The Victoria Cross is Britain’s highest award for military valour. In the 19th century it was awarded to three black men: William Hall, a Canadian sailor serving in a Naval Battalion (land forces) in India in 1857, Jamaican William Gordon of the West India Regiment who was awarded the V.C. for bravery in Gambia (West Africa) in 1892, and Samuel Hodge, also in the West India Regiment, for his bravery in Gambia in 1866. Hall was presented with his medal in Ireland and Gordon is known to have been in London in jubilee year 1897. Hodge seems never to have been in the British Isles but a battle scene painting is in south-west England.
The following was written for and has been accepted by the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography (Oxford University Press, New York).
Hodge, Samuel (c. 1840-1868) soldier, was born in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands by 1840 and joined the West India Regiment where he was a pioneer in the 4th battalion and garrisoned in Bathurst (now Banjul), Gambia. A punitive expedition took some 270 men of the regiment with 500 irregulars up river and on 30 July 1866 Hodge, fourteen colleagues and two officers attacked the stockade using pioneers’ axes. The officers were killed and only Hodge and two others were not wounded. Hodge cut through the stockade and then opened two gates from the inside, enabling British forces to pass the barricades and playing a key part in the defeat of the African enemy. In January 1867 the London Gazette declared that Hodge was to be awarded the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest award for military bravery (US equivalent: Medal of Honor) for his ‘gallant conduct at the siege and capture of Tubabecolong, Gambia River’.
British painter Louis William Desanges, who specialised in military subjects, completed a battle scene showing Hodge, axe in hand, handing his commanding officer loaded rifles from wounded colleagues, an activity that was not mentioned in the Gazette. This painting was given to a British gallery in 1931, and is at Penlee House in Penzance, south-west England. (Prints are available to be ordered on line.)*
Hodge was stationed in British Honduras (now Belize) when news of his honor was published. He was promoted a Lance Corporal and, still suffering from the effects of wounds, was presented with the Victoria Cross on 24 June 1867. He died on 14 January 1868. His widow is the last person known to have the medal, which would now be worth US$ 400,000. Hodge was the second person of African descent to receive a V.C. His grave in Belize City Military Cemetery appears not to have been marked and probably vanished when road widening took place in 1890.
Dyde, Brian. The Empty Sleeve. The Story of the West India Regiments of the British Army (Hansib Caribbean, 1997).
*A clear image of the central part of the painting can be seen on www.kaiserscross.com ‘Gambia 1866’.
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