Polish, Indian, Malay and Javanese troops and sailors in the Caribbean: A Global History

Captains, with the new update you will see that the Caribbean was a hotly-contested region, that was fought over by many nations. Here I want to talk about a lesser known aspect of the Caribbean in the 18th/19th centuries, namely the migration and movement of other communities who were brought to the West Indies as a result of the expansion of the British, Dutch and French empires, and how they have left a lasting impression on that part of the world.

Few of us may realise that the Caribbean was then part of a truly global war – what the historian Paul Fregosi calls ‚the real First World War’. For the armies of Britain, France, Holland and Spain were in fact more cosmopolitan that we realise today, and they were made up of troops from other nations too.

Polish troops, for instance, were present in the Caribbean conflict due to the fact that the French army was made up of troops from many different nations. Poland was unfortunately invaded and cut up by opposing rival powers: Russia, Prussia and Austria, and thousands of Polish troops had lent their services to France, with the hope that the rise of Napoleon might help them regain control of their country. Polish troops were an essential part of Napoleon’s Grand Army, and they served in almost every major battle that France had fought against her enemies- right up to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the final battle of Waterloo in 1815.

The Polish divisions of the French army were also sent to the Caribbean, and were active in the battles that were fought in Hispaniola, when Napoleon tried to regain control of the entire island and prevent the independence of Haiti. Both Generals Leclerc and Rochambeau had been sent to Hispaniola to secure the island, and among the troops were the Polish demi-brigades who took part in the battles there, such as the battle for San Domingo.

The mortality rate of European troops in Hispaniola, however, was exceedingly high; with thousands dying of yellow fever and guerilla warfare. By the end of the campaign, only a few hundred members of the Polish brigades had survived- Many of them returned to Europe, but some also moved to America while some stayed and settled down in Hispaniola. Interestingly, there are many accounts of how the Haitian rebels showed sympathy for the Polish troops, whom they regarded as victims who had been betrayed by France. Their descendants still live on the island, and can trace their ancestry back to the war of 1794-1804.

The two other major powers in the Caribbean – Britain and Holland – were also imperial powers with a presence elsewhere, and it was through these imperial networks of commerce that Indians, Malays and Javanese came to the West Indies.

Britain, by then, had established colonial outposts in India (Bengal and the Coromandel coast) and from India both goods and sailors would be carried to the West Indies for trade. It was during this time that Indian printed cloth (popularly called ‚Madras cloth’) became popular in the Caribbean ports, and until today such cloth is called ‚Madras’ in places like Guyanne. But Indian sailors also served on British ships, and Indian troops from the East India Company too. (The East India Company’s Bengal Regiment was made up entirely of Indian sepoys, as was the Bengal Lancers cavalry division.)

Holland, on the other hand, had begun expanding its colony in Southeast Asia, and Dutch ships often carried crewmen who were Malays (from Sumatra) and Javanese. The Malays and Javanese who were enlisted in Holland’s army were sent to battlefields thousands of miles away, and many of them eventually settled there, never to return home. (Today there is still a Javanese community in Suriname, former Dutch Guyana). Indians, Malays, Javanese and other folk from the East Indies would take part in the land and sea battles that were fought from South Africa (such as the Battle of Blueberg Mountain), to the conquest of Kandy (in Sri Lanka, fought between Britain and Holland) and across the Caribbean too.

And so captains, as you sail across the Caribbean, have a look at the crew of your ships and the cargo you are carrying! The cloth in your holds may come all the way from India, and your sailors may come from the East Indies too. The Caribbean in the 18th/19th century was part of a globalised trading network as well as a global theater of war, and it was really a cosmopolitan part of the world.
Happy sailing captains!


For those interested in the Indian, Malay and Javanese migration to the West Indies, I suggest having a look at Paul Fregosi’s ‚Dreams of Empire: Napoleon Bonaparte and the First World War’ (Citadel Press, 1997)
For a longer history of the Polish troops that were sent to the Caribbean, a good place to start would be the work by Jan Pachonski and Reuel K. Wilson’s book, ‚Poland’s Caribbean Tragedy’ (East European Monograph series, October 1986)



[Image: The Battle for San Domingo, which shows the troops of the Polish Demi-Brigade advancing. Source: open source/internet]