Black and white photograph showing Amy Ashwood Garvey on stage at the Fifth Pan African Congress

Caribbean anti-colonial activists in Britain before World War Two

At the turn of the 20th century, colonialism meant that colonial subjects did not have the right to determine their own future. Hakim Adi introduces us to Pan-Africanism and some of the key figures and organisations who campaigned against colonialism and racism before the outbreak of World War Two.

It cannot be forgotten that those who came to Britain from the Caribbean before World War Two came with lived experience of colonial rule. Most importantly, colonialism meant that colonial subjects did not have the right to determine their own future. They had few political rights, and the colonial economies were entirely dependent on Britain. Indeed, the Caribbean economies had initially been based entirely on slavery. They were designed to produce wealth for Britain through the kidnapping, forced transportation and exploitation of millions of African men, women and children. The legacy of slavery and the racism that accompanied it were ever present in the Caribbean. Opportunities for education were also limited. Colonial rule did not provide any institutions of higher education, so those who wished to study at that level, to become nurses, doctors or lawyers, for example, were forced to travel abroad to Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Others travelled abroad to seek employment, or to better themselves in other ways. Out of this unique set of social and political conditions emerged numerous individuals and organisations who campaigned against colonialism and racism.

James Berry's notebook containing ‘My father’s non-interest in education’

Handwritten page titled 'My father's non-interest in education' from James Berry's notebook

‘My father came straight out of a slave history and its patterns of life. He found himself with bright children and didn’t know what to do with them… Elementary school taught little about our own surroundings and reality about our past history’: James Berry’s notes make connections between the legacies of slavery and education in the Caribbean.

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Held by © James Berry: By permission of the Estate of James Berry

Henry Sylvester Williams and Pan-Africanism

It is often said that travel broadens the mind. This was undoubtedly the case for those who travelled to Britain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were young men such as Henry Sylvester Williams, a Barbadian-Trinidadian law student who had previously worked and studied in the US and Canada before he arrived in Britain. In Britain, he met with others from the Caribbean, as well as Africa, who had arrived in London, the centre of the British Empire. Williams was especially inspired by Alice Kinloch, a South African woman, who was speaking throughout Britain on the oppression facing South Africans. Williams, and some of his friends, realised that people of African descent faced similar problems throughout Britain’s African and Caribbean colonies. In 1897 Williams formed the African Association in London, with Kinloch as treasurer. The Association aimed to unite those of African descent to speak with one voice about the problems they suffered, and bring such issues to the attention of the British public and the government. In time, Williams also contacted African Americans, such as Booker T Washington and W E B Du Bois. In 1900, the African Association convened the first Pan-African Conference in London, to discuss solutions to the problems facing the Caribbean and African colonies and people. The Conference was reported in the press in the Caribbean and Williams toured the region the following year to establish local Pan-African groups. The Association also produced a short-lived publication, Pan-Africa. Williams later joined the Liberal Party and became a local councillor in the London borough of Marylebone.

Williams was the most prominent of numerous migrants in Britain early in the 20th century, who were concerned about economic and political conditions in the Caribbean. There were others, such as the Jamaican Dr T E S Scholes, who studied medicine in Scotland, and Trinidadian Felix Hercules, one of the founders of the Society for Peoples of African Origin and the African Progress Union (APU), formed in 1918. The first president of the APU was John Archer, a man of Barbadian and Irish heritage, who had been born in Liverpool in 1863. It is important to remember that some people from the Caribbean and of Caribbean heritage had been living in Britain since the 17th century. Distinct communities had been formed in London, as well as many port cities such as Liverpool and Cardiff. Archer was also a prominent Pan-Africanist, attending the Pan-African Congress organised by Du Bois in Paris in 1919 and chairing the session of the Second Pan-African Congress held in London in 1921. Archer, Hercules and others were certainly concerned about the Caribbean, but they also confronted the problems faced by African and Caribbean people in Britain, including the everyday racism as well as the large-scale racist attacks, referred to as ‘race riots’, that occurred across the country during 1919. In one of these attacks, in Liverpool, Charles Wooton, a 24-year-old ship’s fireman from Bermuda, was murdered by a mob in the city’s docks.

Marcus Garvey and Amy Ashwood Garvey

Some of those from the Caribbean visited Britain temporarily, such as the famous Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey, who worked as a journalist in London in the year preceding World War One. Garvey returned to live and organise in London, where he published The Black Man during the 1930s, and he died in the city in June 1940. His estranged Jamaican first wife, Amy Ashwood Garvey, also lived in Britain for much of the period between the two world wars, as did many other women from the Caribbean. Amy Ashwood Garvey opened nightclubs, as well as a restaurant in New Oxford Street that became an important centre for anti-colonial activists. Moreover, she was an important activist herself, concerned not only with protesting against colonial rule in the Caribbean but also joining with others to struggle for African liberation, too. She was, for example, one of the founders of the Nigerian Progress Union in London in 1924. Later, she joined with C L R James from Trinidad, Chris Jones (aka Braithwaite) from Barbados and Trinidadian George Padmore to form the International Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), to protest fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. She remained active in organisations such as the International African Service Bureau (IASB), and later chaired sessions of the famous Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945.

Report of a Speech delivered by Marcus Garvey, 6th June 1928

Front cover of a leaflet detailing a speech delivered by Marcus Garvey at the Royal Albert Hall

Marcus Garvey founded and led the largest mass movement in Black history: the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). This leaflet details a speech given by Garvey at the Royal Albert Hall, London, in June 1928.

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Photograph of Amy Ashwood Garvey campaigning with The International African Friends of Abyssinia

Black and white photograph of Amy Jacques Garvey and four men including the sons of the Ethiopian minister, standing against a wall at a International African Friends of Abyssinia demonstration in Trafalgar Square

Amy Ashwood Garvey founded the International Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA), with C L R James, Chris Jones (aka Braithwaite) and George Padmore, to protest fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935. She is pictured here with the sons of the Ethiopian minister in London.

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C L R James and George Padmore

Anti-colonial activists in this period had wider concerns than just the Caribbean, although many of them came together to support the labour rebellions in the Caribbean during the late 1930s and to urge reform of the colonial system. Both James and Padmore were prolific writers of political articles and books, and the IASB had its own publication that was disseminated throughout the world. It was while he was in Britain that James wrote his most famous work The Black Jacobins (1938), the first novel to be published in Britain by a ‘West Indian’, Minty Alley (1936), his The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933) and several other important works. An influence on James was J J Thomas, the 19th-century Trinidadian scholar and a leading figure in the intellectual tradition in the Caribbean. His seminal text Froudacity (1889) is a riposte to J A Froude’s The English in The West Indies (1888), a book that argued Caribbean peoples were incapable of self-government.

Report of the West India Royal Commission (the Moyne Report)

Title page from the Moyne Report, published under the title of West India Royal commission report

The Moyne Report is the result of the British government calling for an investigation into the causes of the labour rebellions in the Caribbean during the 1930s. Many Caribbeans felt the recommendations of the commission did not go far enough – in particular, the report did not advocate for political independence.

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Froudacity by J J Thomas

Front cover to Froudacity by JJ Thomas, depicting a sunset over a sea viewed through a jagged frame

J J Thomas’s seminal text Froudacity is a riposte to JA Froude’s The English in The West Indies, a book that argued Caribbean peoples were incapable of self-government.

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During the 1930s and 1940s in Britain, Padmore wrote How Britain Rules Africa, Africa and World Peace, as well as How Russia Transformed Her Colonial Empire, three of his most important works. Other significant Caribbean writers in Britain during this period include Eric Walrond from British Guiana and W Arthur Lewis from St Lucia, who was a student and lecturer at the LSE, and published Labour in the West Indies in 1939.

Una Marson, the League of Coloured People and the colour bar

Another important writer was the Jamaican poet and journalist Una Marson, who, like Lewis, James and others was a member of the League of Coloured People (LCP). The LCP was formed in 1931 by Harold Moody, a Jamaican GP practising in Peckham. Initially, the organisation was mainly concerned with racism and the problem of what was then called the ‘colour bar’. At that time in Britain racial discrimination was not illegal. Those from the Caribbean, Africa and other colonies faced racial slurs and wide-scale discrimination in employment, housing and public life, such as being refused rooms in hotels or service in pubs. However, the League also concerned itself with matters in the colonies, as well as wider political questions. Una Marson was for some time the secretary of the LCP, then worked as secretary for the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, when he was forced into exile in Britain in 1936. Marson later became one of the first Caribbean producers at the BBC, as well as hosting her own programme during World War Two. She developed Calling the West Indies into Caribbean Voices, which became a catalyst for Caribbean literature.

Tropic Reveries by Una Marson

Black and white photograph of Una Marson seated at a table and holding a book, printed in her poetry collection Tropic Reveries

This photograph of Una Marson, taken in 1930s, was used as the frontispiece for her self-published collection of poetry Tropic Reveries.

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The Keys (January–March 1935 issue)

Page from The Keys, January–March 1935 issue, listing the aims of the League of Coloured Peoples and its officers

One of the aims of the League of Coloured Peoples was 'to improve relations between the Races', as well as 'to promote and protect the Social, Educational, Economic and Political Interests of its members'.

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Responses to the threat of war and fascism

During the 1930s, the threat of war and fascism propelled many of those of Caribbean heritage to become active in politics. Many, including James and Padmore, were strongly influenced by Marxism and for a period Padmore was a full-time activist for the Communist International. Several others were also prominent in revolutionary politics. They include the Barbadians Arnold Ward, who was based in London as the secretary of the communist-led Negro Welfare Association (NWA), an affiliate of the League Against Imperialism, and Peter Blackman, also of the NWA, who was for a time editor of the LCP’s publication The Keys. Other Caribbean communists include Harry O’Connell, an organiser of seafarers in Cardiff, who originally came from British Guiana.

The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution by C L R James, 1938

Page 236 from The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution by CLR James. James references Marx, Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution of 1917.

C L R James was strongly influenced by Marxism. Here, in The Black Jacobins, James references Marx and analyses Toussaint L’Ouverture’s character and military strategy in comparison with Lenin and the Bolsheviks after the October Revolution of 1917.

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The Groundings with My Brothers by Walter Rodney

Front cover by Errol Lloyd, depicting the faces of three Black men, for Walter Rodney's book 'The Groundings with my Brothers'

Walter Rodney’s The Groundings with My Brothers is an example of how Marxism continued to influence anti-colonial activism into the 1960s.

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Held by © Artwork for cover design of 'The Groundings with my Brothers' by Walter Rodney: © Errol Lloyd

Calling for an end to colonial rule

Perhaps the most important political event of the period before 1948 was the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945. This was led by George Padmore and the Pan-African Federation, including several Caribbean activists such as Dr Peter Milliard and Ras Makonnen, who were both Guianese and lived in Manchester, and Amy Ashwood Garvey.

Photograph of Amy Ashwood Garvey and John McNair at the 1945 Pan-African Congress, 1945

Black and white photograph showing Amy Ashwood Garvey chairing a session alongside John McNair at the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945. Anti-colonial signs are posted on the stage and delegates sit on benches.

This photograph shows Amy Ashwood Garvey chairing a session at the Manchester Pan-African Congress in 1945.

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Significantly, and for the first time, the Congress united all the main African and Caribbean organisations in Britain. The Congress called for the end of colonial rule throughout Britain’s colonies and urged colonial subjects to assert their rights. Among the resolutions, the Congress declared:

We are determined to be free. We want education. We want the right to earn a decent living; the right to express our thoughts and emotions, to adopt and create forms of beauty… We will fight in every way we can for freedom, democracy, and social betterment.

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  • Hakim Adi
  • Hakim Adi is Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester, where he has pioneered research on the history of Africans in Britain and projects to encourage young people of African and Caribbean heritage to engage with history. His most recent books are Pan-Africanism and Communism and and Pan-Africanism: A History. He is currently editing a book of essays, provisionally entitled New Perspectives on Black British History (forthcoming) and writing a book on the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain.

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