/ 14 February 2019

African soldiers who fought for Britain paid less than white counterparts – Archives

Eusebio Mbiuki
Eusebio Mbiuki, a 100-year-old veteran who lives in poverty in Kenya shared how he fought for Britain but was not given any compensation when the war ended. (Getty Images)

Soldiers who fought in the British army during World War II were paid not only according to their length of service or rank, but also based on the colour of their skin – with black African soldiers getting the short end of the stick.

This is according to a report by The Guardian based on documents unearthed from Britain’s national archives. The documents were uncovered by the makers of a documentary – Jack Losh and Alessandro PavonE – for Al Jazeera English’s ‘People and Power’ series.

The document reveals that the government at the time systematically discriminated against half a million black African soldiers by paying them up to three times less than their white counterparts.

The Guardian reported that Labour Party MPs are calling for government to investigate the matter and to compensate surviving veterans. On Wednesday, shadow defence minister Wayne David is reported to have said “there needs to be a full-scale government inquiry and all the information needs to be brought forward.”

Ugandan scholar and professor at the University of Cape Town Mahmood Mamdani told the Mail & Guardian that the British should be held responsible.

“The British should be held accountable for this, as they should be for the entire history of race and other forms of discrimination through their colonial history.”

In the early 20th century, Britain recruited African men to protect its colonies on the continent and beyond which they made use of the most during the second world war from 1939 to 1945. Many of these men were recruited by force.

During World War II (1939 to 1945), using its colonies on the continent as a recruiting resource, Britain mobilised an army of African soldiers to fight its war in battlefields across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Many of these men were recruited by force.

The archives also show that Britain’s racial discrimination extended to Asian people recruited in the colonies as well. These soldiers earned seven-and-a-half shillings for each month of service which was less than white soldiers but more than the African ones.

Eusebio Mbiuki, a 100-year-old veteran who lives in poverty in Kenya shared how he fought for Britain but was not given any compensation when the war ended. Mbiuki fought for Britain in the Burma (now Myanmar) jungles.

“When I got out, they gave me nothing. They should have known how much we had helped them. They would have given something. But that was not the case. We were abandoned just like that.”

Saul Dubow, a history professor at the University of Cambridge told the M&G that human life and labour were not accorded equal status in the history of the British empire.

Dubow flagged how the timing of the discovery of the archives is noteworthy.

“Very interesting is why these figures have have only come to public light now: I think this reflects the very slow realisation in Britain that both the first and the second world wars were truly global and also imperial in scope. In the second world war, Britain depended not only on European allies like the Russians, but on the support and mobilisation of its imperial resources — where Indians, Africans, and West Indians were absolutely key,” he said. 

Though their numbers have dwindled down over the years, veterans continue to endure great poverty despite having risked their lives in the war.