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Anticolonial activism in the heart of empire

Black radicals in London learnt vital lessons from rebellions in the colonies, and interpreted them to a metropolitan audience

Priyamvada Gopal25 June 2019

C. L. R. James giving a speech at a rally for Ethiopia in London

Imagine what it meant to us to go to Hyde Park to speak to a race of people who were considered our masters, and tell them right out what we felt about their empire and about them … and yet, as George Padmore would say … ‘Where else but in Britain would you get Lord Bridgeman’s son heading the League against Imperialism, or the daughter of Lord and Lady Cunard – Nancy – associating with people like George Padmore??

Ras Makonnen,  Pan-Africanism from Within (1973)

No race has been so noble in forgiving, but now the hour has struck for our complete emancipation.

Amy Ashwood Garvey, speaking at a Trafalgar Square rally in 1935

Walking down a London street in May 1935, the young student Francis Nkrumah was feeling dispirited and pondering returning home rather than continuing his onward journey to study in the United States when he ‘heard an excited newspaper boy shouting something unintelligible’.As the boy grabbed a bundle of the latest editions, Nkrumah caught sight of the headline on a placard: ‘MUSSOLINI INVADES ETHIOPIA’. He would note famously in his autobiography that this shocking piece of news was all that he needed to overcome his malaise: ‘At that moment, it was almost as if the whole of London had declared war on me personally. For the next few minutes I could do nothing but glare at each impassive face wondering if those people could possibly realise the wickedness of colonialism … My nationalism surged to the fore.’

Since Nkrumah was, of course, from the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, what was being evoked here was something far more expansive and powerful than a nationalism of birthplace. He was not alone; there were others in London and beyond, black thinkers and campaigners from across Africa and the Caribbean, who would be galvanized by incidents in Ethiopia. In London they included figures who would, in many cases, become household names across the decolonizing world: C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, Jomo Kenyatta, I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson, T. Ras Makonnen, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Chris Braithwaite and George Padmore. In many cases, notably Padmore’s, they were socialists and communists disillusioned by the Comintern’s vacillations on the question of imperialism during that period, seeking a way to align anti-capitalism to a serious engagement with questions of race, colonialism and culture. The result was what Brent Edwards has described as a ‘striking shift from the institutions of international communism to a non-aligned effort at “international African” work’. London at this historical juncture has been described by Minkah Makalani, in a resonant phrase, as providing ‘a unique incubator for radical black internationalist discourse’. In his excellent account of C. L. R. James’s years in 1930s Britain, Christian Høgsbjerg observes that a critical mass of campaigning figures from the African and Caribbean colonies in London led to ‘black, radical, anti-colonialist activists … developing their own alternative counterculture of resistance in the imperial metropolis alongside more directly political campaigning in Pan-Africanist organizations’. Crucial to this counterculture was a vibrant black press, a ‘valuable source for understanding the roles played by Blacks in Britain’ during the 1930s and 1940s. As a ‘wave of black publications rolled off the presses in the late 1930s’ and ‘harangued’ the British government on a wide range of issues, from Ethiopia itself to the serious Jamaican riots of 1938, they also whetted and sharpened the cutting edge of British criticism of empire.

Two events were vitally catalysing for that counterculture: the labour rebellions that shook the British West Indies from the 1930s onwards and ‘forced themselves into the consciousness of the people and rulers of the British Empire’, and the Italian invasion of Abyssinia (later Ethiopia) which was met by fierce resistance from the Ethiopians. Very different in their manifestations, and yet possessed of shared features, between them these struggles helped give a high international profile to anticolonial resistance in both African and Caribbean contexts. After the invasion of Ethiopia, black campaigners held anti-war rallies which were attended by people of various ethnicities, including a ‘substantial crowd of English people’. At one, Amy Ashwood Garvey, a dynamic force in the London scene, though lamentably ill-represented in its archives, spoke forcefully to European colonizers: ‘You have talked of “the White man’s burden”… But now we are carrying yours and standing between you and fascism.’ While excellent work has been done on the contributions of black radicals in London and other European capitals, and on the development of transnational and diasporic networks, by Makalani, Matera, Edwards and Pennybacker among others, further attention needs to be paid to the extent to which this radical – and radicalizing – black counterculture in London drew on actually occurring resistances, learning vital lessons from insurgencies on colonial ground and interpreting them to a metropolitan audience. In doing so, black radicals, positioning themselves as both colonial and British in their London base, developed important tenets of anticolonialism, which in turn shaped the approach of their metropolitan allies. They also sought to create institutions and formal networks which would facilitate anticolonial thought and work in the heart of empire. The theory and practice of self-emancipation now emerged as a necessary corollary to an uncompromising rejection of paternalism, while questions of ‘blackness’, indeed of race itself, became much more salient.

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Much has been written on how colonial subjects took up British and European ideas and turned them against empire when making claims to freedom and self-determination. The possibility of reverse influence has been largely overlooked. Insurgent Empire shows how Britain’s enslaved and colonial subjects were not merely victims of empire and subsequent beneficiaries of its crises of conscience but also agents whose resistance both contributed to their own liberation and shaped British ideas about freedom and who could be free. This book examines dissent over the question of empire in Britain and shows how it was influenced by rebellions and resistance in the colonies from the West Indies and East Africa to Egypt and India. It also shows how a pivotal role in fomenting dissent was played by anticolonial campaigners based in London, at the heart of the empire.

“Priyamvada Gopal has calmly and authoritatively produced this impressive study of resistance against Empire, in the face of the kind of constant hostility that only serves to reminds us why her work is so urgent in the first place. We all owe her a debt.”

Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish)

“Priyamvada Gopal is an astonishing writer and thinker, one who is fearless in how she uses history to explain where we are now. Her work is essential to showing how empire and colonialism pervades every nook and cranny of the British establishment today and why we should all continue to speak truth to power, like she does every damn day.”

Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant

Insurgent Empire
Much has been written on the how colonial subjects took up British and European ideas and turned them against empire when making claims to freedom and self-determination. The possibility of reverse...