When British soldiers arrived in Boston in 1768 as part of the British government’s efforts to maintain peace in the colony of Massachusetts, local citizens resented the military presence for several reasons. First and foremost was the implication that the army, in spite of their mission to maintain order, were in fact oppressors sent by a government that was, while not foreign, wildly out of touch with the needs and interests of American colonists. Also, colonists paid taxes to their own colonial governments; most of those governments in turn maintained militia systems that provided defense when needed.
The two regiments posted in Boston, while generally unwelcome, did provide a measure of entertainment with their military rituals—posting guards, drilling, and marching about for various reasons. One facet of military discipline was particularly startling to onlookers: “In the Morning nine or ten Soldiers of Colonel Carr’s Regiment for sundry Misdemeanors, were severely whipt on the Common,” reported a local newspaper. In an era where corporal punishment itself was not unusual, there was something besides the severity of these lashings that brought journalistic commentary. The drummers in the Colonel Carr’s regiment, the 29th Regiment of Foot, were of African ancestry. The newspaper report continued, “To behold Britons scourged by Negro Drummers, was a new and very disagreeable Spectacle!”
Most soldiers in most British regiments, as far as can be told from the scant records available, were from England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and were ethnically white. The 29th Regiment differed from most in having a tradition of employing Black men as drummers.
Drummers, paid 50 percent more than private soldiers, were an important component of the military system, using their instruments to signal events throughout the day from reveille in the morning to “taptoo” in the evening. Drums provided cadence for marching in step and for teaching the precisely-timed movements with which soldiers handled their weapons. In battle,“the noise of the Artillery and Musketry generally renders it impossible to use any Signals by the Drum,” wrote Gen. William Howe in February 1776 when he ordered regiments “not to use the drum or fife for marching or signals when in the field.” Drums nonetheless conveyed important signals such as “advance” and “cease fire.”
Boys could begin drumming for the army in their early teens as long as they were physically able to manage the instrument and bear the fatigue of military life. Some later set the instrument aside in favor of a musket, but many men continued as drummers for their entire military careers which, for British soldiers, often spanned thirty years or more. According to regimental histories, in 1759 eight or ten Black drummers were sent from the West Indies to the commanding officer of the 29th Regiment, starting a regimental tradition that continued well into the 1800s.
When the 29th Regiment landed in Boston, there were nine drummers in its ranks, one in each of nine companies. No records survive to tell us whether any of these men were among those who started in 1759. Muster rolls record the names of the drummers present in 1768 but provide no information about their ethnicity: John Archer, John Bacchus, Lushington Barrett, Joseph Blenheim, Thomas Othello, Joseph Provence, John Russell, James Sharlow, and Thomas Walker.
Some of these names—Bacchus, Othello, Provence, Sharlow (or Charloe)—are not typical of British soldiers and suggest a Caribbean heritage. For those who received pensions when they were discharged from the service their ages, length of service, and places of birth were recorded. Bacchus was fifty-four years old when he obtained a pension in July 1783 after serving twenty years, and was born in Jamaica. Sharlow, born in St. Kitts, when to the pension board on the same day as Bacchus, at the age of sixty-one after twenty-nine years in the army. Joseph Provance, from St. Domingo, served until 1790 when he was fifty years old with thirty-five years as a drummer.
Others sources reveal the heritage of two more of the 29th’s 1768 drummers. Lushington Barrett was still with the regiment in Worcester, England, in 1788 when parish records described him as “Drummer of the 29th Foote a Negroe” when a daughter was born to him and his wife Susan; he died a few months later. In early March 1770 as several soldiers of the 29th scuffled with Boston ropewalk workers, a local justice of the peace called out to Thomas Walker, “You black rascal, what have you to do with white men’s quarrels?”
After the infamous Boston Massacre later that month, the 29th Regiment left Boston for New Jersey, then went on to Florida before returning to England in 1773. An inspecting officer in 1774 noted that the regiment’s “10 drummers are negroes.” Among them were men with “British-sounding” names, but information recorded when they eventually received pensions reveals that they were of African or West Indian descent. James Fitzgerald was forty-two years old when he was discharged from the army and received a pension in July 1771; his birthplace was recorded as “Africa.” James Macnell, pensioned in December 1777, was born in Antigua and spent twenty-one of his thirty-eight years in the army. Robert Baird, fifty-four years old with twenty-six years of service in March 1792, was from Kingston, Jamaica.
The outbreak of war saw the 29th Regiment preparing to voyage once again to America. Changes in the established size of infantry regiments meant that they now needed twenty drummers to be at their full complement. Posted at Chatham Barracks outside London, they continued to find and recruit Black men. Fifteen-year-old Thomas York, who “lately lived in London as a servant,” enlisted on March 17, 1775 but deserted at the end of the following month; an advertisement seeking his return described him as “a Black, born on the Coast of Guinea, with Wool, round Visage, flat Nose, thick Lips, bow-legged, and stout made.” Thomas Smith, sixteen years old and born in “Bengal, East Indies,” enlisted on March 25. That August John Jubo enlisted at the age of fourteen; when he received a pension just six years and seven months later due to being “lame,” his place of birth was listed as “Africa.” Thomas Othello junior was added to the rolls in the same company as his father on April 1.
The regiment sailed for America in early 1776. Thomas Walker was with the grenadier company on board the warship Isis when it arrived at Quebec in May, relieving a siege that had lasted all winter. The regiment participated in the Battle of Three Rivers on June 8, where drummer Thomas Smith was wounded in the thigh. The British army routed American forces from Canada in a campaign that eventually led to the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. In this battle men of the 29th Regiment fought on ships and gunboats. Drummer Samuel Young, who had joined the regiment in March 1775, was killed.
The regiment spent the winter of 1776-1777 in Quebec, where an American prisoner of war noted that “The drummers of the 29th Regiment are black men.” Eight companies of the 29th remained in Canada until the late 1780s, seeing sporadic fighting during the war but mostly manning various garrisons from the northern end of Lake Champlain to Montreal. Thomas Othello, who had been with the regiment in Boston, drowned in 1777 in unknown circumstances. The following year fourteen-year-old Joseph Othello, certainly another of Thomas’s sons, was appointed as a drummer. He, too, saw difficult service; when he left the army in April 1788 he suffered from “his limbs being crushed by a fall in America”; his discharge indicates that he was born in “Cumberland in America.”
Even after the war, Black men with American connections joined the ranks of the 29th’s drummers. Walter Othello, probably another of Thomas Othello’s sons, joined as a drummer in 1784, serving until 1796. Thomas Retford, from Sunbury, Georgia, enlisted on December 13, 1784 and served until January 9, 1812. His discharge form filled out that year gave his age as fifty-seven, and described him as five feet eight inches tall with “black wooly hair,” black eyes and “black complection”; he signed his own name on the form.
Not all of the 29th served out the American War in Canada. In 1777 two companies, the grenadiers and light infantry, were part of Gen. John Burgoyne’s army that advanced southward on Lake Champlain with the goal of reaching Albany. Faced with overwhelming opposition, the army capitulated in October and became prisoners of war. Among the prisoners was Thomas Walker, the drummer called a “Black rascal” in Boston back in 1768, now in the 29th’s grenadier company. With the other prisoners he spent the winter of 1777-1778 in crude barracks outside Boston, then marched several hundred miles to Virginia. In 1781 they were moved once again, this time to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. By the time they arrived there, Walker was one of only four men in the company remaining. The years of captivity and long marches apparently had taken their toll on Walker; he died while a prisoner of war in Lancaster in July 1781.
For more on drums in battle during the American Revolution, see Don N. Hagist, Noble Volunteers: The British Soldiers Who Fought the American Revolution (Yardley, PA: Westholme, 2020), 209-213, and Matthew H. Spring, With Zeal and Bayonets Only: The British Army on Campaign in North America, 1775–1783 (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 157-160.