Saturday, December 21, 2013

Black and Red

IT must be almost thirty years since I went to a lecture by the late Peter Fryer, and got into his book 'Staying Power; the History of Black People in Britain'. That was how I learned about the Black abolitionist, Olaudah Equiano, and the Black Chartist William Cuffay.

We'd done the Chartists at school, and of course we must also have learned something about the abolitonists and William Wilberforce. But I could not remember any mention  that there were black people involved in these contributions to our history.

I might mention that not long before I went to that Peter Fryer lecture I overheard a conversation between two members of the Transport and General Workers Union, one of whom worked at Transport House, about a union recruitment leaflet that had been produced but was considered unsuitable and sent back by an officer for one of the regions.

The leaflet had used a photograph of some smiling women workers, who happened to be union office staff, to say something like "This is the union for us!" Only it seemed that before a particular region of the TGWU would use it their batch had to be reprinted with the photograph altered, so that two of the women had their complexions lightened and a third, evidently too dark,  was airbrushed out altogether.
I heard the sisters concerned saw what had been done, and were not too happy about it. 

Well, we have come a long way since then, or so we like to think. Prejudice of that sort is far less common nowadays, certinly less admitted.. The TGWU had a black general secretary, Jamaican-born Bill Morris, even if he did end up as Baron Morris of Handsworth.  Local authorities as well as the TUC hold a "Black History Month", though its effectiveness may vary.

If there seemed moves afoot to reverse things, they were vigilently opposed. Dalston has got its new CLR James Library, and Equiano and Mary Seacole remain in the national curriculum. Quite rightly so. This is not about "political correctness" nor simply giving black youngsters positive "role models", but teaching history with nowt left out. Perhaps Ken Loach's "Spirit of '45" may be forgiven for having none other than white faces (though I know friends disagree) , but if that is the way we picture all our labour movement history we are as bad as those union officials who wanted black faces whitened out of their leaflets.

So lets welcome two fascinating books published this year which contribute to putting things right.
First is 'William Cuffay, The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader' by Martin Hoyles, which starts by telling us about slavery on the island of St.Kitts in the West Indies, which is where William Cuffay's grandfather was taken as a slave from Africa. As a historian tells us "Given the size of St.Kitts and Nevis, the wealth generated by their planters during the latter half of thee eighteenth century was extremely impressive. But it was made only at the cost of untold human suffering."

 One way slaves could escape to freedom, despite its rough conditions, was the Navy, and thus it was that William Cuffay was born in Chatham, where his father had landed and obtained work in the dockyard. William started as an apprentice tailor, a trade in which perhaps his deformed legs and stunted growth, the result of childhood rickets, were less of an obstacle. He moved to London, where in 1827 he married Mary Ann Marvell, a straw hat maker, at the now fashionable St.James', Picadilly, and they lived in the now less fashionable Lambeth, south London.

Attempting to defend their wages and conditions by organising at work, for mutual help and strike action, the journeymen tailors were among those who formed the backbone of the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union. When this did not suffice, the tailors, and Cuffay among them, turned to the fight for political rights. This coalesce around the Six Points of the People's Charter.

Holding meetings around the country, gathering signatures for their mass petition, organising women as well as men (though as yet they only demanded votes for men), the Chartists' slogan was "Peaceably if we can, forcibly if we may". In November 1839 after the Chartists in South Wales attempted to free arrested comrades and clashed with armed troops in Newport, it was William Cuffay who moved the resolution at a meeting of the Metropolitan Tailors Charter Association in London, blaming the government's "injustice and cruelty" for provoking insurrection, and declaring "We therefore do most deeply feel for and sympathise with our brethren in Wales, and with Mr.Frost in particular, and further, we pledge ourselves to use every exertion to save them."

John Frost, Zephaniah Williams and William Jones were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, but after a national outcry this was commuted to transportation for life. William Cuffay continued his activity, popular as a speaker for his wit and humour, He sang at Chartist concerts and even acted in plays. He worked with Feargus O'Connor on his Land Plan, by which working people could acquire cottages and smallholdings. He helped plan the renewed petition and mass demonstrations of 1848. But then as some Chartists prepared to go underground, and the government's spies set about trying to catch them, Cuffay was entrapped in a supposed plot, arrested, and clapped in jail to await trial. A portrait of him in Newgate shows him grinning in good-humoured defiance, as though to say "You think you can stop us this way?!" His wife Mary collected for the defence fund, and was banned from the court for protesting.  

Transported to Van Diemens Land (Tasmania), Cuffay was fortunate enough to be freed to work at his trade there, and Mary managed to raise support to go out and join him. The population of Tasmania, half of whom themselves freed convicts, were ready for Cuffay's ideas, and he was able to play his part in establishing trade unions, ending the use of convict labour for docks and public works, and repealing the oppressive Master and Servants Act. Still addressing big public meetings in his 'Seventies, Cuffay died in the workhouse in 1870, aged 82. Obituaries credited his contribution to the cause of  workers' freedom, and thanks to people like Cuffay, Chartism has been called Britain's most successful export. Tasmanians gained universal male suffrage by 1900 and enfranchised women in 1903 - well ahead of Britain.

 Martin Hoyles' tribute to Cuffay, true to its sub-title, not only recounts his life for inspiration, but fully describes his times, the hardships and the happier side, and of course the Chartist movement, with a fantastic wealth of illustrations. If you want to defend your rights you ought to know to whom you owe them. Read this book, and give it to your children.

Chris Braithwaite, whose life is the subject of the latest Socialist History Society publication, came to Britain from Barbados, having first served in the Merchant Navy during the First World War. He married an English woman, Edna,and settled in the East End of London,  Obtaining work with the Shipping Federation, he joined the National Union of Seamen.

Havelock Wilson, the notoriously right-wing leader of that union, who had organised patriotic demonstrations against other trade unionists during the war, was not interested in the conditions of coloured and colonial seafarers, nor would he give Braithwaite the chance to improve things. He preferred a deal with the shipowners not unlike that which led to Apartheid in South Africa, by maintaining a divided workforce.

Strange as it may seem, Chris Braithwaite was to get a better hearing from Nancy Cunard, whose anti-racist sympathies and interest in African roots (she married an American jazz musician) set her on the opposite side to her wealthy shipowning family. Documents show MI5 took an interest in her friendship with the Indian V.K.Menon, and we know they were also watching Braithwaite.

With some experience of militant trade unionism and black struggle in the United States, the Bajan joined the Communist Party. To conceal his political acvtivity from his employers he always used the name "Chris Jones", which is how most people knew him. The Comintern attached great importance to seafarers and their struggles, holding an international conference of them, and during the so-called Third Period of "class against class" the Red International of Labour Unions proposed to set up a rival seafarers' union in Britain, an idea which must have had some appeal not only for colonial seafarers like Braithwaite but for those who saw the NUS expelled from the TUC after 1926. However Harry Politt resisted the idea as particularly impractical during a trade recession.

What did emerge in 1929 however was the Seamen's Minority Movement, linked with the National Minority Movement spanning other unions, mobilised for militant left-wing policies. A committee of "militant coloured seamen" was formed by the SMM, and an international seamen's club opened in Poplar. A "Chris Jones" chaired the committee's second meeting,and a Trinidadian called Jim Hedley became secretary. Nor did this Chris Jones confine his work to organising seamen. In 1932 he helped organise a demonstration against the imprisonment of the National Unemployed Workers Movement leader Wal Hannington.

 The rise of Hitler to power brought a new change in the politics of the Soviet leadership. As it encouraged popular front policies and sought improved relations with Britain and France, the struggles of colonial peoples against these powers were relegated. Not only that, but Mussolini's Italy, the original fascism, seems to have been seen as a lesser evil, and at a time when the brutal invasion of Ethiopia brought calls for League of Nations sanctions, Moscow decided it should not impede trading, including oil, with Italy.

Chris Braithwaite and George Padmore broke with the Communist Party and its fronts, and joined the Trotskyist C.L.R. James to set up an International African Friends of Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was called at this time). Braithwaite also chaired the first conference of the Colonial Seamen's Association, which brought together black, Chinese, Arab and Indian seafarers,

The political party with which Braithwaite and Padmore came closer in the late 1930s was the Independent Labour Party(ILP), though having got their fingers burnt with the CP they hesitated to trust another predominantly white left party. It might be interesting to know what they thought of the ILP leader Maxton's neutralism when the issue of Ethiopia and sanctions came up. Braithwaite's colonial seamen decided to launch their own, workers' sanctions, interfering with strategic cargos which might go to help Mussolini's war.

As 'Chris Jones', the black seafarer did speak alongside Bob Edwards of the ILP when the latter, back from aiding the POUM in Spain, addressed thousands at a Glasgow rally. He also spoke at dock gate meetings in London, as the anarchist Matt Kavanagh recalled. He worked with the ILP writer Ethel Mannin who has him little disguised speaking alongside anarchist Emma Goldman in her satirical 1946 novel Comrade, O Comrade.

In opening up the story of 'Chris Jones' or Chris Braithwaite, author Christian Hogsbjerg has also opened up a largely otherwise forgotten chapter, still with interesting questions, in the history of the British Left. The Socialist History Society is to be congratulated on bringing it out.

William Cuffay, The Life and Times of a Chartist Leader   
 by Martin Hoyle, Hansib  £9.99

Chris Braithwaite, Mariner, Renegade and Castaway,
 by Christian Hogsbjerg, Socialist History Society, in association with Redwords  £4


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At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Christian Hogsbjerg said...

Many thanks for your review - in answer to your question about how 'it might be interesting to know what Braithwaite and Padmore thought of the ILP leader Maxton's neutralism when the issue of Ethiopia and sanctions came up', the answer would be that they thought similar to what CLR James thought about it when he challenged Maxton at the time in the ILP. In a footnote, I point out an article by Padmore about the ILP from the New Leader in I think the late 1930s - in it Padmore basically says 'look the ILP are not a revolutionary Marxist / Leninist party, they are therefore not 100 percent anti-imperialist, and so I will not join them, but they are doing good and valuable work - including with respect to anti-colonialism in general - so I will work with them and support them'... Braithwaite would I think have basically taken the same line as Padmore here. Hope this helps - maybe check out Padmore's ILP article yourself for more information.


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