A newly unearthed document from Britain’s national archives has shown that more than half a million black African soldiers who fought in the British army during the second world war were paid up to three times less than their white counterparts.
The revelation that the British government paid its soldiers not only according to their rank and length of service but also the colour of their skin has prompted calls for an investigation and the government to compensate any surviving victims.
Although international development secretary, Penny Mordaunt, has acknowledged that inequalities existed in the past, Labour MPs are calling for a government inquiry into the matter with shadow defence minister Wayne David demanding an immediate official investigation.
Professor Timothy Parsons, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on Britain’s east African army, says the colonial regime placed different values on African and European lives and has joined the call for compensation to be paid, saying: “There may be an opportunity to right some wrongs. It wouldn’t cost a great deal of money per individual.”
Once a soldier was demobilised, Britain paid him a lump sum known as a war gratuity, calibrating the exact amount to the racial hierarchy enshrined in its African empire.
However, 100-year-old Kenyan veteran Eusebio Mbiuki says he was paid nothing, despite enduring brutal combat in the jungles of Burma while fighting for Britain.
“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,” he said.
For every month of service, a white corporal was paid a war gratuity of 12 shillings by Britain’s various colonial administrations in consultation with the War and Colonial Offices in London, while black corporals only received a third of the amount.
Penny Mordaunt, whose department through UK aid has supported some Commonwealth veterans and their widows who live in extreme poverty, conceded that Britain’s colonial-era forces had faced significant discrimination.
Shadow international development minister Preet Gill and former Liberal Democrat leader Menzies Campbell have also backed calls for the government to compensate surviving veterans while a Ministry of Defence spokesman said: “The UK is indebted to all those servicemen and women from Africa who volunteered to serve with Britain during the second world war. Their bravery and sacrifice significantly contributed to the freedoms that we all enjoy today.”