JD Douglas Uncovers the Truth Buried Deep in the South East
A mine of information or walking encyclopaedia are some of the adjectives that best describe Junior Douglas, otherwise known as JD by those who’ve been fortunate to experience his unique but eclectic brand of creativity. Applied to every project from theatre production, writing, curating and now lecturing, JD’s work reflects his desire to bring to the fore untold stories or even known stories told from a new perspective. His body of work includes an exhibition, international memorial concert and play on Paul Robeson written and produced by him, a play on Jackie Wilson which toured nationally and the long-standing Black Heroes in the Hall of Fame which broke box office records as the most successful Black play in UK. Today JD is in Medway to talk about his lecture on the involvement of Black and Indian forces in the First World War. Diversity Business Magazine was first on the scene at the Historic Chatham Dockyards to dig deeper about past and upcoming projects.
As part of your work to uncover the story of the Caribbean effort in the 1st World War what has been the most surprising fact or piece of information you have brought to light?
It is an interesting question. I think most people who look at some of the research I did would find information about the First World War fascinating. Where does one start. Let’s try this. One third of all soldiers who fought in the First World War were from the British colonies. India, Africa and other part of the colonies. King George V, who was on the throne at the outbreak of war, fought for and got into existence, the British West Indies Regiment. That was in 1915, he stood up against his own War Office administrators, who were not in favour of Black and Indian Soldiers fighting for King and Empire. Too many of us think of the First World War as a European endeavour. The reality was much different.
Africa was one of the theatres of war where the Colonies fought gallantly, interestingly the first shot to be fired in the battle of the First World War by the British, was by a Black man. The date is August 12, 1914. German soldiers in occupied Togoland, hid in a factory and attacked a British patrol. Sergeant Alhaji Grushi of the Gold Coast Regiment returned fire with venom. He was later awarded the Military Cross.
Little known is the contribution of non-combatants to the war effort. To feed the soldiers grain was carried across countries in Africa by hod carriers, many of them were women. Many countries contributed, sugar, cotton, cocoa and much more for the war effort.
You are proudly St Lucian. You have shown particular interest in the contribution of St Lucian soldiers who came to the South East of UK to volunteer their service and other resources. Please tell us more about that.
(Laughing) We are all proud of where we came from. It’s just that St. Lucians can’t help telling everybody. In regards to your question…..yes there is a strong connection between the British West Indies Regiment and the South East. The Dome in Brighton was used as a military hospital. Initially troops from the West Indies were sent to the town of Seaford. This was early in the war. Before going into battle West Indian soldiers received training in Seaford. The winter conditions were harsh and they were un-accustomed to the British Weather. Some died before seeing battle. Two such men were Nelson and Dennis Feverier aged twenty two. They were cousins. They died in January 1916. Next year will be one hundred years. ITV South East (Meridian TV) has recognised their contribution and have carried several stories about them and others.
Where there any locally based soldiers who joined up?
First let me talk about the minority community who tried to join up in 1914. It was believed that the war would not last past the winter of December 1914. These were also unenlightened times. Women did not have the vote. The British thought they would be ridiculed by the Germans, should they be seen to be depending on Dark and Brown people.
Many Black voluntaries were refused entry into the army. One who succeeded and would become the poster boy for Black Soldiers is Walter Tull. He was born locally in Folkestone in 1888 to a Barbadian carpenter father and an English mother, Alice Palmer. Unfortunately he was orphaned aged seven. He was a very talented sports man who played for Tottenham Hot Spurs and Northampton Town which was one of the leading clubs of the day. He was about to become the most expensive footballer with a transfer to Rangers when the war broke out.
He joined the Football Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment. Tull had an impressive war record and fought in six battles including the First Battle of the Somme and the third battle of Ypres. He was mentioned in dispatches for “gallantry and coolness”. Both the BBC and Channel 4 have documented his career. The Bolton Hexagon staged a play based on his illustrious life. He was a very remarkable human being and soldier -Walter Tull from Folkestone.
How was your lecture at the House of Commons on the same subject received and who were the notable MPs who attended?
Yes I was asked to deliver a Lecture at the British House of Commons on 7th October 2014.
I had the opportunity to act like a child in a sweet shop. I took an approach that I felt would resonate with my audience. Beyond looking at the contribution of the individual and communities, I looked at the monetary contribution of the colonies. I also looked at what Black Leadership was saying. For instance Ghandi initially only wanted India’s participation to be non-combatants. As things progressed he changed his mind.
Both Marcus Garvey and W.E.B DuBois went out of their remit to encourage Black People to take part, in the First World War. You must remember Black People did not have the Vote, except for a hand full in America at that time. To quote DuBois “Despite the insults and discrimination, we must do our patriotic duty. Let us not hesitate, let us while the war lasts…forget our special grievances and close ranks shoulder to shoulder with our white fellow citizens, fighting for democracy”
So those MPs in attendance were keen on hearing such information. Yes the Speaker of the House was there, Diane Abbott, and some high ranking bods from the Military of Defence.
Your life’s work in theatre and the arts seems to be focus on remembering great black historical figures or events. For example, your productions on Paul Robeson, Mohammed Ali, Samuel Coleridge Taylor and Black Heroes. Is this observation true?
You got me there. Totally guilty as charged. I believe in the concept of first story. Those who are affected first hand should be the ones to tell that story. I like information more than I enjoy history……..all history is selective. So I try to research wide and unknown territory which might excite a theatre audience. Interestingly when I started writing plays…..the first three were non biographical. I am trying to settle down to write something different…….all I can say at the moment, is the title. It’s called Lucky Numbers.
Finally, it is rumoured that you are involved in yet another exciting project in the South East, notably in Medway. What can we expect to see and who are you working with?
I don’t know how much I can say about this project, but yes I have been asked to write two pieces that will coincide with the revamp and relaunch of the Chatham Dock Yards in May 2016. I don’t want to steal the right of the venue to first announce my involvement.
What I can promise your readers is that they will be the first to hear me speak about my role. You will get the inside track as they say. Do I get off the hook?
As soon as the project is made public, I will throw myself at your mercy to be interrogated again.