Prof Gus John delivered the following speech at the unveiling ceremony of the War Memorial to African & Caribbean Servicemen and Women in Brixton, London:
Before I pour Libation and acknowledge the spirit of all those Africans who gave their lives in the first and second world wars, let me make a few brief comments.
We are gathered here today, not to glorify war. The monument we are about to unveil is not to glorify war. War remains forever inglorious, whether you are victor or vanquished!
Nor does this monument represent jingoistic, or even pious, adulation of the bravery, selflessness and sacrifice of the Africans who served in the British Armed Forces.
Rather, it is to ensure that Britain does not succeed in erasing from history the brutal fact that despite the enslavement of Africans, despite the fact that only 60 years after the end of enslavement of Africans on plantations in the West Indies, some 16,000 West Indians were persuaded to join the British West Indies Regiment and risk life and limb in the killing fields of Europe.
Theirs was an experience of racism and of betrayal, both during active service and after they had been discharged as invalid or unfit and made to return to the West Indies to face penury and misery, without compensation, without pension, without medical care and prostheses, and above all without jobs, having left their employment to come to Europe and join the War effort.
Their belief that by joining they would help to ensure that Britain granted home rule to the islands in the region at the end of the War and that political and economic repression by colonial Britain would cease turned out, not for the first time, to be profoundly misplaced.
Those in the islands who had argued amid great opposition and public condemnation that ‘it was a white man’s war and therefore Africans should not get involved’ felt totally vindicated.
Those who stayed in Britain after demob were made to endure the worst forms of racism and social exclusion, to the extent that riots broke out in many sea port areas of Britain in the years immediately following the end of the war.
This monument therefore stands as an indictment of the British state and its failure to tackle the racism that is part of its DNA.
As such, it should be erected permanently on the green opposite the Houses of Parliament, preferably with a finger of indictment pointing straight at the palace of Westminster.
The British state should pay for this monument and should ensure that there is one such in Docklands, in Cardiff, in Manchester, in Liverpool and in Glasgow. The Nubian Jak Community Trust should not have to fund this creation, whether by crowd funding or any other means.
As we remember those African men and women, therefore, let us embrace their legacy and ensure that this United Kingdom is focused on righting racial wrongs and making reparations for the historical and contemporary bloodsucking to which our nations have been subjected.
Those grandsons and granddaughters of enslaved Africans had joined the war effort from across the African Diaspora and the African continent itself, just over half a century since their forebears had won their freedom from bondage, many still tied to the plantations, only to witness those who had kept them in shackles receive massive compensation for loss of property. There are those in this present government whose wealth derives from that same compensation – blood money by any other name.
Let us now remember those who gave their lives in hope of a world free of racism and fascism, let us remember them according to African tradition.