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Lest They Forget

'Remembered' is an edited collection of 30 essays (ed. by Jak Beula & Nairobi Thompson) which tell the story of African and Caribbean service personnel in the two world wars, the regiments to which they belonged, and their experiences in the Armed Forces and in civil society in colonial Britain.

The last chapter in the book, Lest They Forget, is by Professor Gus John and is reproduced here.

The book was launched to coincide with the unveiling of the war memorial.

Est. read time: 21 min


Lest They Forget
Africans Serving Under the British Flag in Two World Wars

Semper in faecibus sumus, solum profundum variat

“A luta continua… … A vitória é certa”

The relationship between Africa, the African Diaspora and Europe, the British Empire and post-imperial Britain in particular, could be compared to a coin on which the above inscriptions are written. On one side, Semper in faecibus sumus, solum profundum variat: We are always in the faeces, the depth alone varies. On the reverse side: “A luta continua… … A vitória é certa”: the struggle continues….Victory is certain. The first is of disputed provenance, the second the title of a 1971 film by Bob Van Lierop about the Mozambique people’s armed struggle against Portuguese colonialism. It would later become the rallying cry of the Southern African liberation movement, in Mozambique and Angola especially, and of resistance movements elsewhere.

Africa remains weak, divided, self-immolating, ecologically vulnerable and open for relentless capitalist exploitation and new waves of colonialism. The African Union reflects the weakness and impotence of a continent that was the cradle of civilisation and remains rich in the assets the rest of the world craves for its own development.

Writing in The Africa Report 2016 about the tenure of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Chairperson of the African Union, Professor Stephen Chan of the School of Oriental and African Studies observed:

The AU is meant to be an African organisation for Africa. But, half way through her term, 95% of the peace and security budget, indeed half of the AU’s total annual budget of $278m, was funded by external donors…
And one concentrated organisation is capable at least of an effort to reform itself and to do things like peacekeeping in a proper way. The estimate of two million deaths in the wars of eastern DRC are a heavy stain on an organisation that has not prevented them or negotiated even an uneasy stability in the region.

DRC, Mali, Central African Republic, South Sudan, Libya are conflicts which have tested the African Union to the core and which point inexorably to the futility of having an African Union in this globalised geo-political environment without a union of African states, or as the Pan Africanist Movement has longed called for, a United States of Africa.

Meanwhile, while the USA, Britain, China, India and countries in the European Union are seeking to have economic dominance in Africa and the leverage that gives them in world economic and political affairs, thousands of Africans are dying in the Mediterranean Sea, others are being enslaved and sold as chattels in Libya and murdered in India – a country with a caste and class system, with all its tiers of social hierarchy, that condemns 170 million Dalits to a life of servitude and dehumanisation, denying them fundamental human rights, a country that could hardly be expected to welcome black Africans, especially those who are not seen to be at the zenith of the class and caste structure in their own countries.

Towards the end of the 19th century, Europe targeted Africa for its vast array of natural resources in order to sustain and expand industrialisation at home and establish markets for their own factory produced goods. They were able to draw upon the experience of exploiting enslaved Africans as chattel labour on plantations in the West Indies and using the products of their labours to create employment for an expanding working class at home and sell goods back to ‘the colonies’. Many of those islands changed hands several times as Great Britain, Spain and France fought for ownership of them and their potential for generating wealth for their nation state.

Similar conflicts were erupting in Africa as European states scrambled to acquire and plant their national flag on African territory:

Inevitably, the scramble for territory led to conflict among European powers, particularly between the British and French in West Africa; Egypt, the Portuguese, and British in East Africa; and the French and King Leopold II in central Africa. Rivalry between Great Britain and France led Bismarck to intervene, and in late 1884 he called a meeting of European powers in Berlin. In the subsequent meetings, Great Britain, France, Germany, Portugal, and King Leopold II negotiated their claims to African territory, which were then formalized and mapped…… Neither the Berlin Conference itself nor the framework for future negotiations provided any say for the peoples of Africa over the partitioning of their homelands.

But, ever since the 18th century, imperial Britain pressed into military service Africans from the continent as well as those who had been sold into slavery in the West Indies:
The (WIR) West India Regiment was a British infantry regiment which was formed in the year 1795. The forces were made up predominantly of recruits from Britain, with a small number of other Europeans, West Indians and some colonies of the Caribbean between 1795 to 1927. The original intention was the recruitment of free blacks along with purchased slaves from the West Indian plantations.

By the outbreak of war in 1914, however, many West Indians were volunteering to serve. The British West Indies Regiment was formed in 1915 and some 16,000 men from the West Indies saw active service in West and East Africa, Palestine, Italy and on the Western Front. The casualty toll among them was huge and a further 5,000 volunteers later joined the regiment.

Despite the fact that local colonial legislatures, with the active support of the media, encouraged people to join up in defence of King and Country as their patriotic duty and notwithstanding the dangerous work African infantry were put to do, they suffered massive discrimination on account of race and class. That experience led many of them to demand that the government and media in their home country come clean with potential recruits and volunteers about the level of racism that they were actually encountering in the Regiment.

Although they were giving their lives in huge numbers in a war that did not concern them and in far flung places that they hardly knew existed, their white counterparts were insistent that they should not assume parity with them simply because they faced death together and were serving under the same imperialist flag.

That experience emboldened them to agitate for human rights and self determination in their respective countries and throughout the colonies. At the end of the War, some of those who returned to their home countries were able to join the protests of sections of the population who had opposed recruitment on the grounds that it was ‘a white man’s war’ and therefore Africans had no business getting involved in it.

The way in which the colonial government in their home countries treated returning soldiers after demobilisation and even worse, those who had been discharged on account of injury or for being unfit for service, itself gave rise to feelings of betrayal. A lack of compensation and the absence of welfare support for ex-service personnel gave rise to deep resentment and an ever deeper understanding of imperialism, colonialism and the racism spawned by them.

Many of those who had gone to war as willing patriots returned as agitators for an end to colonial rule and the stratification and discrimination on account of race and class that laid at the foundations of the colonial state.

But, they did not meet a vacuum.

A Luta Continua

The struggle for bread and for justice and against colonial rule that had been sustained in most countries in the West Indies since the beginning of the 20th century had gained momentum through the political activities of workers demanding better wages and working conditions and through the growth of an African nationalist movement that was inspired by Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Returning service personnel were able to make common cause with that workers and anti-colonialist movement and challenge the image of the Motherland that local colonial administrators, including the Church and the schooling and education system, were relentlessly projecting. By the time the Labour and national independence struggles of the 1930s erupted, therefore, there was a more organised and informed workers movement in most of the islands with the power and confidence to disrupt the interests of the colonial governments and their absentee beneficiaries.

Activism, Legislation and the Struggle for Racial Justice in Britain

Meanwhile in Britain, those ex-service personnel who had chosen to remain in Britain at the end of the First World War and who mostly joined the settled African communities in London, Cardiff, Manchester and Liverpool, experienced racism in those communities and in the society generally for which their war experience must have been a purposeful induction. The fact that they served alongside white British soldiers in the most horrendous conditions and had carried white and black fallen comrades off the battlefields and out of trenches did not make them any less susceptible to the worst forms of racism from amongst people whose very relatives they could well have tended to or buried in the fields of war.

Racial abuse, harassment and attacks in protest at the very presence of those ex-soldiers led in many cases to brawls, public disturbances and full scale rioting in the sea-port areas of London, Cardiff, Newport, Barry, Salford, Liverpool, Glasgow, Hull and South Shields. The Africans were seen as the cause of unemployment, the lowering of wages, shortage of housing and other pre-existing social ills. They were also seen as a threat to the purity of the white population locally, by virtue of the fact that most of them were single and attractive to and attracted by white women.

A number of organisations responded to the threats faced by African /West Indian ex-service personnel and others were formed in order to protect their rights and civic entitlements, as well as those of the pre-existing African population. Their cause was taken up, for example, by Henry Sylvester-Williams, a barrister from Trinidad who had studied in England and who had organised the 1st Pan African Congress held in London in 1900. A number of other organisations were created between then and the second World War and some of those were instrumental in demanding that Britain would not draw thousands of colonial subjects from Africa and its Diaspora to wage a war for self determination and freedom from fascism in Europe while keeping Africa and the west Indies colonised.

Giving the background to the 5th Pan-African Congress held in Manchester, England, in 1945, the historian Professor Hakim Adi notes that the black population in Britain at the time included two distinct groups:

‘..seamen and other workers and their families on the one hand, and students and professionals on the other. These two groups were united by their common political problems, especially by their colonial status and the racism faced by all. They were also united through the political activities of organisations and individuals, and the concern of both groups to bring an end to colonial rule in Africa and the Caribbean, or at least to achieve a greater measure of self-government’

Among those organisations and key individuals were:

• The West African Students Union (WASU) formed in London by Lapido Solanke and Dr H.C. Bankole-Bright in 1925
• The League of Coloured Peoples formed in London by Harold Moody in 1931, with a mostly Caribbean membership as well as people from Africa and Asia
• The International African service Bureau formed in London by George Padmore in 1937
• The Coloured People’s Association – Edinburgh
• The Glasgow African Union
• The United Committee of Coloured and Colonial People’s Association – Cardiff
• The Negro Welfare Centre and the Negro Association – Manchester

Hakim Adi notes that ‘WASU, in a series of wartime conferences in 1942, demanded “internal self government” for Britain’s West African colonies within five years of the ending of the war, as well as a host of other social, economic and political reforms leading to complete independence’.

Between 1918 and the start of World War II in 1939, therefore, the African Diaspora both in Britain and the West Indies was engaged in a struggle for human rights and for political change and a key group among them on both sides of the Atlantic were men and women who had served in the British Armed Forces in the First World war.

8 December 2015 was 50 years since the first Race Relations Act was passed. 2015 was also the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. 2007 marked the bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery Act. 2008 was 60 years since the iconic Empire Windrush deposited 492 Caribbean migrants at Tilbury Docks.

The Windrush migrants, those of the African and Asian Diaspora who constituted the ‘black presence’ in pre-and post-war Britain and all their descendants could comment extensively on the relevance of the anniversaries listed above to the state of Britain and to the British state that they are up against today.

Three years before Windrush, an impressive body of current and future leaders of the colonised world gathered in Manchester for the 5th PAC, the 1945 Pan African Congress. The First was held in London in 1900 and concerned itself (as later in 1945) with the ravages of Empire and the role Britain as an imperialist nation was playing in the world and especially in its colonies. Two world wars later, the African Diaspora in the USA, the Caribbean and Europe, joined by leaders from Africa itself, were in Manchester reminding Britain not only of the responsibility its imperialist history placed upon it, but of the human sacrifice its colonial subjects had made for King and Country on the battlefields of Europe and of its duty to guarantee them equal rights and the protection of the Crown as His Majesty’s loyal subjects. The 5th PAC resolutions had as much to do with Pan-Africa on the continent and in the colonies as with the African Diaspora facing racial discrimination and denial of civil liberties and fundamental human rights in Britain.
In 1900 as in 1945, African leaders spoke to the issues confronting Africa and its Diaspora, especially the Diaspora in Europe, out of a consciousness of how marginal our rights were to the majority of the British population and how widespread and visceral British racism was, both at home and abroad.

But, post-enslavement and post-imperialist Britain did not have its own brand of a ‘Truth and Reconciliation Committee’. There was no forum in which it could acknowledge the barbarism and genocide that were such a feature of its imperialist past and that defined the victims of such in a manner that was supposed to make their widespread annihilation and subjugation justifiable. No forum in which those in the Monarchy, in the Establishment, in the Aristocracy, in the Established Church and in the Military who were set up for life to the nth generation as a result of the spoils of enslavement could own up to the human atrocities that had won them their fortunes; no forum in which the descendants of enslaved Africans could call for reparation and for the confiscation of ‘the proceeds of crimes against humanity’ as restitution in however small a measure.

Instead, the inheritors of eye-watering amounts of blood money and of land and gilded buildings continued to enjoy a status in the society that enabled them to subjugate and exploit a local working class and one that was socialised to know their place and stay in it, while identifying with the jingoism of Empire and the ‘othering’ of those whose forbears were once enslaved.

Thick lines were therefore drawn deep in the sand, with on one side the descendants of enslaved Africans claiming their right to be numbered among ‘the British’ and claim citizenship and with it the same rights as the rest of the population, and on the other the white majority objecting to the growing presence of ‘dark strangers’ with equally ‘dark’ habits and mores that in time could be expected to destabilise Britain. What is more, that white majority insisted on their inalienable right to discriminate against those ‘darkies’ and ‘coloureds’ and shunt them on to the margins of the society. By the time the 1962 ‘Commonwealth Immigrants Act’ was passed, ethnic colonies for ‘the ethnic minorities’ was already becoming a reality in conurbations such as Greater London, Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, West Midlands, etc.

With the State’s emphasis on controlling the entry of migrants from the colonies, the ‘West Indies’ in particular, where heretofore there had been a ready and waiting pool of surplus labour that Britain could actively draw upon to come and rebuild itself after two devastating world wars, the British people were able to tap the rich seam of racist stereotypes that had been an integral part of their socialisation and their schooling and treat the ‘dark strangers’, the ‘coloured immigrants’ as undesirable and bad for business. Discrimination in housing, employment, transport and the provision of goods and services was widespread, no less than discrimination by the police and courts, by schools and in the health service.

The 1960s especially was a time when many children were coming from the West Indies to join parents or other family members who were already here. Indeed, in the run up to 1962 and the passing of the Act, migrant workers from across the region busied themselves to beat the impending ban. So, whereas in 1960, some 58,300 migrants from the New Commonwealth (black countries as distinct from ‘Old’ Commonwealth, i.e., Australia & New Zealand) entered Britain, in 1961,125,400 arrived. A good number of those left children behind with a view to saving and sending money for them to come and join them later.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act (1962) removed the automatic right of citizens of British Commonwealth countries to migrate to the United Kingdom, prompting Hugh Gaitskell, the leader of the Labour Opposition, to call the act ‘cruel and anti-colour legislation’.

So it was that by the middle to late 1960s, the population of children joining British schools who had had their early years/primary education in the Caribbean had more than doubled. White parents harboured concerns about the likely damage to their children’s education that could result from large numbers of African heritage children in any one school. In addition to sharing that concern, government was anxious that schools with more than 30% of African or Asian heritage children could become ghettoised to the disadvantage of the majority white children who were deemed to have the right to a good school in their local community. The government therefore permitted local education authorities to bus African and Asian heritage children to schools outside their areas once their number in their local schools reached the 30% mark. Organised campaigns against busing, especially in London, led LEAs to abandon the practice and stop making racist assumptions about the educational capability of African heritage children, especially since schools failed to acknowledge that Caribbean children were bilingual and spoke home languages that were not ‘broken or bad English’, as well as so-called standard English.

Simultaneously, African communities struggled against the intelligence testing of their children by schools’ staff and educational psychologists who typically used tests that were culturally and racially biased. Many of those tests emanated from the work of eugenicists such as Cyril Burt, Hans Eysenck, Arthur Jensen and others who propounded theories of race and intelligence. Their basic thesis was that higher scores of whites relative to blacks in aptitude tests were explained by genetically determined differences in intelligence and ability. The result of such testing was that a disproportionate number of African heritage children were sent to schools for the ‘educationally subnormal’.

While the white working class continued its tradition of workers’ struggles in respect of wages and working conditions, and at the same time denying for the most part the racism black workers were experiencing in the workplace, the African Diaspora typically had two sites of struggle. It was necessary to struggle in the workplace, to win rights and to assist the labour movement in confronting its own racism. But, it was equally necessary to struggle in the community in relation to: police treatment of African people; ‘Stop & Search’; racism in the criminal justice system; schooling and education; racist attacks; bigotry, racism and xenophobia; denial of equal employment opportunity; discrimination in the provision of goods and services.

The majority of migrants of the African and Asian Diaspora lived in areas where the white working class had long been forgotten and where it suited politicians of all parties to encourage the view that immigration was associated with ‘race’ and ‘race’ signalled problems and inter-ethnic conflict, not least because the ‘immigrants’ were projected as robbing white people of their birthright.

This blatant process of racializing immigration was to continue well into this millennium, with the conflation of immigration and race relations and the argument that in order to promote and sustain good race relations, government needed to be ‘tough on immigration’. This is epitomised by the following statement from a Labour Home Secretary, but it has been implicit in the electoral discourse of all the main parties:

‘Without integration, limitation is inexcusable: without limitation, integration is impossible.’
Roy Hattersley, Labour Home Secretary, 1965

Scapegoating immigrant workers is an age old practice in Britain. It was prevalent in the late 19th/early 20th century; it was principally the rationale for the 1914 Aliens Restrictions Act and especially for the 1919 Aliens Act, i.e., the foundations on which immigration legislation was built until 1971; it could be detected too in racist responses to Irish immigration in the early and middle 20th century; the racialisation of immigration since the early 20th century and especially between 1962 and the present. Conflating immigration control and good race relations is another feature of immigration debate by both the Labour and Conservative governments.

Against this onslaught by the state, African Diaspora immigrants have needed to draw upon their experience of struggles against colonialism and capitalist exploitation, and for ‘bread, justice and freedom’ in dealing with the structural racism of the state, the institutional racism in its apparatuses such as the police and criminal justice system, the cultural racism of the media, educational institutions, etc, and the rabid racism of individuals and neo-fascist organisations.

Fifty years after the Race Relations Act 1965, the very presence of the African and Asian diaspora in Britain is still being projected as ‘the problem’. To a very large extent, the British preoccupation with immigration and race was at the heart of the debate about the future of Britain in Europe. Consequently, perennial disproportionality in, for example, the representation of that Diaspora in school exclusions, youth custody, children and adolescent mental health disorders, prisons, stops and searches, youth unemployment, graduate unemployment and under employment, deaths in custody, serious youth violence and long term unemployment is seen as having to do with the ethnicity of the subjects, rather than with structural arrangements and institutional policies and practices that perpetuate such malaise.

Ever since the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination provided empirical evidence of the extent of discrimination in employment, housing and the provision of goods and services to strengthen the case for more robust legislation, i.e., the 1968 Race Relations Act, targeted communities have been demanding legislation that safeguards the fundamental rights of the African and Asian Diaspora, as distinct from proving to the white ethnic majority in the country that government could be tough on immigration and allay their fears about the changing profile of ‘their country’. The abiding fault line in the social and legislative structure, however, is that rather than acknowledging the legacy of Empire and the implications of that for white Britain, not least in terms of displacing a culture of whiteness and notions of ethnic and cultural supremacy through legislation, schooling and education, media and culture, the State operates as if there is only so much one can demand of ‘the British public’ and keep their trust as far as dealing with the actual and potential black presence is concerned. Hence, the decision to establish a single Equality Act even in the face of a lack of evidence that public bodies were in compliance with the requirements of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

But, although the government knew full well that the level of non-compliance with the RRAA 2000 was exacerbated by the lack of resources for the ‘watchdog’, the Commission for Racial Equality, to identify and impose sanctions upon those ignoring the legislation, it nevertheless amputated the Equality and Human Rights Commission at both knees no sooner than it was established, reducing its budget by 75% between 2010 when the entity was set up and now. And that at a time when more and more public services are being outsourced to private companies that have no accountability in the public sphere and are being encouraged to see the requirements of the legislation as ‘red tape’.

Meanwhile, the descendants of the Windrush arrivants and of those who constituted ‘the black presence’ in Britain when the Abolition of Slavery Act was being keenly debated in 1806/7 are still being regarded as ‘ethnic minorities’, with the profile of ‘migrants’ on the margins, rather than as future leaders of Britain and its institutions. The history of civil unrest in Britain (England especially) in the last four decades, however, is a sober reminder of what can happen in societies that push sections of their population on to the margins and leave them there as some semi-self governing ethnic colony where just about everyone carries an ethnic penalty.

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