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Kyle Steven Prochnow

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The John Bullen Prize


Kyle Steven Prochnow, “The West India Regiments: African Soldiers, War, and Empire in The British Atlantic Tropics”. PhD dissertation, York University, 2023.

Kyle Prochnow’s study of the British Army’s West Indian regiments from the 1790s to the 1860s centres the lived experiences of ordinary soldiers while attending to the imperial and Atlantic contexts that shaped their labour and lives. These line regiments, overwhelmingly made up of African people purchased (before Britain’s abolition of the slave trade) or “liberated” (after 1808) from slave ships, demonstrated the empire’s absolute reliance on Black soldiery and on the practice of slavery —whether its own or that of other nations — to fill the ranks of its tropical military forces in the Caribbean and in West Africa. After chapters examining the recruitment, training, social lives, and wartime experiences of the men (and boys, women, and girls) in or attached to the regiments, the dissertation culminates in a thoughtful examination of a mutiny at Trinidad in 1837, which serves as a window into patterns of resistance and collective action.

Prochnow’s analysis of these topics foregrounds the human face of soldiering, carefully parsing the significance of the ethnolinguistic origins of recruits while also considering the ways imperial ideas about race shaped the army’s policies toward the men in these units. Deftly balancing the insights of a microhistorical approach with the broad perspectives of Atlantic history, the author draws seamlessly from archives on three continents to tell the stories of thousands whose own voices were rarely recorded and to underscore the British empire’s heavy reliance on unfree Africans well after abolition and emancipation. Well written and engaging throughout, this study is eminently deserving of the 2024 Bullen Prize for best dissertation.