Commitment To The Caribbean
Alexander Marshall recounts the history of the West India Committee from it’s founding in 1735, to its present-day role as regional diplomatic player
Founded in the City of London in 1735, the West India Committee began life as a trade association. In these early days, the objectives of the Committee were aligned with those of the sugar merchants of London and planters of the Caribbean, two opposing groups that would be brought closer together throughout the eighteenth century due to the unrest in the American colonies: both groups found themselves needing to cooperate with the disruption of regional commerce. However, it soon became clear that the Committee would be an effective means of organising and facilitating greater commercial cooperation for the West Indies.
This meant the Committee found itself at the centre of political and social issues that impacted transatlantic trade, none more significant than slavery. After securing compensation for its members, the West India Committee and the British Government instigated a campaign to end slavery throughout the world, thereby creating a level playing field for international trade. Initiatives such as the policing of the African coastline by the Royal Navy and offering asylum to slaves from Spanish and Portuguese territories demonstrated the Committee’s commitment to this noble cause.
However the impact of the West India Committee has not always been well known, despite a number of significant historical achievements. For example, it was the West India Committee which, in 1787, commissioned the remarkable Captain Bligh to undertake an expedition to the Pacific in order to introduce new food sources to the Caribbean. The mission resulted in the famous mutiny that has since been portrayed twice by Hollywood. In the actual event, after Captain Bligh was overthrown the mutineers subsequently inhabited the Pitcairns, including Fletcher Christian whose descendants remain there today. Bligh was cast adrift with a handful of loyal men to undertake a 3,000 mile voyage home, during which he mapped all 39 islands of Fiji, eventually returning to London safely. Though the expedition has been remembered for the mutiny above all else, Bligh successfully introduced the breadfruit, mango and what would eventually become Jamaica’s national fruit, akee, to the Caribbean and St Helena.
The Committee has also left a significant legacy in Britain: in 1798 the West India Committee founded the first modern police force in the world, the Thames River Police. Still an active force today operating out of Wapping, the world’s oldest functional police station, the boats of the River Police patrolled the Thames to protect against theft from the merchant ships. West Indians staffed and funded the force, earning accolades for their bravery and valued contribution towards maintaining order in London. The force would eventually merge with the subsequently formed ‘Peelers’ in 1829, creating the Metropolitan Police. Sadly, the crucial contribution of West Indians and the West India Committee is little known today.
Furthermore, the West India Committee has left an indelible mark on the landscape of London. The Committee went on to found the West India Dock Company that established London’s first purpose built dock, West India Quay. Opened by William Pitt in 1802, the quay was the largest brick building in the world at the time, measuring a mile in length, and was a landmark in the mercantile district of imperial London. Today, the remaining structure sits proudly next to Canary Wharf, and has been repurposed to house the Museum of London, Docklands.
Additionally, the West India Committee has been entrenched in British politics throughout its existence, its membership once boasting over 45 MPs. Senior members of the Committee worked closely with the City of London and its livery companies on many levels, with celebrated figures including the Jamaican, Sir William Beckford, twice Lord Mayor of London. Former Chairmen of the Committee even include Beeston Long, the Governor of the Bank of England, and Alderman George Hibbert, Chairman of the West India Dock Company. In fact, the Committee was held in such esteem that in 1904 the organisation was incorporated through Royal Charter.
The Royal Charter was also a reflection of the humanitarian work the Committee had undertaken over the years. The charity often raised disaster relief funds to address the annual hurricane seasons that could wreak devastation on the region. In the 1940s and 50s this was addressed through organising film and theatre nights in collaboration with figures such as Noel Coward and Danny Kaye who, together with much of Fleet Street, once joined Princess Margaret to raise over a quarter of a million pounds for the West India Committee’s disaster relief programmes.
The twentieth century saw the West India Committee take on new responsibilities. With the outbreak of conflict on the European continent in 1914, the Committee administered and managed the voluntary war effort of the Caribbean on behalf of the Colonial Office and Ministry of War. Crucially, this involved overseeing the establishment of the British West Indies Regiment, which was comprised of over 16,000 Caribbean volunteers. The British West Indies Regiment fought in several theatres of the war, engaging in combat in France, Mesopotamia, East Africa and Palestine. Added to this, the West India Committee also organised charitable contributions from the Caribbean to help support the war effort, and in 1918 the charity convinced the imperial authorities to reverse a decision on unequal pay based on race. The Committee’s responsibilities during this time were multifaceted and complex, yet it successfully directed the Caribbean contribution to World War I.
In recognition of this remarkable period of the organisation’s history, the West India Committee recently received funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to commemorate and share the little known but fascinating contributions of the Caribbean to the war effort with a project is entitled, ‘The Caribbean’s Great War: The West India Committee’s Unique Perspective.’
Today, the West India Committee maintains a central objective of improving the welfare of the peoples of the Caribbean in the region and internationally. Operating through the auspices of education, training, advice and advocacy, where necessary acting as an umbrella organisation, the charity remains the only not-for-profit NGO with UK charitable status acting for the Caribbean.
The Committee sees its role as a catalyst for economic development, assessing, advising, and then introducing compatible entities that have the potential to achieve mutually beneficial growth. A proud UK charity, the Committee remains a proponent of the core values of British commerce in the twenty-first century: innovation, social responsibility and environmental sustainability. There are vast, unexplored areas of potential growth for UK trade and industry in the Caribbean, many of which are currently being absorbed by international competitors who do not share the same objectives for the region. The West India Committee recognises that economic development must be accompanied with appropriate social and political improvements, and accordingly pursues initiatives to improve health, education, policing and communication.
To help combat the lack of governmental capacity in the region, the Committee is working to mobilise the vast diaspora of the region to re-engage in the development of the Caribbean. Thus far, education has proved a successful conduit for reaching these groups, allowing the Committee to widen participation and provide new opportunities for the diaspora by capitalising on established links with universities such as Oxford, Cardiff, Warwick, King’s College London and Anglia Ruskin, as well as the University of the West Indies located in the Caribbean itself. Though conventionally focused on West Indian peoples, today the charity operates an inclusive policy that allows others also to benefit from these schemes.
With records on the region that span 500 years, the West India Committee often looks to tried and tested means to achieve its objective. The Committee’s core team is based at the heart of British Government in Westminster, maintaining an active watching brief on matters concerning the region and engaging with the British Government where appropriate in order to pursue the objective of developing the region. Combining a deep understanding of the historic identity of the region along with a vision to identify modern technological solutions, the West India Committee team develops tailor-made projects for Caribbean nations and their peoples.
This role is very much in keeping with the history of the organisation. The West India Committee have long been regarded as public diplomats of the Caribbean, enhancing the mutual understanding between the UK and the governments and institutions of the region. In addition, the Committee has also been able to directly enhance the diplomatic capacity of countries in the Caribbean, notably during the recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations when the West India Committee orchestrated the Caribbean tours of Princes Edward and Harry. The Committee continues to represent countries in various capacities, providing a cost effective alternative to a full diplomatic corp.
The West India Committee maintains its vital work in assisting Caribbean countries achieve economic and social development, and move the region to a self-sufficient, sustainable future. Through partnering with relevant bodies and institutions, this venerable organisation will continue to identify intelligent, value for money solutions in order to adequately meet our historic responsibility to the Caribbean for years to come.
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