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.
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
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. Continue reading “Rethinking Anti-Colonial Activism Through London’s Surveillance Material”