COLUMN-Bajan Brit for National Hero?
Walter Tull, son of a Barbadian emigrant, memorialized
He has been an inspiration to Barbadians and the general West Indian.
–– Barbados High Commissioner to London Guy Hewitt.
Walter Tull was the first black officer to lead white British soldiers in battle.
Despite his image is on a five pound coin released by the Royal Mint, as part of commemorations of the centenary of World War I, there are those who believe that more should be done to recognize this great son of Barbadian descent. It all started in My Lord’s Hill where Walter Tull’s father Daniel Tull was born and spent his childhood years as an apprentice carpenter.
In the 1860s, life in Barbados was certainly not what many have come to know it today. Many Bajans wanted to leave the island in search of greener pastures. Writings from Daniel’s four-page diary described not being paid as an apprentice in St Michael as one of the reasons why he decided to emigrate to St Lucia.
While in St Lucia, the senior Tull got a job as a carpenter on a ship and he ended up in Folkstone, a port town located on the English Channel in Kent, south-east England. He was a Methodist and attended service at a local church.
While there he fell in love with an English woman Alice Palmer who was from an agricultural labouring family. Author Phill Vasili told Barbados TODAY that there was a letter from Alice’s mother to Daniel just before they were about to get married. She wrote: “Daniel, I know you love my daughter, but don’t take her out of the country. She is my only daughter and a precious flower.”
In the letter she goes on to say how she was pleased to have Daniel in the family and that the two must stick together in both the good and bad times. In commenting on the mother’s charge, Vasili who is the author of a book titled Walter Tull, 1888-1918, Officer, Footballer, said this letter showed that in the early 20th century racism was present in England both at the institutional and individual levels.
Vasili said Alice’s parents were willing to have Daniel in their family and believes that this was because he was a step up in terms of the social ladder –– owing to the fact they were into farming and he was a skilled man who was also God-fearing, in addition to having a job.
The couple had five children. Alice died of a heart-related illness in 1895, and within a couple of years Daniel also died. Before his own death Daniel married Alice’s niece Clara. In her own words, it was “a marriage of convenience because she had to mother the children”.
When Daniel died, Walter and Edward had to go into a children’s home in Bethnal Green, in East London. The Kent countryside Walter was used to in his early years was famous for farms and orchards. Folkestone was a small seaside town in the 1890s. By contrast, London was the world’s biggest city. His move allowed Walter to see more people of colour.
While at the orphanage, Walter went to school. He played cricket and football, and enjoyed visits to his family in Kent. In 1900 his brother Edward went to live in Scotland. Edward was adopted by a dentist’s family, who brought him up as if he was their own son. He also became a dentist. After Walter left school he became an apprentice, learning the trade in a printing works.
But his real love was football. The orphanage he grew up in was very progressive. The man in charge was forward-thinking, Vasili explained. They had a gymnasium, choir and apprenticeship schemes. Despite the fact that Walter and his brother were torn away from their family, Walter thrived. He became an apprentice printer.
He was recognized and signed by Tottenham football club. He was also the first black professional footballer to play in Latin America. According to Vasili, this was significant since he was before the Peles and the Renaldos that came out of the South American continent.
The BBC described Walter as a good soldier, and noted that he was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant. In November, 1914, he was sent to France, and took part in his first battles. The fighting affected every soldier, even those lucky enough not to be wounded, and in May, 1915, Walter was sent home to recover from illness.
By 1916 he was back in France and in even worse battles, including that at the Somme, a river in France where fierce fighting took place. Walter showed courage and coolness as a soldier, just as he had as a footballer. Other soldiers respected him.
At Christmas time in 1916, Walter was sent back to Britain to be trained as an officer (someone who leads soldiers). At that time rules were that only a white, British-born person could be an officer in the army. In Walter’s case, however, the rules were ignored. In May 1917 Walter Tull was “commissioned” as an officer, with the rank of lieutenant.
Walter was sent to Italy and was soon in more fierce fighting. He was praised by his leader, the “commanding officer”, for leading soldiers across a river during a battle. He was recommended for a bravery medal, but never received it.
He was a loved, respected and a revered officer, and it is sad that he had been forgotten for so long, and now is getting recognized, author Vasili lamented. Walter’s head is on a five pound coin released recently by the Royal Mint as part of commemorations of the centenary of World War I. The coin, featuring a portrait of the officer with a backdrop of infantry soldiers going “over the top”, is one of a set of six five pound coins to remember the sacrifice made by so many during the war.
Regarding the non-awarding of the bravery medal, members of the Barbadian Diaspora are organizing themselves to petition the British government for it to be awarded posthumously. The push to have him recognized by the British government is for his exemplary life and contribution to a black and Barbadian narrative in Britain, High Commissioner Hewitt told Barbados TODAY.
Hewitt said that as the nation observed its 48th Independence anniversary, it was important for Barbadians at home and in the Diaspora especially to put being in Britain into context. He said: “Before there was an Independent Barbados, before many of us came here in making this a modern multicultural society, they were trendsetters like Walter Tull who is now only being recognized during the centenary celebration of World War I for being a truly outstanding Barbadian British citizen. He has been an inspiration to Barbadian and general West Indians.”
Walter was born on April 28, 1888, which is Barbados National Heroes Day.
“And I think we all should claim Water as a National Hero,” Vasili says.