Portrait of a Private of the 8th West India Regiment, c.1803-6
- Art Funded
- Philip Mould and Company
This exceptionally rare portrait is the earliest-known example in which a Black soldier is the subject of a picture, rather than an incidental figure.
The painting shows a private soldier of the 8th West India Regiment of the British Army. The regiment was raised in 1795 to defend Britain's Caribbean colonies, with Black soldiers chosen because it was believed they would be better suited to the climate than white Europeans. The regiment was disbanded in 1802, and raised again in 1803. Details of the uniform in this picture suggest it likely dates to the period 1803-06.
Some soldiers for the new regiments were recruited locally, with many being escaped American slaves. The ranks were swelled by Creole and African slaves who were purchased by the army from sugar plantations or from newly arrived slave ships. Between 1795 and 1807, estimates suggest approximately 13,400 slaves were bought for the West India regiments.
Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1807, and the Mutiny Act of that year freed all soldiers who had been recruited as slaves. This portrait's dating to a time just before this legislation adds to its significance.
The subject and artist are not known, but the quality of the work suggests it was painted from life by a professional. It now joins the National Army Museum as a unique document in the history of Black soldiers serving in British ranks.
Sold at Christie's 30 October 2014, lot 49, from a private collector; there purchased by Philip Mould.