Wednesday, February 21, 2018 — 7:30 p.m., Nova Scotia Archives
Other Stories from the Great War: The Third Jamaican Contingent and “The Halifax Incident” of 1916
Professor Hyacinth Simpson, Ryerson University, Toronto
During the First World War, British resources—both in manpower and materials—did not always prove adequate to meeting the demands of waging war on such a large scale. British authorities responded to the problem by coming up with innovations within their own borders and also by turning to their colonies for assistance. For example, when recruitment needs could not be met in the British Isles and its white-settler Dominions, British West Indians—from whom military authorities in London had previously rejected offers of service on the grounds that black men should not fight in a “white man’s war”—were eventually allowed to serve via a special Royal decree. But, while over 10,000 “coloured” men from the British West Indies were happy to volunteer on behalf of “King and Country”, their needs were not always properly attended to by British authorities. Transportation, accommodation, and medical attention were often sub-standard, and at times outrightly neglected.
On occasion, that neglect even led to non-combat fatalities. The most infamous example of the toll such neglect took on the British West Indians involved a group of over 1,000 (mostly Jamaican) volunteers who were part of the Third Jamaica Contingent that sailed for England in March 1916 on the SS Verdala. On the outward journey, the Verdala was diverted to Halifax, Canada during a terrible blizzard. The tragedy that unfolded from the moment the Verdala arrived in Halifax to the day, months later, when the last Contingent man left the city is at the centre of a dramatic story of unprecedented co-operation between Canadians and Jamaicans. That co-operation proved highly beneficial for both countries, with Canada using the opportunity to jump-start a rehabilitation program for its injured soldiers.
This presentation gives a full account of this story, which has never been told before in its entirety; and, in the process, shows how the Canadian Military Hospitals Commission parlayed this incident in Halifax into creating what later became a comprehensive network of convalescent hospitals that helped prepare Canada’s wounded warriors for post-war life.