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A brave West Indian Pioneer is awarded the Victoria Cross

The West African coastline had been an important source of slaves for European and American traders but during the 19th Century the trading emphasis moved towards obtaining African agricultural and mineral commodities in exchange for European manufactured goods.  This led to European expeditions methodically exploring the hinterland of the West African coast.   Both France and Britain were interested in the territory now known as The Gambia, and eventually an amicable agreement was reached by which Britain controlled a strip of land on each side of the navigable course of the River Gambia, whilst France controlled the land surrounding the strip.

Britain established a capital at Bathurst (now named Banjul) on the coast, built Fort Bullen at Barra Point on the north side of the river mouth and Fort James 19 miles further upstream on James Island, suppressed slavery and administered Gambia from a headquarters in Sierra Leone.  


Needless to say the local people were not always acquiescent to British colonial demands and British forces had to fight repeatedly against dissidents.  It soon became evident that white troops could not operate effectively when permanently based on the coast as malaria, blackwater fever and dysentery scythed through the ranks leading to the West African coastline being named “The White Man’s Grave”.  Solutions were found by bringing units of The West India Regiment from the Caribbean to garrison the British West African territories, by landing naval parties for short campaigns and by developing suitable local tribesmen as policemen and soldiers.  

During the 1850s Islamic fundamentalist warriors known as Marabouts began descending the River Gambia from the interior, encroaching upon areas of British authority.  The local rulers were often as perturbed as were the British by this development.  In 1853 a British force defeated Marabouts at Sabaje on the south side of the river where after a stiff fight many of the enemy committed suicide rather than surrender.  Two years later another encounter occurred at the same location but this time the British were forced to retreat until French military support arrived from Senegal.  Then the Marabouts were heavily defeated by combined French and British firepower and some of their leaders treated with Britain, but others did not and maintained their anti-colonial zeal.

Amar Faal, a Marabout leader who had not signed a treaty, was in mid-1866 creating severe problems for tribal headmen who relied upon British protection.  Lieutenant Colonel George Abbas Koolie D’Arcy, commanding officer of the 3rd West India Regiment and Governor of the Gambia decided to confront Amar Faal at his stockaded town at Tubabecolong (also known as Tubab Kolon) on the north bank of the River Gambia.  The garrison unit in Bathurst at that time was the 4th West India Regiment and  Colonel D’Arcy led 270 officers and men of that battalion in two ships upriver to Albreda, landing on 26th July.  The West Indians were there joined by around 500 warriors from the Soninke tribe and this force totaling nearly 900 men marched on Tubabecelong, attacking the town on 30th June.

The inscription on the frame of this painting reads: The following picture has just been painted by Chevalier Louis W. Desanges to illustrate a heroic action by which the distinguished honour of the Victoria Cross was gained.

The Capture of the Tubabakolong (Gambia) June 30th 1866.

Samuel Hodge, serving with the 4th West India regiment obtained the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in effecting a breach in the stockade.  He was badly wounded, but continued to assist the Governor, Colonel D’Arcy, by handing to him the rifles of his poor companions, with which the colonel kept the enemy at bay while the supports were coming up.  In the breach are seen the prostrate body of Lieutenant Jenkins and Ensign Kelly, mortally wounded.  The marabout chief who is seen with arms extended is mortally wounded by the rifle which Colonel D’Arcy is about to drop.  The chief has just descended from the vantage tower represented a short distance behind him and had discharged his musket within a few feet of the Governor, fortunately missing his aim.  Poor Hodge who has since died received his cross at the recommendation of Colonel D’Arcy.  It is regrettable that, by the rules of service, a similar honour could not be bestowed on the latter brave soldier through whose courage and skill on that eventful day the main success of the enterprise depended.

(Note: for purpose of display on this page only the central portion of the painting can be shown)

The West Indians had light guns and rockets but the bombardment from these weapons was unable to break down the wooden stockade walls.  Colonel D’Arcy then called for volunteers to assist him in cutting a breach by hand, and two officers and fifteen men seized axes and followed him.  The fire of the defenders was intense and the two officers, Lieutenant Jenkins and Ensign Kelly, were killed almost immediately whilst 13 of the men were wounded.  Colonel D’Arcy and the two remaining men, Privates Hodge and Boswell, got to the stockade and hacked a gap large enough for a man to pass through.  At that point Private Boswell was shot dead.  Colonel D’Arcy went through the gap followed by Private Hodge who then used his axe to hack open inside fastenings on a gate before he was shot down.  


The remaining troops now poured in through the open gate and Colonel D’Arcy directed them in the fierce fighting that followed, during which several hundred of the Marabouts were killed and the village and stockade burned down.  In this battle the British casualties were two officers and four men killed and nearly 60 other men wounded.  Private Hodge was one of the severely wounded.

Right: A Victorian Era Victoria Cross (Private collection)

On 4th January 1867 an announcement in the London Gazette conferred the Victoria Cross on Private Samuel Hodge, 4th West India Regiment, for his gallant conduct at the siege and capture of Tubabecolong, Gambia River.  The citation read:  

For his bravery at the storming and capture of the stockaded town of Tubabecolong, in the kingdom of Barra, River Gambia, on the evening of the 30th June last.  Colonel D’Arcy, of the Gambia Volunteers, states that this man and another, who was afterwards killed, - pioneers in the 4th West India Regiment - answered his call for volunteers, with axes in hand, to hew down the stockade.  Colonel D’Arcy having effected an entrance, Private Hodge followed him through the town, opening with his axe two gates from the inside, which were barricaded, so allowing the supports to enter, who carried the place from east to west at the point of the bayonet.  On issuing to the glacis through the west gate, Private Hodge was presented by Colonel D’Arcy to his comrades, as the bravest soldier in their regiment, a fact which they acknowledged with loud acclamations.
 

Perhaps unfortunately for the deceased Private Boswell and his family posthumous awards of the Victoria Cross were not considered at that time and the Army did not issue a campaign medal for the early actions in the Gambia.  Samuel Hodge rotated back to the Caribbean and as a Lance Corporal was presented with his medal in British Honduras (today named Belize) on 24th June 1867.  Sadly he never recovered from his wound and died on 14th January 1868.   

Samuel Hodge, born around 1840 in Tortola, Virgin Islands, was the first black soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross.  He lies in an unmarked grave in Belize City Military Cemetery and the whereabouts of his medal is not known.

Details of the copy of the painting shown are
Louis William Desanges (1822 – c.1887)
The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866

Oil on canvas, 132 x 193 cm
Penlee House Gallery & Museum, Penzance
Gift of Mrs. Nicholas Paul 1931


SOURCES AND FURTHER READING
The Empty Sleeve
by Brian Dyde
Caribbean
Wars Untold by Humphrey Metzgen & John Graham
London Gazette Issue Number 23205 dated 4th January 1867

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