Today in London Black history, 1787: anti-slave abolitionists, the Sons of Africa, write to Granville Sharp

Britain’s central role in the global slave trade is well known. For over 300 years, the abduction of millions of Africans to be used as forced labour, largely in America and the Caribbean, formed a major element of the British economy and was integral to the spread of the British Empire.

The end of Britain’s historical role in the slave trade is usually portrayed as a glorious moral campaign, of heroic upper class white philanthropists like William Wilberforce, gently and nobly persuading the authorities to abolish first the kidnapping and buying and selling of Africans (in 1807) and then, 30 years later, to abolish the slave plantations themselves and ‘grant’ slaves their freedom. Their charitable and altruistic motives are held up as another example of the civilising and beneficial influence of the Great British Empire…

Only in recent years has a counter-narrative been gaining voice, uncovering the vast history of slavery and of the slaves’ resistance to it, a resistance that took many forms, from physical rebellion and mutiny, armed warfare, through to an involvement in the campaign for abolition from below.

The constant resistance of slaves helped to slavery increasingly uneconomic as a way of guaranteeing labour in the West Indies, which was a major factor in the eventual acceptance of the slave-owning classes that slavery needed to go (the huge wodges of compensation paid to those who lost their ‘property’ also helped).

The usually accepted narrative also neglects the contribution of black abolitionists as activists in the movement to end the slave trade and abolish slavery itself. London itself was a centre of organised black abolitionism, emerging from the communities of black people that had grown up in London. The latter is achieving more recognition in recent years, though much still lies buried.

There had been significant numbers of Africans in London since Elizabethan times (when good Queen Bess famously attempted to get a law passed to throw all black people out of the country). By the 18th century London had a sizable black population, although it was hard to put a number on, being variously estimated; the Gentleman’s Magazine reckoned the capital’s black population at 20,000 in 1764, while other sources reckon it at only half that for the whole country… Disease, poverty, the hard conditions they had lived in and continued to live in took a regular toll, and so the numbers are likely to have varied wildly…

The vast majority of London’s black residents were ex-slaves, or sailors and former sailors. Some sailors would themselves have been runaway or freed slaves, who had worked their passage on ships from the West Indies (see for instance Olaudah Equiano, below). There were also musicians – many serving in English military and domestic orchestras and bands.

The work the black population could do was restricted, especially after 1731 when the lord mayor of London issued a proclamation banning them from being taken on as apprentices – the first known, though not the last, colour bar in the history of employment in Britain.

Many Africans of both sexes worked as domestic servants. This left them still in a difficult legal position, at the mercy of their employers, as even after 1772 (when transporting slaves was outlawed in England and they could not legally be deported by their owners) they were not really protected from being kidnapped and shipped abroad. Others worked as city porters, watermen, hawkers, and chairmen (carrying the rich from place to place, some employed directly, others touting for business in the days before cabs).

Black women also worked as nurses, or became basket women selling small items round the streets. But many were forced by poverty to turn to prostitution.

And a huge number ended without work at all, begging on the street for enough to keep them alive. The Poor Relief system, consisting then of a pittance of financial support from the parish you were born in, did not offer much support for incomers into parishes, which included most black folk. Many of course would arrive in London with nothing, whether slave, runaway or servant; many were reduced to extreme poverty. Black people forced into beggary became conspicuous in London in the later 17th century, many crowded into poor areas, ‘rookeries’ like St. Giles or Seven Dials, Limehouse and Ratcliff down by the river in the East End – all areas of poverty, refuges for the desperate, the rebellious and ‘criminal classes’. The black community was overwhelmingly male; many black men married local women and merged into the pre-existing plebeian world.

Rookeries were over-crowded, often a mass of sub-divided and sublet rooms, dangerous and unhealthy places to live. But being refuges to those on the run from the law, they were often no-go areas to the law, with a rudimentary solidarity against justices, constables and creditors… this of course made them useful to runaway slaves or black servants.

Despite being from many countries and backgrounds, divided in many ways, the London black community created not only social links but organised itself. This manifested on the various social levels which black people inhabited. Black servants certainly gathered together informally, partly to discuss information and common problems. Dr Johnson’s black servant Francis Barber was among them. A friend of Samuel Johnson’s was startled when, in the doctor’s absence, he discovered Francis Barber with ‘a group of his African countrymen . . . sitting around a fire in the gloomy anti-room; and on their all turning their sooty faces at once to stare at me, they presented a curious spectacle.’

A late 18th century skit on uppity servants, including a black servant satirised for ‘getting above his station’

Larger social gatherings with dances and music in taverns were also organised. About 57 ‘Black domestics’ of both sexes, for instance, “supped, drank and entertained themselves with dancing and music… at a public house in Fleet St” in 1764…”No whites were allowed to be present…”

But the plebeian black community also showed solidarity for its number – for example in 1773, two black men imprisoned in the Bridewell House of Correction for begging were supported financially and visited by 300 others. According to Philip Thicknesse, in 1778, “these black men have clubs to support those who are out of place”… Out of place means on the face of it ‘out of work’, but also has a wider sense, of those inhabiting spaces they didn’t quite feel at home in… This solidarity also took the form of support for runaways and ex-slaves living under cover, and encouragement for slaves who wanted to escape bondage. A common complaint among the slave-owning classes was that longer established escapees were influencing newer arrivals to leg it. Edward Long, a virulently racist ideologue, raged that “Upon arriving in London, these servants soon grow acquainted with a knot of blacks, who, having eloped from their respective owners at different times, repose here in ease and indolence, and endeavour to strengthen their party, by seducing as many of these strangers into the association as they can work to their purpose.”

The Bow Street magistrate John Fielding referred to these subversive ex-slaves as “intoxicated with liberty… the Sweets of Liberty and the conversations with free men and Christians enlarge their minds…” and even worse, alleged they had succeeded in allying themselves with “the London Mob”, the teeming, contradictory armed wing of the rebellious working people of London. This alliance bore angry fruit: ex-slaves were involved in the 1780 Gordon Riots, some coming to fore as rabble rousers and temporary leaders. Benjamin Bowsey and John Glover were among the leaders of the climatic moment of the Riots, the successful attack on Newgate; Black woman Charlotte Gardiner was sentenced to be hung for leading a crowd in the Riots.

The support of ‘native’ poor and working people for fugitive slaves came not from simple sentimental or abstract humanitarian feelings, as it did with the middle class anti-slavery abolitionists – though these feelings existed. Black people were suffering from treatment meted out by a class many in the slums saw as also being their own enemies; alliances were a matter of class solidarity. Long-established and strong traditions of resistance to the authorities were part of the culture in London slums and rookeries – fighting off the press gang or the army recruiters, or posses sent in to areas to seize fugitive criminals or debtors, were long established and instinctive, matters of self-defence and extended to support for runaway slaves.

There was also contact between fugitives in Britain and those still in chains in the Carribbean. Ex-slave rebels from Belize and Jamaica; and involvees in the American Revolution, also brought the spirit of freedom to England. Numbers of black people in London were swollen by an influx after 1784 of ‘loyal’ ex-slaves, who had been persuaded or forced to fight for the crown against the colonists during the war of independence… Many were poor and embittered, at the meagre reward for their loyalty; others who ended up in London had been involved in the rough and tumble of the American Revolution and taken on many ideas about liberty and equality… The authorities became so concerned at the ‘problem’ of black London they supported the plan to ‘re-patriate’ them to Africa in the Sierra Leone scheme.

The environment that sparked blacks involvement in the abolition movement, was thus twofold: a proletarian class in the slums, beggars, ex sailors, and a more elevated level of servants, more educated and literate… We know more about the latter, but there were clearly crossovers between these strata, and links between both may well have existed. Interestingly, there prominent individuals we know about do in some ways cross over both milieu, especially Robert Wedderburn.

These embryonic Black communities were sharply conscious of legal and social developments – they followed Mansfield’s judgement in the Somerset case in 1772, (which ruled that transporting  slaves in and out of England was illegal, the first legal advance in the slow progress towards abolition). They sent representatives to follow the hearings, who clapped and hugged each other when the judgement was given… And a few days later this victory was celebrated by a gathering of several hundred black men and women in a Westminster pub… Seemingly better off servants as tickets cost 5 shillings!

Another complaint of white upper class commentators of the time was that slaves were struggling to be paid wages! Pay not only helped black people gain economic independence – wages conferred status, also the right of residence within a parish, which could prevent deportation. The social and political self-confidence of working for a wage also fed into political organising; Individual and collective resistance thus sparked off campaigning for the abolition of slavery from within black communities themselves.

One group who took part in the campaign to abolish the slave trade from the heart of the beast itself were the Sons of Africa.

The Sons of Africa were what was clearly an organised group, at the centre of which appeared to be ex-slave activists Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano.

Olaudah Equiano is best known for his autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano; or, Gustavus Vassa, the African, Written by Himself, published in 1789, which told the story of his life, from the time he was taken as a slave as a child, through his years in slavery, on sailing ships and in the plantations. He later gained his freedom, buying himself out, and served various ships, eventually settling in London.

Olaudah Equiano

Equiano became involved in the rescue of slaves; a turning point in his life in London was his attempt in 1774 to save ex- slave john Annis, who he had recruited as a cook on a ship, from being seized by his former master. Equiano got in touch with famous abolitionist Granville Sharp, who took legal cases for slaves fighting seizure by old masters to court. Equiano had had to whiten up his face to swear a writ of habeus corpus. However, the case failed, and Annis was shipped off to the West Indies and flogged to death.

Equiano also wrote on slavery for various sympathetic newspapers, on several occasions reviewing pro-slavery tracts by plantation owners and their apologists… Later he published his life story, which was republished several times and had a huge influence on public opinion… ‘The Interesting narrative’ has been called the single most important document in abolition of the salve trade. Equiano built on his writings with public speaking, setting off round the country to talk at public meetings on slavery, which had a powerful affect, especially on the emerging radical and working class movement. Equiano not only worked with (and influenced) Granville Sharp and more mainstream abolitionists, but met many of the activists in the nascent radical scenes, including the reformist Constitutional Societies; he became friends with, and stayed with Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society, and joined the LCS himself. He served as a pivotal figure in many ways, linking self-organised black movement, radical societies and more liberal lobbyists.

Ottobah Cugoano was originally from Ghana, had been abducted from Africa aged 13, transported to Grenada; but had then been brought to Britain and freed, aged 15.

Cugoano got himself baptised to prevent being seized and resold (based on the belief that adopting Christianity prevented you from being enslaved – more of a superstition than actual defence…!) He became a preacher, and then servant to Richard Conway, and became involved in abolition campaigns.

Like Equiano, Cugano went on speaking tours around country; and like him, played his part in direct support of slaves and ex-slaves. In 1786 he was involved in the rescue of Henry Demane, a black man who had been kidnapped and was due to be shipped to the West Indies. Cugoano got Granville Sharpe involved, who managed to get Demane released.

In 1787, Cugoano wrote “Thoughts and Sentiments On the Evil and wicked traffic of the slavery and commerce of the human species” – possibly the earliest published black counterblast against slavery, based on the “Natural rights and liberties of men”.

A drawing of Ottobah Cugoano

This text demolished pro-slavery arguments about divine sanction for slavery, of justifications for it based on the fact that Africans also took slaves, that Africans were inferior and only fit to serve whites, or that slaves ‘lived better off lives than many among the European poor’.

The book not only advocated the total abolition of slavery, not just the slave trade, but disputed the emerging racist theories that justified slavery, dismissing talk of separate races, talking in terms of “many shades of the rainbow: All of us are fellow creatures, Africans free born…” He linked slavery to private property, and echoing the radicals of the English Revolution, spoke of a desire to “turn the world upside down”. Cugoano also asserted that slaves had a moral duty to resist slavery, and also posited the idea of it being a ‘crime against humanity’, and that all Britons were responsible for its continuation unless they opposed it.

Cugoano and Equiano together formed the Sons of Africa, a black abolitionist group, based in London. Besides these better known activists, several other black men signed Sons of Africa letters and public statements in late 1780s – including Yahne Aelane (who also used the anglicised name Joseph Sanders), Broughwa Jugensmel, William Green, George Robert Mandeville, Cojoh Ammere (aka George Williams), Thomas Cooper, Bernard Elliot Griffiths, Daniel Christopher, John Christopher, James Forster, John Scot, Jorge Dent, Thomas Oxford, James Bailey, James Frazer, Thomas Carlisle, William Stevens, Joseph Almaze, John Adams, George Wallace and Thomas Jones. Sons of Africa letters, statements and letters appeared in print around 1787-89, notably in the Diary newspaper.

Equiano and others of the Sons of Africa went to Westminster to listen to parliamentary debates on slavery. Like the white Abolition Committee, they too embarked on letter-writing and public-speaking campaigns, and made public appeals. Writing to the MP Sir William Dolben in the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, they discussed their position in England and elsewhere:

“Our simple testimony is not much, yet you will not be displeased to learn, that a few persons of colour, existing here, providentially released from the common calamity, and feeling for their kind, are daily pouring forth their prayers for you, Sir, and other noble and generous persons who will not (as we understand) longer suffer the rights of humanity to be confounded with ordinary commodities, and passed from hand to hand, as an article of trade.

We are not ignorant, however, Sir, that the best return we can make, is, to behave with sobriety, fidelity, and diligence in our different stations whether remaining here under the protection of the laws, or colonizing our native soil, as most of us wish to do, under the dominion of this country; or as free labourers and artizans in the West India islands, which, under equal laws, might become to men of colour places of voluntary and very general resort.

But in whatever station, Sir, having lived here, as we hope, without reproach, so we trust that we and our whole race shall endeavour to merit, by dutiful behaviour, those mercies, which, humane and benevolent minds seem to be preparing for us.”

Dolben thanked them and hoped their behaviour would recommend them to the British government, but ‘he must earnestly desire to decline any particular address upon the occasion’. (Though he had been so upset by what he saw on a slave ship anchored in the Thames in 1788 that he immediately proposed a bill limiting the horrifically cramped shelving of slaves being transported.)

They were always immensely grateful to Sharp and others in the Society for the Abolition of Slavery for their unflagging energy in the battle, calling Sharp ‘our constant and generous friend’, they wrote to him, in a public letter published on 15 December 1787, that ‘[w]e are those who were considered as slaves, even in England itself, till your aid and exertion set us free’. They requested him to collect his writings ‘for the benefit and good of all men, and for an enduring memorial of the great learning, piety, and vigilance of our good friend’.

There’s clearly more to be discovered about the Sons of Africa – and many questions that their existence throws up. What happened to the group? Equiano died in London in 1797; nothing is known of Cugoano after 1791. Was the group already defunct or did it survive them? Given the turbulent nature of the times they emerged in, with revolution, rebellion against slavery, theories of universal human rights coming to the fore – were there any black women active in London around this time on this issue? What relations did these figures have to the burgeoning reform and radical movements (as noted above, Olaudah Equiano bridged both scenes)…?

And did the ideas and thoughts the Sons of Africa were developing pass on to later generations? In London or wider afield? Certainly, there were later figures associated with radical movements that contained former members of the London Corresponding Society, who may have known Equiano and possibly others of the Sons, who later emerged to prominence – most notably Robert Wedderburn. Wedderburn blended English radicalism with an apocalyptic abolitionism, fired by his background, having been born a slave in the West Indies, and served as a sailor, before becoming a disciple of Thomas Spence. He mingled with the post-Napoleonic underground that launched the abortive Cato Street Conspiracy, besides lecturing and preaching blasphemy and egalitarianism. Others in the same radical scene included Cato Street Conspirator William Davidson.

Much more historical digging is needed here, as there’s almost certainly more fascinating evidence out there on these black abolitionists… Africans who refused to be passive pawns either for slavery and who give the lie to the idea that it was nice white posh people alone who generously ‘freed the slaves.’

Today in London’s theatrical history: Paul Robeson stars as black revolutionary Toussaint Louverture in CLR James play, 1936

“I was tired of hearing that the West Indians were oppressed, that we were black and miserable, that we had been brought from Africa, and that we were living there and that we were being exploited.” (CLR James)

“James’s treatment of ‘the most glorious victory of the oppressed over their oppressors in world history’ will remain an inspiration, because of its universal theme, for the foreseeable future.” (Christian Hogsbjerg)

In 1791, inspired both by the ideals of the French Revolution and the horrors and toil of their existence, slaves on the Caribbean island of San Domingo rose in revolt. For twelve years they fought off the white French masters, and armies from France, Spain and Britain, ultimately founding the independent black republic of Haiti. A number of outstanding military leaders masterminded the war for Haiti’s freedom: most famously, Toussaint L’ouverture, who emerged from the struggle as its most clear thinker and general, though he was betrayed into the hands of the French before the final victory and died in a French prison.

Hollywood, the socialist Paul Foot once noted, ‘made a film about Spartacus, the leader of the Roman slave revolt, because Spartacus was beaten. Toussaint L’Ouverture was victorious, so they haven’t made a film about him’. His being black may have something to do with it…

There may be no Hollywood blockbuster (I’m guessing it’d end up with Matt Damon in blackface anyway), but there is a French TV movie

And there was once a ground-breaking play…

In 1934 the fantastic Trinidadian Marxist polymath CLR James, then living in London, finished writing his play Toussaint L’Ouverture: The Story of the Only Successful Slave Revolt in History. The playscript was long presumed lost, (although James did revise the text in the 1960s), until the rediscovery of a draft copy in 2005. James was to go on to write the classic account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, published in 1938.

Born in Trinidad in 1901, Cyril Lionel Robert James was to become a marxist activist and theorist, leading pan-Africanist, cricket commentator, and cultural thistorian. He had arrived in England in 1932, and became engaged not only in literary challenges to racism, in revolutionary politics and the African and West Indian independence movements, in resistance to fascism… James’s play about a revolutionary leader defeating brutal oppressors was both a historical drama and a response to the news of the day.

Toussaint Louverture was staged on March 15th and 16th 1936 at London’s Westminster Theatre; another black communist, the incredible Paul Robeson, starring in the title role, one of the world’s most famous actors and singers– making it an event of international interest. The League of Coloured Peoples (discussed on this blog the other day), of which James was an active member, helped sponsor the performance. This was the first time black professional actors had starred on the British stage in a play written by a black playwright, and interestingly despite his long acting career and lifelong anti-racist stance, was to be the only time Robeson starred in a play by a writer of African descent. Just the idea of a meeting of the work these two giants of the twentieth century is enough to send shivers down the spine…

James wrote the play in 1934, but it remained unproduced until 1936, when the script came into the hands of Robeson, who had been looking for a chance to portray the Haitian leader on stage. Back in 1926, Robeson had told an interviewer that he dreamed “of a great play about Haiti, a play about Negroes, written by a Negro, and acted by Negroes . . . of a moving drama that will have none of the themes that offer targets for race supremacy advocates.” In 1935 Robeson had even discussed the idea of a film about the Haitian revolt with the great Soviet film director Sergei Eisenstein, who had become fascinated with the Haitian story. Sadly this film never happened (is there an alternative universe where Eisenstein filmed Robeson in James’s play! – imagine…)

For an interesting and detailed description of the plot, themes and staging of he play, it’s worth reading Christian Hogsbjerg’s introduction to his published edition of Toussaint Louverture.

“The cast assembled around Robeson was remarkable, featuring as it did other black professional actors from throughout the African diaspora, including Robert Adams, who played Dessalines. Adams, born in British Guiana, had, like James, been a distinguished schoolteacher who produced and acted in amateur productions before coming to Britain. He had worked with Paul Robeson in Sanders of the River and Midshipman Easy, and in 1935 he made his London stage debut in Stevedore. Also recruited from Stevedore was the Nigerian Orlando Martins, who played the role of Boukman. Black amateur actors—including other veterans of Stevedore, such as John Ahuma, Rufus E. Fennell, and Charles Johnson—were included, while the remaining cast was recruited through the Stage Society itself, many of whom were experienced professional actors or rising stars such as Harry Andrews.

The play was staged at the 730- seat Westminster Theatre, on the fringes of London’s West End in Palace Street. The owner of the Westminster Theatre during this period was A. B. Horne, and it was managed by Anmer Hall. Michael Sidnell notes that Hall learnt that “Sunday performances were a way of getting a hearing for new or neglected plays without going to great expense.” With its quite liberal management, it is not surprising that the Westminster Theatre was a home for the radical Group Theatre, and James’s Toussaint Louverture had followed a series of plays by “the Auden Group,” most notably Auden and Isherwood’s The Dog beneath the Skin. The famous theatre critic Herbert Farjeon noted at the end of the 1930s that “the Westminster Theatre has probably housed during the present decade a higher percentage of interesting plays than any other theatre north of the Thames.” In 1955, the Westminster Theatre produced an all- African play, Freedom, which toured Europe and was filmed in Nigeria in 1956 with a cast of thousands.

Those wishing to see the performance had to pay at least one guinea, the basic annual membership subscription to the Stage Society. As well as the Sunday evening performance on 15 March, there was a matinee the next day, and for this final performance James himself was called upon to step in for Rufus E. Fennell, the actor playing the “small part” of Macoya. “I was in it by accident. . . . I wanted to sit in the back and watch the play . . . not to be mixed up in it. But I dressed myself up and played it.” Overall, though the production went well, James would always remember it was Paul Robeson who stole the show.” As James, interviewed in November 1983, recalled, “The moment he came onto the stage, the whole damn thing changed. It’s not a question of acting . . . the physique and the voice, the spirit behind him—you could see it when he was on stage.”

Reviews were said to be mixed (twould be interesting to know on what grounds – the explicit radical, anti-racist, and anti-imperial message may have coloured the artistic opinions of white reviewers), but by all accounts Robeson’s performance was typically outstanding. The first performance received an ovation. Broadway made noises of interest, and a couple of critics suggested the play would adapt well to screen, though in the end neither a Broadway run or a film materialised.

James was, according to Christian Høgsbjerg, (who discovered the manuscript in the papers of the former trotskyist Jock Haston, a sometime comrade of James in 2005), “acutely conscious of the need to challenge the mythological British nationalist narrative of abolition, one that glorified the role played by British parliamentarians such as Wilberforce. Indeed, in the original version of the playscript C.L.R. James mentioned Wilberforce himself in passing, but then later in a handwritten revision… decided to remove the explicit mention of the abolitionist Tory MP… to help bring home the essential truth about abolition — that it was the enslaved who abolished slavery themselves — to a British audience who would almost certainly be hearing such a truth for the first time.”

The play mingled elements of classic theatre (eg the use of the rebellious slave army as a kind of chorus, in the ancient Greek tradition) – though radically subverted “the final scene of revolutionary history sees what James would in 1963 describe as “the entry of the chorus, of the ex- slaves themselves, as the arbiters of their own fate,” making for an ending to a drama that no Greek tragedian or even someone with the far- reaching imagination of Shakespeare could have envisaged” – with modern alternative theatrical ideas and ideals. The mix of music dance and drama evokes the latest methods in European theatre, like the work of Brecht, while also deliberately echoing African culture.

James portrayal of Toussaint is of a tragic hero, as a revolutionary leader who ends his days in prison, having failed in the end to follow through the struggle to complete independence for Haiti (a task his lieutenants were left to finish), and paid the price for it. Having not begun the slave revolt, but emerged from it and been shaped by it, he became its outstanding strategist and thinker, but didn’t have enough faith in the black rebels’ ability to make their own future. Believing they should make a semi-colonial peace with revolutionary France, in the end he contrasted this with too much faith in the European enlightenment, and was betrayed, captured and imprisoned by the French republic. James was again bringing past, present and theory together in his raw discussion of the ideas of revolutionary leadership, charismatic thinkers and hero-figures, and the ability of the oppressed to shape their own destiny: vital questions then, as in the 1790s, as now…

The story of Haiti’s successful slave revolt is inspiring at any time, but in the 1930s, with almost all of Africa still under the colonial control of white European powers, putting on the play in the heart of what was then the most powerful empire of all was a bold move. The context of the times is crucial – fascism, based securely in the idea of racial hierarchies and white superiority, was rising; Italy had Just invaded Ethiopia (James was also a founder of the International African Friends of Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was then called, and the parallels of Haiti with Ethiopian resistance to Italian invasion were obvious and stark); but also political opposition and revolt against the colonial powers across Africa was beginning to coalesce. This could not ever be seen only as a play about incidents from the past; it was also a clarion call for massive social change from below for in the present and the future. It’s worth noting that the audience very likely included a range of vital figures in the future development of black self-determination across three (if not more) continents, with Pan-African figures as George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, and Eric Williams being part of James’ immediate circle.

As Christian Hogsbjerg points out, the staging of the play also illustrates “the radical counterculture that has always existed in the “dark heart” of the British Empire”, and forms a brief bright illustration of the black radical traditions, leftwing ferment and literary bohemianism which all met and flowered so productively in both James and Robeson. James’ background in the Caribbean added a specific motivation for telling Toussaint’s story (which he had been researching for several years, spurred on by inadequate and racist accounts of Haiti and dismissals of black people as inferior to whites). If the project was “fundamentally inspired by James earlier environment, the colonial Caribbean society in which he was born and grew to intellectual maturity,” (Hogsbjerg) it also reflected how James had evolved politically since he left the West Indies – moving from “a continuing identification with imperial Britain” to a Pan-Africanist viewpoint and then on to Marxism.

But Christian Hogsbjerg also discusses how the staging of the play itself, not just the subject matter, formed both a break and a link with theatre traditions. A link to black West Indian theatre: “Although James’s play has been celebrated as a pioneering production in the history of black British theatre, and an important moment in the history of African and Caribbean theatre, Toussaint Louverture also stands as an outstanding contribution to what the late Trinidadian dramatist and scholar Errol Hill once described as “the revolutionary tradition in black drama,” a “tradition of writing and producing plays that deal directly with black liberation.” This revolutionary tradition dates at least as far back as the Haitian Revolution itself, for after Toussaint seized the power to rule as black Consul in Saint- Domingue, James noted in The Black Jacobins that “the theatres began to play again, and some of the Negro players showed a remarkable talent.”

But also a defiant two fingers to the racially dubious portrayals of black people on the British stage – of ‘nigger minstrels’, or credulous childlike figures needing a white authority figure.

Interestingly, nearly 30 years later, James also adapted his account of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins, into a play:

“James felt the victory of many national liberation movements internationally in the postwar world meant that, as he later recalled, “the idea I was expressing should be differently expressed . . . writing about the struggle for independence in 1956 or 1960 was very different from what it was in 1936.” As James told Reinhard Sander, “After twenty- five years the colonial revolution had made great strides so about that time I began to rewrite it [the play] in view of the new historical happenings.” The play version of The Black Jacobins was first performed at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1967, directed by Lyndersay amid the tumult of civil war to an enthusiastic reception. It has since been staged numerous times, and this later script has necessarily formed the basis of scholarly discussion of “James’s play.” The later play essentially followed the same chronological structure as Toussaint Louverture. There is the same humour, the lively music, drumming ebbing and flowing into the action, and there are still moments of rare dramatic power. Yet by the 1960s James had experienced for himself, in Trinidad with Eric Williams and in Ghana with Kwame Nkrumah, both the excitement and the disappointment generated by movements for colonial liberation in the Caribbean and in Africa. If Toussaint Louverture was about the vindication of national liberation struggles written in the age of colonialism, in The Black Jacobins James and Lyndersay explored what lessons the Haitian Revolution might hold for national liberation struggles in the age of decolonisation.”

Christian Hobsbjerg’s book, which includes the full script of the play, the programme, photographs, and reviews from the 1936 production, a contextual introduction and editorial notes on the play, and selected essays and letters by James and others, is published by Duke University Press. Tis a bit expensive however… 

Have a look at Hogsbjerg’s blog

And you can watch an abridged performance of the play put on by Bowdoin College (Maine, USA) students in November 2014.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s anti-racist history: the League of Coloured Peoples formed, 1931.

The League was a British civil-rights organisation, founded in 1931 to work for racial equality around the world, though in practice its primary focus was black rights in Britain. However it also was involved in other civil-rights issues, such as the persecution of the Jews in Germany.

Harold Moody, a physician and devout Christian, was frustrated with the prejudice he experienced in Britain, from finding employment to simply obtaining a residence. Moody, had moved to London from Kingston, Jamaica, in 1904 to study medicine at King’s College, but met prejudice and exclusion, had trouble finding anywhere to live, and was refused a post in a hospital because a matron “refused to have a coloured doctor working in the hospital… the poor people would not have a nigger to attend them”. Nothing like blaming the poor for your own prejudices. In February 1913, he started his own medical practice in Peckham, South London.

For 30 years Dr Moody helped hundreds of black people who came to him in distress, having experienced at first hand a degrading, or humiliating aspect of the colour bar: finding it hard to get lodgings, or work. Moody would confront the employers and plead powerfully on behalf of those victimised.

He was instrumental in overturning the Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925, a discriminatory measure which sought to restrict subsidies to merchant shipping employing only British nationals and required alien seamen to register with their local police. Many Black and Asian British nationals worked as sailors, but often had no proof of identity and were at risk of being laid off and arrested. Through his involvement with London Christian Endeavour Federation, Moody began to confront employers who were refusing jobs to black Britons.

On 13 March 1931, in a YMCA in Tottenham Court Road, London, Moody called a meeting with the contacts he had made over the years. On this night, they formed The League of Coloured Peoples.

The League had four main aims:

(1) To promote and protect the social, educational, economic and political interests.

(2) To interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world.

(3) To improve relations between the races.

(4) To cooperate and affiliate with organizations sympathetic to coloured people.

In 1937, a fifth aim was added:

  • To render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity.

It was notable, in contrast with some earlier organisations concerned with black civil rights, for its deliberate attempts to become a multi-racial organisation. At the founding meeting Moody stated that he found himself in a position to ‘make representations to government authorities, hospital managements, medical faculties, commercial concerns, factory proprietors, hotel and boarding house keepers and a host of others, not only in his own name and on the basis of his own status and reputation, but in the name of all the coloured peoples in Britain’ . Moody attempted to work at a high level, corresponding with, lobbying and meeting with Colonial Secretaries to push the League’s campaigns.

The League’s inaugural executive committee of included:

  • C. Belfield Clark of Barbados
  • George Roberts of Trinidad
  • Sam Morris of Grenada
  • Robert Adams of British Guiana
  • Desmond Buckle of The Gold Coast

Also present at the inaugural meeting was Stella Thomas, who would go on to become the first woman magistrate in West Africa.

Other prominent members included West Indian Marxist  C. L. R. James, Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya) and Jamaican writer, feminist, activist, (and first black woman producer at the BBC) Una Marson.

In 1933, the League began publication of the civil-rights journal The Keys.

The League worked in alliance with a wide variety of people – pan-Africanists, race rights groups, the Colonial Office, and pressure groups in the various colonies.

From the League’s founding, its main focus was eliminating the colour bar in the British workplace, in social life, and in housing. Throughout Britain in the 1930s, black people found it extremely difficult to find a job in many industries, and were refused service or access in many restaurants, hotels, and lodging houses, and also. During the 1930s, The League of Coloured Peoples struck many blows for blacks in the workplace. Given Moody’s own experiences racial discrimination in the medical profession in particular drew the attention of the league. By 1935, a branch of the league focusing on equality in the shipping industry had grown to over 80 members.

During the Second World War the LCP continued to highlight discrimination. For instance, authorities organising the evacuation of children from big cities towns struggled to find families who would accept to take in coloured children, and the LCP lobbied against this sort of discrimination.

While relatively small – the organisation never exceeded 500 members, and in 1936 it only had 262 – it was able to command press attention and exposure.

But apart from the opposition the Moody encountered from those who considered whites superior to other races, he also had his critics from other directions… Most notably he came under fire for his initial policy of refusing black people from Asia from joining the League of Coloured Peoples – despite the fact that he did allow white people to join (though they were barred from the executive committee). Moody and a number of other League members felt that ‘coloured peoples’ meant ‘the Negro Race, particularly those in Africa and the West Indies and under the rule of Great Britain. However, others, including some members of the League executive, asserted that the organisation should accept Indians as members and ‘engage in conflict with the British Government on their behalf’. This issue became hotly debated, especially given the League’s particular links to and activity around Britain’s West Indian colonies, since the Caribbean islands had a large Asian population – 43% of the population of British Guiana were Indian, for example. Eventually the policy changed.

But others criticised Moody’s work from a leftwing perspective, as pandering to imperialism. Moody’s campaigning was very much oriented to a ‘loyal’ perspective to the British Empire, reflecting his middle class background in colonial Jamaica. Education was very much aimed at infusing a cultural imperialism, a respect for British culture and a sense of black West Indians as British subjects, with deep affiliation to the Empire’s institutions. While Moody’s and the League’s conceptions of British identity, racial equality, challenged the dominant idea that ‘true’ Britons were, by definition, white, their worldview was firmly based in a vision of a British identity, “invoking an imperial British identity that drew on widely accepted elements of Britishness, namely respectability and imperial pride.”

Its undoubtedly true that by framing their work this way the League was able to gain support from black colonials and white English people in its fight for equality that a more radical or anti-imperialist perspective would have threatened. But it has also been suggested that merely challenging the assumption of the British identity as being white was in itself a challenge to the very idea of this identity. The racial superiority of ‘whites’ was a crucial plank in the imperial project, central to the administration and suppression of the colonies; compounded by both class and gender hierarchies that effectively defined “the true Briton as white, male and middle-class.”

Opposed to this the League put up a conception of Britishness rooted in common cultural values, based on the ideas of equality, fair play and justice: concepts that great numbers of middle-class white folk liked to see in themselves and liked to believe lay at the core of the British Empire.

Moody was himself staunchly opposed to socialism and communism, overtly expressing the idea that black poor would turn to communism unless there were concessions on the colour bar and racism… Left-wing political groups criticised Moody as an “Uncle Tom” and under the control of his “imperialist masters”; Pan-Africanists, many influenced by Marxism, noted the absence of any analysis of class from the League (while co-operating with it on its equal rights campaigns).

Dr Moody died in 1947 at the age of 64, somewhat worn out by his efforts with the League. The League of Coloured Peoples dissolved four years later, in 1951.

Read more:
Reversing the Gaze: Wasu, The Keys and The Black Man on Europe and Western Civilization in the Interwar Years, 1933-1937, an interesting study of The Keys, the league’s journal, with other black publications coming out of London in the same period.


An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s radical history: Black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn disputes with utopian socialist Robert Owen, (maybe), 1817.

As I have said before, this blog is mainly not written by professional historians (more like talentless amateurs); we are interested in events, ideas, social struggles and rebellious personalities of the past, and try to spread what we learn, often as we learn it. Partly for inspiration, partly as it links to our own experiences, partly to keep memories alive. We don’t claim to be especially original, or even very dedicated in our research; to some extent we don’t have time.

Bearing that in mind, we freely admit that this post contains serious gaps, where we haven’t really had a chance to dig deep to discover what some might consider crucial facts. Because the personalities and ideas involved are interesting to us, here it is anyway. If anyone reading this knows more about the subject of this post, or where to find out more, we’d love to hear from them…

We start with a picture: the image above, which shows black anti-slavery activist, radical agitator, insurrectionist, and blasphemous preacher Robert Wedderburn, climbing onto a platform to argue with utopian socialist Robert Owen.

Despite some investigation, it’s uncertain to us whether this confrontation actually took place or not, or is a representation of an argument that took place in the pages of the radical press… If it did take place, it seems likely was either on the 21st of August 1817, during one of Robert Owen’s public meetings at the London Tavern, in Bishopsgate (the site today occupied by Nos 1-3 Bishopsgate).

Owen was touring the country propagating his ideas in a widely publicised series of public meetings, including a series of celebrated meetings at the City of London tavern in August 1817. A well-attended public meeting on the 14th had been ‘adjourned’ and re-assembled on the 21st.

Robert Owen had risen from artisan beginnings to become first the manager of succession of cotton mills in Manchester, before he found fame running the New Lanark mills in Scotland. Intelligent, self-taught (and somewhat convinced of his own importance) Owen turned New Lanark into a model factory and model village: the 1,300 workmen and their families and between 400 and 500 pauper children were made to adopt new living, working, sanitary, educational and other standards. Under his new regime, conditions in the factory were clean and children and women worked relatively short hours: a 12 hour day including 1½ hours for meals. He employed no children under 10 years old. He provided decent houses, sanitation, shops and so on for the workers, a school for the children (as long as the parents could afford for them not to work). He gave rewards for cleanliness and good behaviour and mainly by his own personal influence encouraged the people in habits of order, cleanliness, and thrift.

New Lanark’s factory and village became famous and by Owen’s count between 1814 and 1824 about 2,000 visitors a year came to observe what he had created.

Owen is often called ‘the father of English socialism’. He is also referred to as a utopian socialist, which is not inappropriate, in that like More’s Utopia, his vision of the ideal society was of an order imposed from above on a people who needed to be told how to live. In his view social change meant trying to create a changed working man. Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual’s personal environment. He reasoned that since character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness. The environment at New Lanark, where he tried out his ideas, reflected this philosophy. But Owen was intolerant of criticism from below, becoming increasingly dogmatic and coming to regard himself as a prophet and visionary. He was more devoted to his ideals than to any human being and had a greater love for mankind in the mass than for any individual.

“the persons under him happen to be white, and are at liberty by law to quit his service, but while they remain in it they are as much under his management as so many negro slaves…” (Robert Southey, Journal of a Tour of Scotland in 1819)

Owen’s conception of socialism was a society based on a network of ‘Villages of Mutual Co-operation’, which he put began to put into practice in his US utopian colony’ New Harmony in 1825. French utopian socialist Fourier called his similar concept a ‘phalanstery’. Based on the practical developments of New Lanark, the villages were to be the “kernel of a rural community which would be self-sufficient through agricultural and manufacturing produce, a monumental square of terraced housing within which a green, tree-filled space was interspersed with communal buildings – schools, kitchens and a library. Radiating outwards in successive belts were the phalanstery gardens, manufacturing buildings screened by trees, and agricultural land…”

The village or phalanstery would organise labourers and poor people without work into communes of 1000-1200 people, either working in agriculture or in manufacturing; their labour would guarantee them “an ample supply of the necessities and comforts of life”. In addition an important element of the ethos of his communes was to be education in mutual co-operation, moral training and “economy in the lodging and living of people”. While the ethos of a “population united through ideological commitment” would be central to the project, Owen always saw the workforce in these ‘deal communities’ to be a passive mass, motivated by the need to survive. Just as at New Lanark he had run the mills as a “benevolent dictator”, each village would be directed by a Superintendent. His vision was always of a better world brought in from the top down, not created by the occupants of the communes themself. As he wrote in 1816, he believed that “Human character is often formed FOR, and not BY, the individual.” Since human character was the basis of social change as he saw it, he proposed to mould human character, removing the power to change the world from most of the humans involved. In reality, rather than being a utopian socialist, Owen was an originator of a strand of benevolent capitalism.

Owen always saw his socialism as preventing social upheaval and disorder, exerting control by ensuring “a population socialsied into dependence on capitalist benevolence”: “The people were slaves at my mercy; kiabke at any time to be dismissed, and knowing that, in that case, they must go into misery, compared with such limited happiness as they now enjoyed.” Thanks Rob!

An unsympathetic commentator (not a radical) remarked that this was “not far removed from a well-regulated parish workhouse”. Which is ironic, as Owen’s ideas bore fruit in many capitalist enterprises in the succeeding decades. While traditionally Owen’s greatest effect was seen to be his influence on the co-operative movements that spread out in the mid-19th century, the lessons of new Lanark and Owen’s ideas of ‘moral management’ can also be seen in the utilitarians’ developments of social control through architecture, surveillance and, benevolence and force (or at least pressure) mingled together. ‘Enlightened’ employers adopted Owen’s model in their plans for benevolent capitalist model villages like Saltaire; utilitarians drew up plans for coercive insitituions like asylums and prison, but with an eye to Owen’s model. Later still, Owen’s carrot and stick blueprint, the offer of better conditions for those wiling to submit to moral and behaviourial oversight was also integrated into the beginnings of social housing, the model dwellings… Into the 20th century and utopian architects were still drawing up plans for ideal communities in tower blocks.

Ironically, however, in 1817, and for much of his life, Owen’s plans were never taken seriously enough by many of the men of substance he hoped to attract to his scheme. Some because of their initial cost and because they might simply increase the number of unemployed poor by encouraging those already in that condition to have more children. Owen also made ‘a vigorous denunciation of religion’ as part of his address at the meetings, and also questioned the role of the traditional family; this in fact probably alienated more potential supporters, both among the movers and shakers that Owen concentrated on, and among the working class. Christianity was still fundamentally crucial to the daily life of most of the people of Britain (and beyond), drummed into all from an early age, (and if not always enforced, it was still then compulsory to attend church). If people thought Owen’s communes impractical or expensive, attacking religion was seriously shocking. On a purely tactical level, Owen had blundered by bringing god into it- but tactics were never Owen’s strongpoint.

Robert Wedderburn’s bone of contention seems not to have been primarily with Owen’s religious views though. Born in Jamaica, his father a white owner, his mother a slave, raped by his father and then sold after his birth… An ex-sailor, who arrived in London in time to take part in the Gordon Riots, he became a Methodist street preacher, but developed a fierce millenarian radical voice. He became a follower of communist Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the enclosures of the commons in England. Spence was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs, tracts, pamphlets and periodicals; under his influence Wedderburn became a provocative and blasphemous publisher and agitator, founding a chapel in Soho where tumultuous meetings and theatricals were held… did time in Cold Bath Fields, Dorchester, and Giltspur Street Prisons for theft, blasphemy, and keeping a bawdy house.

He plotted revolution with radicals, former soldiers, and probably narrowly escaped joining his comrades the Cato Street Conspirators on the gallows… His most transcendental activity was publishing his Axe Laid to the Root, powerfully linking the suffering of African slaves in the colonies to the privations felt by the British working class during the establishment of capitalism, and identifying the overthrow of slavery and capitalism as one and the same. A beguiling, harrowing and intensely inspiring figure, Wedderburn represented everything about social change from below that Owen tried to control – insurgent, enraged and apocalyptic.

But did Wedderburn really intervene physically to attack Owen’s ideas? Is the image of him rising to challenge Owen on the stage a drawing from life? He certainly did in print, publishing a letter in the Forlorn Hope warning Owen that “the lower classes are pretty well convinced that he is the tool of the landholders to divert the attention of the public from contemplating on the obstinacy and ignorance of their governors.”

Perceptive, seeing the intimate connections that underlay the daily experience of the poor, knowing unlike Owen that the liberation he desperately saw was needed can only be created by our own hands, from below… Wedderburn hits the nail on the head. He wasn’t alone in suspecting Owen’s doctrines – for the next 40 years, through the early history of co-operation, Owen’s flirtation with trade unionism in the 1830s, and his increasingly wacked out later career, Owen’s dictatorial and messianic approach would divide and alienate even his followers.

This article owes much to Patrick Eyres, Et in Utopia Ego: Social Control: the architectural legacy of Robert Owen, explored through the model villages of Saltaire and Quarry Hill, published in the magnificent New Arcadian Journal (no 28).

For more on the brilliant Robert Wedderburn, a good start is chapter in Peter Linebaugh, The Many Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, or Iain McCalman, Radical Underworld, Prophets, Revolutionaries, and Pornographers in London, 1795-1840.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: Black communist Paul Robeson speaks & sings at anti-nuclear rally, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

“Shall we have atom bombs and hydrogen bombs… the hellish destruction of men, women and children… or shall we have peace in the world?”
Paul Robeson, Trafalgar Square, 1959.

On 28th June 1959, 10,000 demonstrators marched to Trafalgar Square from Hyde Park for a rally against the use and development of nuclear weapons. The procession was made up of groups and trade unionists and peace organizations and left-wing political groups.

There were a number of speakers: the most famous was Paul Robeson, the black American singer and actor, internationally renowned, a campaigner for civil rights and international peace. He was confined to the US in 1950, so that he would not be able to speak out abroad about civil rights issues in the United States and his passport was not returned to him until 1958. He ended his speech with a song, “delighting the demonstrators by ending with his beautiful singing voice rolling out across the hushed crowd and passers-by.”

We aren’t generally into Soviet nostalgia, and have many reservations about many Communist Party fellow travellers, being anti-state communists or thereabouts. However Robeson, like Woody Guthrie, transcended the genre into a whole different stratosphere. A favourite evocative image related to him is when he sang at an outdoor concert for more than 25,000 people (estimates range as high as 45,000) gathered on both sides of the United States/Canadian border at Peace Arch Park in Blaine, when he was banned from travelling outside the States. An anti-racist rendering literally rendering nations and their borders irrelevant, if only for a moment… thinking about it makes my fingers tingle and my heart soar. Worth a mention this week, post-Brexit vote, with racism and nationalism on the rise, and borders going up in many hearts.

“The extraordinarily multitalented Robeson was not only a world-famous singer and actor, but became a political activist during his peak performing years. Robeson’s father, a runaway slave who became a minister in Princeton, New Jersey, exerted a strong influence on the young Robeson, instilling in him a quiet dignity, a love for African-American culture, and an all-embracing humanism.

An outstanding scholar-athlete at Rutgers University in 1915-19, Robeson went on to become one of the world’s leading concert singers, stage actors, and film stars in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. During the period 1927-39, when he was based in London, his artistic growth led him to study world cultures and to support social and political movements. He sang concerts to benefit trade unions, especially the Welsh coal-miners’ union, and he came to see the connection between the struggles of the British working class and those of the oppressed colonial peoples. Robeson was introduced to socialist ideas through his friendship with George Bernard Shaw and his acquaintanceship with several leaders of the British Labour Party. As a result, Robeson studied the classic Marxist writings and became attracted to the basic premises of communism.

In the early 1930s Robeson met many African students in London and developed a deep appreciation of the close links between the African and African-American cultures, learning several African languages. He also met Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru of India, with whom he formed a lasting friendship. Prompted by the desire to extend his artistic range, Robeson studied many other languages and cultures throughout the 1930s and 1940s, mastering Russian, Chinese, Hebrew, and most European languages. This focus on the centrality of culture went hand-in-hand with Robeson’s increasing radicalism – a duality that continued for the remainder of his career.

Robeson responded to the rise of German fascism by becoming one of the world’s leading antifascists. Invited to the Soviet Union in 1934 by Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, Robeson was almost assaulted by Nazi storm troopers in Berlin as he changed trains on his way to Moscow. In the USSR he was deeply impressed by the lack of racial prejudice and by flourishing diverse cultures in the Soviet republics. These experiences and the communist leadership of the worldwide antifascist and anti-colonialist struggles were the basis of his unwavering support for the Soviet people in their attempts to build socialism. The fact that Robeson viewed the Soviet Union and the world communist movement as reliable allies of the colonial liberation movements led him to form a close alliance with Communists despite his private misgivings about the Stalinist purges of 1936-38 and his disagreement with the Communist Left’s exaggerated emphasis on class priorities over “nationalist” priorities in the Third World.

In 1938 Robeson demonstrated his commitment to the fight against fascism by going to Spain to sing and speak in support of the Spanish Republic in its civil war against General Francisco Franco’s fascist rebellion. The profound effect this experience had on Robeson’s radicalisation was reflected in his dramatic statement at that lime: “The artist must elect to fight for freedom or for slavery. I have made my choice; I had no alternative.” By 1939, Robeson was a key figure symbolising on a world scale the unity of the antifascist and anti-colonial struggles.

In the fall of 1939 Robeson returned from England to the United States, where he continued his highly successful concert and theatre career while simultaneously becoming a leader of the civil rights movement and a spokesman for left-wing causes. He was the first major performing artist to refuse to perform for segregated audiences and to lead voter registration campaigns in the Deep South. Robeson also played an important role in support of the union-organising drive of the CIO in the early 1940s, and in bringing black workers into the unions.

In 1946 Robeson challenged President Harry S Truman’s refusal to sponsor legislation against lynching by telling him that in the absence of federal protection blacks would exercise their right of armed self-defence. An opponent of the Cold War from its inception, Robeson attended a world peace conference in Paris in 1949 and expressed the view that black Americans should not fight an aggressive war against the Soviet Union on behalf of their own oppressors. In the wake of those remarks, the U.S. government and the media launched an attack of unprecedented ferocity against Robeson that lasted for nine years.

Robeson’s passport was revoked in 1950 and was not restored until 1958. Inquiries under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and numerous other U.S. government agencies compiled tens of thousands of documents on Robeson and illegally harassed him over a period of more than twenty years. Robeson was also blacklisted in the entertainment industry and prevented from appearing in professional engagements until 1957. Despite this persecution, Robeson continued to sing and speak in black churches and in the halls of the few surviving left-wing trade unions. He also wrote a book titled Here I Stand in collaboration with the black writer and journalist Lloyd I. Brown in which he outlined the program and strategy subsequently adopted by the civil rights movement and foretold the advent of the movement for economic justice.

During the anticommunist witch-hunts of the late 1940s and the 1950s, Robeson defended the rights of Communists and defied congressional committees when they compelled him to testify before them. Although he was not a member of the Communist Party, he refused on constitutional grounds to answer any questions concerning Party membership or affiliation.

Robeson remained publicly neutral concerning the USSR-China rift that began in the late 1950s, maintaining his cordial relations with both countries, and expressed no opinion about Nikita Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 denouncing Stalin’s crimes However, Robeson’s political attitude on these issues was conveyed indirectly by his personal friendship with Khrushchev and his enthusiastic support of Khrushchev’s domestic and foreign-policy reforms.

In 1958 Robeson’s passport was restored on the basis of a Supreme Court decision, and he traveled abroad for five years to reestablish his artistic career. After a successful comeback, Robeson became ill with circulatory disease, and in 1963 he returned to the United States to retire. Contrary to the claims of the media, Robeson was not disillusioned or embittered. As he put it in 1973, three years before his death from a stroke: “Though ill health has compelled my retirement, you can be sure that in my heart I go on singing.” Drawing upon lyrics he had made world famous, he continued, “I must keep laughing instead of crying, I must keep fighting until I’m dying, and Ol’ Man River, he just keeps rolling along.”

We stole this from here

Sometimes we nick things because they say we wanted to say, better than we could, and to be honest sometimes because we just run out of energy. Posting (nearly) every day is a bit exhausting, when you have to get the kids out of bed and to school and slope off to work as well. We’re not historians, just talentless amateurs. So if we aren’t always totally original, we apologise…


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: black colonists embark in disastrous Sierra Leone scheme, 1787

The Sierra Leone Scheme – a shameful attempt to deport black people, or a charitable attempt to promote self-reliance? A bit of both…

From the 1590s (when queen Elizabeth I ordered all black people deported from England), to the 1780s, to the 1980s – black people living in the UK have largely been labeled a ‘problem’ to be ‘dealt with’ by the authorities. But schemes to ‘send them back’ didn’t begin with the National Front in the 1970s…

In the 1780s, with the slave trade still going strong between Britain and the West Indies, making huge profits for the traders, plantation owners and merchants (contributing to the massive wealth of the City of London and other financial and shipping centres), the British government was faced with a problem. Early advocates of the abolition of the slave trade had focused on the legality of importing slaves to England, and had managed to force Chief Justice Lord Mansfield into the 1772 Somerset judgment, making it unlawful to transport a slave to Britain.

As a result, black people already here, and those arriving here, began to believe themselves to be free, and many became de facto free. Growing numbers of black people also began congregating in Britain after many had to flee the new United States, having been persuaded to side with loyalists against independence, in the hope of being granted freedom.

There were also increasing large numbers of ex-sailors, runaway slaves, and former servants. Many of these ended up in London, and living in extreme poverty in the slums and rookeries, many inevitably taking to crime, begging and violence to survive. One such group, known as the St Giles Blackbirds, lived around the infamous St Giles Rookery. No doubt fears were also stoked by the numbers of blacks said to be involved in the 1780 Gordon Riots (at least two prominent black leaders were hanged in the days following this uprising.) These were the days of the earliest theorists of racial segregation and the sub-humanity of some races… A growing number of black residents, inter-marriage, involvement in crime and rebellion… The Enoch Powells of the day were frothing.

No-one was entirely sure how many black people there were in London in the mid-1780s, but all nervous government officials and concerned charitable souls could see was a problem that needed ‘fixing’ – by any means necessary…
After some philanthropists discovered the plight of the black poor and commenced the concerted effort to aid them, the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor was set up, which (later shortened to the Committee for the Black Poor) distributed food each day at two public houses and opened a ‘hospital’ to care for the sick among them. The more seriously ill, like Jonathan Strong in 1765, were sent to St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The Committee also helped those who wished to return to sea or to other countries if not born in Britain.

Partly from the charitable activities of the Committee and their supporters, a possible solution to black poverty in England arose, which came to be supported by the government, the philanthropists and the poor themselves – but from wholly different motives, which was in the end to doom the scheme to disaster. They could leave Britain, individually or en masse, and try to make a go of it somewhere else.
The government, delighted to help them leave, contributed enormous sums of money to sustain them before, during and after their departure. Racism and a certain amount of xenophobia contributed to their position too.
The Committee for the Black Poor had truly charitable concerns and wanted to keep them from literally living and dying on the streets.
Black people themselves wanted to find a place where they could establish a working community and support themselves independently. While some of them could see the government’s motives were not entirely benign, anything (apart from slavery) was better than starvation and the opportunity to found a colony seemed a heaven-sent solution.

Initially the Committee’s and the government’s planned to found a black colony in sending the people to Nova Scotia, Canada. After this fell through, in 1786 a man named Henry Smeathman stepped into the picture; a businessman and botanist, he offered a vision of a self-sufficient and lucrative African colony, which delighted the Committee; he had lived on the west coast of Africa and claimed it was entirely habitable, which was of prime importance to those blacks who read his proposal when it was distributed later that year in the form of a handbill. In short, he told everyone what they most wanted to hear.

Smeathman sent a memorandum to the Lords Commissioners of His Majesty’s Treasury offering his scheme as the way to help rid the country of a problem, to prevent the assimilation of coloured persons into English society, but in a humane way. Smeathman’s proposal was to transport the black poor would to Sierra Leone, given three months of provisions, clothing, bedding, tools and medicine. Once there they would build housing and become self-sufficient, and quickly begin to supply Britain with various raw materials. He worked out the plan in enormous detail, listing in detail all the clothes, food, supplies, medicines etc. that would be needed. However he lied about the climate of Sierra Leone, relations with local chiefs, dangers from continued slaving ships, and more…

In their haste to accept such a relatively straightforward solution to the ‘problem’ of the black poor, neither the Committee nor the government did much investigating. Had they done so they would have discovered two important facts: first, that Smeathman himself had testified to a government commission only one year earlier that the climate of Sierra Leone was so deadly that if a convict station were set up there one hundred would die each month; and second, that he and his associates intended to establish a profit-making estate there by using slave labour. The black poor were being ushered into a deadly trap; but honest anti-slavery activists and philanthropists were happy to believe him, and the government may have colluded, not caring how the ‘problem’ disappeared. In the government’s desperation to fill the ships and have them sail, they greedily hoped to ship more problematic poor folk out. Not only had a number of unwilling blacks been rounded up and forced on board, but a number of white prostitutes had been made drunk and taken on board. A number awakened on board ship to discover that they had been married to black men the night before and were now to be transported to Africa with their new husbands. Certainly the London authorities had been given carte blanche to rid the city of ‘undesirables’ such as poor blacks and prostitutes.

Large numbers of poor black folk volunteered to join the colony; others were more or less coerced. Persuasion was starting to meet with grave doubts among London’s blacks, who feared being targeted by slavers once in Africa… The longer the plan went forward, more and more potential recruits fell prey to doubts or demanded better preparations and support. Angry sermonising, gold-pavemented lies about the land intended for them, bribery and arresting them for bribery were used to push reluctant colonists into signing up. The poverty, sickness of the future settlers handicapped the plan from the start; it was almost ended before it was begun by the death of Henry Smeathman himself, in July 1786.

It would have been better for the colonists if his scheme had died with him. But although alternative plans came u for other sites for the colony, a number of the black Londoners chosen to lead the expedition decided to stick by Smeathman’s plan, unaware that it was based on fantasy. They petitioned the Committee for the Black Poor to carry it through; the Committee pressed the Treasury, and doubts about the African coast were submerged…

At this point the Committee for the Relief of the Black Poor appointed a black man, Olaudah Equiano, known in England as Gustavus Vassa, to act as Commissary for the expedition. His job was to supervise the preparations as well as act as an intermediary between the settlers, Committee and government. He willingly took on the job, unaware of the enormous frustrations and dangers that accompanied it. Equiano had been born in Africa, taken as a slave when a child, served on board ships and had ultimately freed himself and come to England, where he became an anti-slavery activist, writer and pubic speaker. He had toured the country speaking at abolitionist meetings, met with radicals and lived with democrats (he shared a house with Thomas Hardy, founder of the London Corresponding Society), and would write his autobiography in 1789.

When Equiano arrived in London after a trip to Philadelphia in August of 1786, he learned of Smeathman’s plan. Far from seeing it as an opportunity to rid Britain of unwanted aliens, he pronounced himself ‘agreeably surprised that the benevolence of government had adopted the plan of some philanthropic individuals’. With his combination of fierce abolitionism and enthusiastic mercantilism, he believed the plan offered independence to the settlers and the possibility for England to develop commerce with Africa in goods rather than people. He was acquainted with some members of the Committee, and they approached him to take on the role of superintendent. At their recommendation, and after several interviews, the Navy Board appointed him Commissary and put him in charge of making sure all supplies were provided and loaded as ordered.

Thrilled not only by the government’s recognition but by the opportunity to assist fellow former slaves, he outfitted himself at his own expense and threw himself into the execution of his duties. But he was an honest and scrupulous champion of his own people, and he soon suspected the shortcomings of the expedition, noted the inadequacy of the supplies, and argued against the methods of recruitment. He wrote to friends that he suspected the colonists would be used “as they are in the West Indies” and betrayed into slavery or death. His attempts to improve conditions on board the ships preparing to embark for Africa, and for the future of the enlisted, resulted in him being accused of stirring them up to resist and cause trouble. In the end, although the Navy Board found he had acted in good faith, he was sacked; but the scheme went ahead.

After these disasters, the government stepped up the pace of the resettlement. With the eventual departure of the three transport ships in spring 1787, many believed that the unwanted black people of Britain had finally sailed away.

A great deal of energy had gone into getting the black poor on board ships and out of England, but very little had gone into arranging a sustainable life for them once they arrived in Africa. But the inhospitable climate, poverty, bad preparations, disease took their toll almost immediately. Of those who set sail from Plymouth, only two-thirds survived the first three months.

A number of white men sent to ‘guide’ the colony fared much better than the black settlers, mainly because of their orders to sleep on board and do no manual labour. They were given Canary wine, a supposed restorative. The settlers on the other hand had salt food and rum, slept in soggy tents, and many fell ill and died. As they became more and more discouraged—and were labelled as ‘vicious, drunken and lawless, unfit to colonize’ by the whites—they grew less and less willing to obey their orders. Even the gardener and the seeds sent along to assist them died, and when they tried to cultivate at the end of the rains they found nothing would grow. They moved to better ground but had to barter the government-sent stores for rice to prevent starvation, and were blamed for this also. The white leaders abandoned the settlement, and many settlers also began to leave, ‘drifting away to work on passing ships or for neighbouring slave-traders’. By March 1788 only 130 black settlers were left; the rest had either died or run off.

Further problems came in the shape of the continuing slave trade. Slave ships did not like having this independent black community in their slaving territory, and their captains and crews sometimes captured settlers. The settlers retaliated by tracking down and punishing the kidnappers, infuriating the captains and leading them to encourage another local leader, known as King Jimmy, to oppose them. When Americans kidnapped some of King Jimmy’s people, he killed three Americans and sold the boat. The settlers, far from living in the safe and hospitable environment described by Smeathman, were in a near war zone full of local arguments and battles for power, with nearly everyone resenting their presence. An English ship, the HMS Pomona, was sent to protect them, but its captain, Henry Savage, watched from the deck as the settlement was attacked, going ashore only to bury the dead. He refused the settlers’ pleas to carry them to safety, and sailed away on 3 December. Three days later Granville Town was burned down. Relief did not arrive for nearly a year, until January 1791.

The Colony’s problems persisted, and continued attempts to prop it up or prolong its life failed miserably. It was only the efforts of black activists and anti-slavery abolitionists, which managed to establish another colony in Sierra Leone, mainly consisting of blacks previously settled in Nova Scotia, in 1793. This was the beginning of the modern country of Sierra Leone.


An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online