Two hundred years ago it was
the fashion amongst many regiments to employ drummers from Africa
and the West Indies. From reports of Generals visiting garrisons at
various times, one learns that they were rattling good drummers too.
The verdict of Major-General Sir William Howe, when inspecting the
old 29th Foot at Dover in 1774, reported the fact that the drummers
and fifes "beat and play well." One may well believe that, in the
carrying out of their strenuous duties, these drummers made their
presence felt , since there were no less than ten of them. Seventeen
years later, another General put the same regiment through its paces
at Windsor, bluntly remarking in his report that "The drummers
black, beat and play well."
Africa was not the only land to which the military authorities
looked for likely candidates for bands. The West Indies was also a
good source of drummers as well.It was from this archipelago that
the old 38th, now theStaffordshire Regiment, obtained most of its
drummers, not altogether a matter for surprise considering the
regiment was quartered there for almost sixty years. When its turn
for departure came in 1765, it retained a squad of three black boys,
but whether all the chosen ones relished the idea of leaving their
native soil is nor recorded. Since the archives of certain regiments
reveal the fact that at various times a "slave' was posted to the
drums, one may infer that the transfer in many cases was a hlessing
in disguise for individual concerned. The Royal Fusillers was
another marching regiment in which the foreign element was rather
prevalent, all its drummers being blacks during the last nine years
of the last century.
An Army Inspection Return of 1776, shows that a black kettle-drummer
was employed by the 3rd Hussars at that period. "Bush" Johnstone of
the 4th Hussars, was well respected and like the kettle-drummer and
the trumpeters of the same regiment, he was an Indian, and, during
the regiment's twenty-year stay in the "Shiny East", he held a proud
position immortalised by Thomas Hardy, the Trumpet-Major. 'Bush'
paraded for the last time with the old 4th Light Dragoons in 1842,
when it is fairly safe to assume that the coloured element in our
cavalry had disappeared.
Rumour has it that a few Militia units could boast of one or two
black mulatto musicians as late as the Crimean War, but in confining
this survey of the innovation as practised in the Regular Army, one
is met with all manner of conflicting statements concerning the
identity of the last black drummer, the manner of his exit, and the
year in which he made his last bow to an admiring world. The early
1840's could only muster a handful of these gentlemen, and the death
in India on 15 July 1843, of George Carvell, the last black drummer
of the "Ever-sworded Twenty-ninth", removed one of the very last of
this unique section of British Army musicians.
Sources: The Negro Drummers of the British Army (J Paine);
Foreign Army Bandmasters, Their Rise and Fall (Henry George Farmer)