Goff on Lockley, 'Military Medicine and the Making of Race: Life and Death in the West India Regiments, 1795-1874'

Tim Lockley
Benjamen Goff

Tim Lockley. Military Medicine and the Making of Race: Life and Death in the West India Regiments, 1795-1874. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020. 220 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-108-49562-2.

Reviewed by Benjamen Goff (Florida State University) Published on H-War (November, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55426

The small subfield of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century military-medical history has seen a surprisingly wide range of historiographical debate. The field has not coalesced around a single question. Instead, historians have explored a variety of sometimes disparate ways that the history of military medicine contributes to other, larger debates. David Vess has used the French military to chart the birth of clinical medicine in his Medical Revolution in France, 1789-1796 (1975). Catherine Kelly (War and the Militarization of British Army Medicine, 1793-1830 [2011]), Marcus Ackryod (Advancing with the Army: Medicine, the Professions, and Social Mobility in the British Isles, 1790-1850 [2006]), and others have focused on the British army to highlight medical professionalization. In What Nostalgia Was: War, Empire, and the Time of a Deadly Emotion (2018), Thomas Dodman has linked the subject to the wider history of emotions, and yet others, like Erica Charters in Disease, War, and the Imperial State: The Welfare of the British Armed Forces during the Seven Years' War (2014), have connected the topic to debates surrounding the fiscal-military state.[1] For such a narrowly defined field, the literature on military medicine can only be described as diverse and wide ranging. 

Tim Lockley’s Military Medicine and the Making of Race: Life and Death in the West India Regiments, 1795-1874 continues this trend of diversity. He makes his contribution clear in the work’s opening line by saying “This book is about race” (p. 1). While several historians have made stops at the intersection of race and military medicine, either through articles or stand-alone chapters, Lockley’s book joins the few monographs devoted entirely to the subject; Margaret Humphrey’s Intensely Human: The Health of the Black Soldier in the American Civil War (2008) comes to mind.[2] Being about race, this work pairs well with other recent explorations of race and medicine in the Atlantic World, such as Rana Hogarth’s Medicalizing Blackness: Making Racial Difference in the Atlantic World, 1780-1840 . And finally, it also builds off of the wider historiography of medicine and empire, with works like Philip Curtin’s Death by Migration; Europe’s Encounter with the Tropical World in the Nineteenth Century (1989) and J. R. McNeill’s Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010).[3]   

Lockley uses the medical history of the West India Regiments (WIRs) to trace developments in racial thought in the Atlantic World. He argues that in the early eighteenth century, European thinkers saw little medical difference between themselves and Africans. But across the mid- and late eighteenth century, particularly after the infamous yellow fever outbreak of 1793, Europeans started to believe that Africans were immune, or at least highly resistant, to tropical diseases. This formulation of medical difference was based purely on skin color, not on place of birth. Medical practitioners failed to realize that resistance to yellow fever was acquired during childhood by inhabitants of regions where it was endemic, notably West Africa. Thus, skin color was conflated with native resistance. All blacks were resistant to tropical diseases in the European mind and better suited for military service in tropical climates. For a brief period between 1795 and 1838, this thinking prevailed in the British army as black bodies were viewed to be more robust and healthier in equatorial regions where they constituted a medically superior soldier. This rationale gave rise to the WIRs as a way to preserve the lives of English troops in the Caribbean. However, in 1838 new data emerged that suggested that blacks did indeed suffer from diseases in tropical environments (especially respiratory diseases) and were not necessarily better suited to military service. By the 1870s the notion of black superiority as soldiers had faded from military thinking.   

Chapter 1 recounts the yellow fever outbreak of 1793 and demonstrates how great an impact that epidemic had on British military strategy in the Caribbean. The high mortality rate among white troops in the region compelled Britain to create the WIRs. Chapter 2 highlights the praise that white officers and medical personnel heaped on the black troops under their command and medical supervision. These black soldiers not only were able to resist tropical diseases but were also exemplary soldiers, displaying vigor while campaigning and strength while laboring on various military projects. Chapter 3 examines how the conception of African medical superiority worked against the black soldiers’ own interests. They were housed in poor barracks, given inferior rations with less meat, provided second-hand clothing and shoes, forced to work harder with less rest, and punished more vigorously than white troops because they supposedly did not feel pain as acutely. Thus, black medical superiority served as justification for mistreatment; it is striking to the reader how seemingly positive medical traits still lead to this mistreatment.

In chapter 4, European conceptions of black medical superiority begin to erode with the 1838 publication of Alexander Tulloch’s Statistical Report on the Sickness, Mortality, and Invaliding of Troops in the West Indies. Tulloch, an army officer much enamored with the emerging science of statistics, demonstrated that the mortality rate of the WIRs was higher than previously imagined. While blacks might resist yellow fever, they were adversely affected by respiratory diseases. In some cases, Tulloch’s work showed that white mortality was lower than black mortality, and as Lockley suggests, this publication “challenged the entire basis for the use of black troops within the British army” (p. 137). Chapter 5 expands on the scope of the work, by showing how Tulloch’s publication helped to influence conceptions of race outside of the military. Notably, Tulloch’s statistics were implemented by ethnologists, such as Josiah Nott, who believed that the races were fundamentally different from one another and used this argument to justify the existence of slavery in the United States. Nott, using Tulloch’s data, argued that because whites and blacks suffered from different diseases, they constituted separate races. The final chapter showcases the Asante Campaigns of 1864 and 1873-4 which proved to be the nail in the coffin for the WIRs. During these wars, the black soldier was not given the same credit that he had earned in the earlier Caribbean campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. Officers, both medical and military, lamented the WIRs poor health and subpar military abilities. Even though the WIRs would continue to exist into the twentieth century, they would be mostly resigned to garrison duty.

There is little to criticize in Lockley’s work. And, like all good histories, I found the reading engaging, especially when it stimulated ideas for future research. As a military-medical historian I wanted to know more about black soldiers’ sexuality. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century armies struggled to find treatments for the venereal diseases that ran unchecked through their ranks. With this in mind, what did the sexual health of the WIRs look like? Lockley only mentions that the supposedly thicker skin of black troops prevented them from contracting venereal diseases. Should we assume sexual diseases were less of a problem or less of a concern for the commanders and medical officers of the WIRs? Did not the notion exist that Africans possessed greater sex drives than Europeans? Lockley touches lightly on the subject but does not pursue it. As late as the twentieth century, blacks were stigmatized with rampant sexual appetites, which leads me to believe this topic has room for exploration in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries from a military perspective.[4] What percentage of black troops contracted venereal diseases? What sort of access did these troops have to sexual partners? Did white officers think black sexuality was rampant, or problematic, or did they largely ignore it because there were seemingly few negative consequences? The sources might not support further investigation, but if they do, perhaps the origins of this stereotype can be more firmly established.      

Lockley’s work is superb. It will be engaging reading for Atlantic historians and required reading for military historians and medical historians alike. It strikes the reader hardest when it lays bare the fungibility of facts, and how these can be used to the detriment of oppressed populations no matter how seemingly “positive” or “negative” such facts appear. For example, between 1795 and 1838, the black man was viewed as superhuman. But because he was superhuman, he was put into the most unenviable conditions in terms of food, housing, and equipment. He could handle it after all. Post 1838, if he was no longer a superhuman soldier, then he was denigrated to the position of an inferior creature, not even belonging to the same race as white men. Despite this newfound inferiority, he continued to suffer from poor housing, food, and clothing. By his very nature he seemed undeserving of the accommodations that his white superiors enjoyed. This demonstrates that facts are malleable and can almost always be mustered to support whatever argument an interested party may desire: a valuable lesson, worth repeating over and over in our own times.  


[1]. See the following for the most complete historiography on military medicine for the premodern period: Sebastian Pranghofer, “The Early Modern Medical-Military Complex: The Wider Context of the Relationship between Military, Medicine, and the State,” Canadian Journal of History 53, no. 3 (2016): 451-72.

[2]. For article-length explorations of race and military medicine, see Erica Charters, “Making Bodies Modern: Race, Medicine, and the Colonial Soldier in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,” Patterns of Prejudice 46 (2012): 214-31; and Wendy Churchill, “Efficient, Efficacious and Humane Responses to Non-European Bodies in British Military Medicine, 1780-1815,” The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History 40 (2012): 137-58.

[3]. See also, Mark Harrison, Medicine in an Age of Commerce and Empire: Britain and Its Tropical Colonies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[4]. The work I am most familiar with is Susan Reverby, Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2013). But many other fine works exist.

Citation: Benjamen Goff. Review of Lockley, Tim, Military Medicine and the Making of Race: Life and Death in the West India Regiments, 1795-1874. H-War, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55426

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