Rethinking Anti-Colonial Activism Through London’s Surveillance Material

George Padmore at the ILP Summer School, St Christopher School, Letchworth, 1938. Photo courtesy of the Working Class Movement Library, Salford.

Gil Shohat
Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

On a Sunday afternoon in June 1938, the International African Service Bureau (IASB)  held one of its numerous rallies at Trafalgar Square in central London. As one of the prime anti-colonial organisations of that time based in London and comprised of activists from West- and East Africa as well as from the West Indies,the gathering was closely monitored by the Metropolitan Police. The sergeant on duty reported that the demonstration was “attended by an audience fluctuating between 100 and 250 persons, of whom approximately 15% were Jews”. Speakers at the protest included, among others, Jomo Kenyatta (later first president of Kenya), the Trinidadian intellectual C.L.R. James, the Jamaican dockworker Chris Jones, and the Pan-Africanist activist and journalist George Padmore. Furthermore, the informant took notice of placards containing slogans such as “Fascism in the British Empire”, “Abolish fascist methods in the Colonies”, and “Imperialism is incompatible with peace”. The speakers repeatedly denounced the evil practices of British Imperialism and Colonialism in its territories and warned against any form of acquiescence with the Empire regarding the surging threat of fascism posed by Italy and Nazi-Germany. What’s more, they explicitly drew parallels between the practice of British and French colonialism and the policies and actions of their fascist rivals. In short, for the IASB combatting fascism could not be done without simultaneously overcoming imperialism from within.[1]

This event was by no means a forum for black activists alone. There were also numerous white British speakers from the left who contributed to the demonstration. Francis Ridley is a case in point. Ridley was a leading figure in the Independent Labour Party (ILP), which was arguably the most consistent of British leftist parties when it came to the question of

F. A. Ridley. Image courtesy of the British Library, London.

how to act in solidarity with anti-colonial and anti-imperial activists in the metropolis. Next to Fenner Brockway, the long time ILP chairman, editor of the party weekly and later Labour MP and the Quaker and Socialist activist and author Reginald Reynolds, Ridley can retrospectively be regarded as a defining figure of British anti-imperialist activism from the 1930s to the 1950s. Tellingly, he was described by the police informant at the scene as a “white man”, in order to highlight the supposedly extraordinary nature of his participation in the rally. In his speech, Ridley demanded that the “democratic conditions under which the people of England lived should be extended to the black workers of the Empire. Much talk was made today of the hardships suffered by the minorities in fascist countries, but these minorities were being treated very well in comparison to the negroes in the British Empire.” Ridley thus attempted to bring the suffering of colonized peoples in the “periphery” into the “metropolis” by connecting it to the condition of subaltern peoples of Europe. The example presented here thus hints at emerging and previously underrated cross-sectional solidarities among the numerous ethnic and social groups of London.

IASB Trafalgar Square, 8 August 1937. Image courtesy of National Archives, Kew.

The 1930s witnessed an increase in London-based anti-imperial and anti-colonial activism, which was in part due to the fact that the British Colonial Office increasingly granted scholarships for students from African and West Indian colonies to study in the UK. London often proved to be a safer haven for anti-imperial and anti-colonial activists than the colonies which the activists hailed from. The spaces of interaction – for example public squares such as Trafalgar Square – offered pressure groups, political parties and individual “brokers” of anti-colonialism the opportunity to establish trust relationships with one another. Simultaneously, their activities were frequently and meticulously monitored by the British security services, namely MI5, Metropolitan Police, and India Office.

Instead of focusing on specific pressure groups or political parties, analysis of the subsequently released surveillance material turns our attention to the alliances between activists from the colonies with those from the “local” British left. What’s more, as opposed to a purely discursive history of anti-colonialism, the material offers insights into the knitty-gritty of everyday anti-colonial and anti-imperial activism, for example the financial hardships faced by the activists in focus, as well as information on the importance of the private life of the later cherished leaders of independence who received their political socialization in the heart of the empire.[2]

Close reading of the files brings hitherto marginalized figures on the British left back into our purview. Dorothy Pizer, for instance, is a case in point. Pizer, who was born into a Jewish working-class family in London’s East End, became a communist activist in the 1930s while simultaneously working as a secretary in the Holborn district in Central London. In what is a very illustrative case of the subtle intersection between male chauvinism and imperial racism prevalent in the material, it was noted by the MI5 that it was “known that she associated with numerous men of the student type, particularly Indians, many of whom used to visit her flat.”[3]

Pizer met and partnered with George Padmore in his London years in the 1930s, where she became a crucial contributor to his efforts to challenge the imperial boundaries and hierarchies, for example by typewriting his book-manuscripts in several cases. An insight provided mainly by the surveillance material is that Pizer was much more than simply Padmore’s assistant. Apart from being frequently dissatisfied with his repeatedly broken promises when it came to including her in his political trips, the reports compiled by the MI5 also reveal her own political convictions, which in some cases differed from Padmore’s. A case in point was the future policy of the newly independent Ghana under Padmore’s London friend and later ally Kwame Nkrumah in the late 1950s. As opposed to Padmore, Pizer was very skeptical of Nkrumah’s first achievements:

I’m quite as much aware as you of all that has been done since the C.P.P. (Congress People’s Party) has been in power, but merely putting up buildings and establishing organisations does not imply the absolute achievement. It’s the content that informs them that is the criterion, and with the definitely anti-socialist layer now at the helm, strong efforts are needed to turn them in the proper direction; and to ignore that is to ignore something absolutely basic.[4]

A few years later Pizer had the opportunity to make her position heard more prominently, when she was named Kwame Nkrumah’s “secretary for special affairs”, a position she also fulfilled after Padmore’s early death in late 1959. She was thus a contributor to anti- and postcolonial realities in her own right. Her case is exemplary for the sustainability of anti-colonial and anti-imperial networks beyond the boundaries of the metropolis itself in the wake of decolonization. It furthermore signifies the importance of London as a space of opportunity and engendered solidarity in the 1930s and 1940s, insofar as that the aforementioned constellation would not have been possible without London being their meeting point in the first place.

Despite the undoubted potential of the discussed material, certain pitfalls and risks regarding an over-reliance on this source type must also be taken into consideration. As with any other source material, it has to be recapitulated who is producing which material when, where, and why. The imperial authorities obviously had certain interests and prejudices in mind when compiling the reports we now have at our disposal. It thus reproduces tropes of its own time and hints at discourses that were shaping the “colonial common sense” (Ann Laura Stoler). It is also important to keep in mind that the material in discussion here is – as is any other historical material – highly selective, especially because documents in the files are routinely redacted, or as in George Padmore’s case, entirely missing.

The examples presented nevertheless point at the chances inherent in the systematic analysis of surveillance material compiled by colonial and imperial powers on the hunt for potential and actual subversive activists for a spatially informed history of anti-colonial activism. It unearths the multiplicity of interactions, networks, connections and fissures between activists from different social spheres in hierarchically organized cityscapes. In the case of London, it highlights not only local networks, but also those transcending the boundaries of the imperial metropolis. It thus serves as the crucial first step in locating those who challenged fostered imperial hierarchies from within in order to elucidate the dynamics of everyday anticolonial activism.


Gil Shohat MA is a PhD-Candidate at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Research Fellow of the Ernst-Ludwig-Ehrlich Studienwerk. His doctoral dissertation focuses on spaces, forms of action and the longevity of anti-colonial networks engendered in London from the 1930s to the 1950s with a special focus on the British left and activists from West Indian and African colonies.


[1] For all quotations see: “Trafalgar Square Demonstration on 26 June 1938”, The National Archives (TNA), MEPO 38/91, International African Service Bureau Files.

[2] A prime example of the potential of surveillance material is: Brückenhaus, Daniel, Policing Transnational Protest: Liberal Imperialism and the Surveillance of Anticolonialists in Europe, 1905-1945, New York 2017.

[3] Extract from Special Branch report re Pizer, Albert, Communist, mentioning Dorothy Pizer, TNA, KV 2/3833, Dorothy Pizer Files.

[4] Dorothy Pizer to George Padmore, 4th September 1959, TNA, KV 2/3833, Dorothy Pizer Files.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Anti-Colonial Activism Through London’s Surveillance Material

    1. Dear Prof. Blair, that should be fine. Thank you for asking, and glad you enjoyed the piece!
      Best wishes,
      Dr Marc-William Palen
      Editor, The Imperial & Global Forum

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