Understanding the description of a person’s colour over 200 years ago. Led me on a strange journey to try and find answers.

When I stumbled across a British artillery promotion book dated 1719 -1775 listing men’s place of birth, date of enlistment etc. My interest was piqued when I noticed in the column for complexion a few were described as black. Were these men of African origin?

Source: National Archives (Kew)

Promotion Book Artillery 1719-1775
Source: National Archives (Kew)

After reaching out to as many people who might be able to assist with this question.  It resulted in a mixed bag of opinions.

The British Army Museum said that it was common place in the 17th and 18th century to indicate white men with dark hair and complexions as black.  If the men were of African origin they would have been described as ‘negroes’. This was supported by The National Archives who stated the term black was meant differently than as opposed to now.

On the other hand there were of course opposite opinions that they were African, even though some of the men were from Ireland and Scotland. Having also myself seen descriptions of Africans described as black during this period too.  I’ve left it as a bit of mystery which is yet to be solved.  Interesting though.