks in Britain From Roman Times to the Mid-Twentieth Century, (Avebury, Aldershot, 1992).
  • D S Daniell, 4th Hussar. The Story of the 4th Queen’s Own Hussars, (Gale & Polden Ltd Aldershot, 1959).
  • P Fryer, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, (Pluto Press, London, 1984), pp. 82. Quoting from: ”News Letters of 1715-1716,” by AF Steuart (ed.) (W & R Chambers Ltd, 1910), pp. 63-64.
  • Ipswich Journal, 1750 & 1790.