A selection of e-articles published by Hakim Adi.....
Forgotten Comrades? Desmond Buckle and the African Communists"
The CPGB was part of the international communist movement, and saw itself as a detachment of the international proletariat. It was also a party that was located in the heart of the British Empire, the tentacles of which stretched throughout the world, a party that organised in Britain and that was also influential throughout many parts of that empire. It should not be surprising to find that such a party was international in its composition, and that in this sense its internationalism began at home in Britain. However, the history of the CPGB has generally ......
The New Scramble for Africa
In 1884 The Times newspaper coined the phrase ‘Scramble for Africa’ to describe the contention between the major European powers for a share of what the Belgian king Leopold contemptuously referred to as ‘this magnificent African cake......
The wider historical context of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade
Trade in African slaves underpinned the British economy in the 18th century: the rich and powerful, the monarchy and the Church. So why was an enterprise that was so economically important ended so abruptly in the first decade of the 19th century?
To what extent is Britain Post-colonial?
There certainly appear to be attempts in government circles in Britain to draw a line under the country’s colonial past and to claim that British colonialism is ancient history. In 2005, for instance, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, announced that ‘the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over,’........
London, slavery and abolition
It is impossible to conceive of the modern city of London without considering its involvement with the enslavement and trafficking of African captives. Modern London grew rich and prospered as a result of Britain’s involvement in what is referred to as the trans-Atlantic slave trade from its earliest beginnings in the 16th century.
A New Kind of Imperialism
In 1997, when the Tony Blair’s Labour government first came to office, there was the expectation in some quarters that New Labour, as the party re-styled itself, would offer a radical alternative and a much needed change of direction after 18 years of Thatcherism and Conservative governments.
Forgotten Comrades? Desmond Buckle and the African Communists
The CPGB was part of the international communist movement, and saw itself as a detachment of the international proletariat. It was also a party that was located in the heart of the British Empire, the tentacles of which stretched throughout the world, a party that organised in Britain and that was also influential throughout many parts of that empire. It should not be surprising to find that such a party was international in its composition, and that in this sense its internationalism began at home in Britain. However, the history of the CPGB has generally been written in such a way as to exclude those members who originated from Africa, as well as Britain’s colonies elsewhere. It can be argued that this is a serious omission, one that not only distorts the history of the CPGB but also one that distorts the history of African and other minorities in Britain.
This paper seeks not just to highlight this omission but also to outline the life and work of one of the first African members of the CPGB, the Ghanaian Desmond Buckle. By way of introduction, the paper will provide a brief overview of the CPGB’s work amongst Africans in Britain, it will then be possible to place the life and work of Desmond Buckle in some context. It should be pointed out that one of the difficulties of presenting such a biographical account is the paucity of adequate source material. It is to be hoped that this paper will be able to make a small contribution in this regard, which can be built on by others.
The Communist International, at its 2nd Congress, adopted Lenin’s thesis that communist parties must give support to national liberation movements in the colonies and wage a struggle against national chauvinism in the ranks of the workers of the imperialist powers. It seems likely that the Comintern’s well-known opposition to colonialism attracted African members and supporters to the British Party from its earliest days, even if the CPGB itself was not always as active on this question as might have been desired (MPR, 2001, 395). As I have outlined elsewhere (Adi,1995) from the late 1920s until World War II, the British party maintained links with African students and workers in Britain, and through them with their compatriots in Africa, mainly through the League Against Imperialism and its affiliate the Negro Welfare Association, but work was also undertaken by the National Minority Movement and International Class War Prisoner’s Aid.
The first African member of the Party might well have been the Cardiff-based leader of the Somali Youth League, Mohamed Tuallah Mohamed who, according to Sherwood, joined the CPGB in 1923. In the late 1920s the CPGB’s work amongst African and other ‘Negro’ seaman and amongst African students was greatly strengthened by the organisation, under the auspices of the Profintern, of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW), which was formed in 1928. The ITUCNW established the influential publication Negro Worker and involved activists from the British colonies in West Africa, and elsewhere in the continent, including Isaac Wallace-Johnson, E.F. Small, Frank Macaulay, and the future leader of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta. Some Africans, including Wallace-Johnson and Kenyatta were educated in Moscow during the 1920s and 1930s at the University of the Toilers of the East (McClennan, 1993).
In 1937 the CPGB circulated a resolution to all branches instructing them to step up their anti-colonial work and from that time the Party’s Africa and Colonial Committees were involved in establishing the Colonial Information Bureau, which until 1939 produced a monthly Colonial Information Bulletin and from the early 1940s produced the quarterly Inside the Empire. After World War II, many more Africans became connected with the Party and the international communist movement, partly as a result of the activity of such organisations as the International Union of Students, the World Federation of Democratic Youth and the World Federation of Trade Unions. In London, in the post-war period, the CPGB established close links with Kwame Nkrumah and the West African National Secretariat (WANS), as well as with the West African Students’ Union (WASU), and by the late 1940s it was reported that Emile Burns was holding classes on Marxism for over 40 West African students. The Party also extended its links with Africans in Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and Birmingham. In 1950 alone there was a ‘mass influx’ of over 150 Nigerians into the Party in London, and special ‘Robeson branches’ were organised to accommodate these new African members. In 1953, a ‘Nigerian branch’ was also formed in London as part of the work to create the conditions for a establishing a communist party in Nigeria, and subsequently a West African party branch was also established in the capital (Adi, 1995).
It is perhaps surprising that more is not said in the growing literature on the history of the CPGB about the many African members who joined the Party in the 1940s and 1950s, and even before World War II. Desmond Buckle does merit two brief mentions in Branson’s ‘official’ history of the CPGB (1997, 67,147), and a passing reference to ‘West African Communists’ appears in the work of Eaden and Renton (2002, 115), but the names of Ade Thomas, Idise Dafe, J. Vaughan, V. Ibeneme, Jonathan Tetteh, Uche Omo, Frank Oruwari, George Okeleke, and many others seem to be almost entirely forgotten today, even to the historians of the Party. Similarly forgotten, it appears, are the Party’s struggles to work with the anti-colonial forces in Africa during this period, especially its attempts to help establish a communist party in Nigeria (Adi, 1995). It is true that a study of the Communist Party’s attempts to organise Africans shows many weaknesses, some of which the leadership of the time was forced to acknowledge. I have outlined elsewhere some of the problems that arose with the ‘Robeson’, Nigerian and West African branches of the Party in the 1950s (Adi, 1995). These difficulties added to the criticisms levelled at the Party and its leadership particularly by many Nigerian members, who claimed that the leadership had no knowledge of Nigerian affairs. One of their main charges was that the CPGB was ‘not prepared to consider our views in preparing materials for a formulation of a policy concerning our country,’ and that the leadership had made ‘unilateral arrogant decisions.’(Adi, 1995, 186) Such criticisms led to resignations and to the creation of factions and other such groupings, within and outside the Party, such as the West African Cultural Group, formed n 1952 and the African Workers and Students’ Association.
It might be argued that the national origin of members is of no consequence in the study of the history of a communist party, since it should organise all regardless of national origin. However, it is also true that the CPGB did organise members, or allow them to be organised, on the basis of national origin. The nationality of members and the way in which they were organised therefore had some significance and is an important area for research, as Andrew Flinn has recently pointed out (Flynn, 2002). It is in this context that I have begun an examination of the life and work of Desmond Buckle, one of the earliest African members of the CPGB and almost certainly the first from one of Britain’s West African colonies, who devoted most of his adult life to the Party and the international communist movement. It maybe that through the life of such an individual we can gain a greater understanding of the breadth of the Party’s influence and work in Britain, internationally, and throughout the empire. Some understanding of Desmond Buckle’s life also helps to highlight some of the political influences that impacted on the lives of other Africans (and those of Caribbean origin) living in Britain in the first part of the twentieth century.
James Desmond Buckle ‘Lifelong fighter for colonial freedom’, was just one of the accolades given to Desmond Buckle ‘the African Communist’ at the time of his premature death in October 1964 at the age of 54. ‘In the fight for national liberation against imperialism Desmond Buckle fulfilled a foremost and honoured role during the more than 30 years I have know him’, said Rajani Palme Dutt, one of the leaders of the British CPGB. And he added that Desmond Buckle, ‘was one of the first African Marxists, a member of the Communist Party of this country and a close friend and associate of all African and West Indian freedom fighters.’ (Daily Worker, 1964) Indeed according to Palme Dutt, Buckle’s life ‘had made no small contribution to the victories against colonialism’. Nnamdi Azikiwe, at that time President of Nigeria, in his message to the funeral, referred to Buckle as someone who, ‘passionately believed in human freedom and devoted his life to its realisation, not only in Africa but in all corners of the earth.’(Daily Worker, 1964)
But most people have never heard of Desmond Buckle and know nothing of his life and work. Even those who claimed to have known Buckle, know little about a man, who at the time of his death lived on his own in a flat at 57 Charlwood Street in the Victoria district of south London. Piecing together the fragments so as to document his life is no easy task and there is still much that is unknown about his political ideas and activities. But it is important that there is some documentation of the life of a man who devoted himself to the realisation of human freedom. There is certainly a need to know more about an activist who was one of the first African members of the CPGB. His life is also important in helping us to understand more about the lives and politics of African in Britain, many of whom were students, what drew them to communism from the 1930s onwards and created such fear in the minds of Colonial Office officials. To put this in some context it may be worth remembering that many of the leading African and Caribbean political activists in Britain, both before and immediately after World War II, George Padmore, Peter Blackman, Arnold Ward, Isaac Wallace-Johnson, Claudia Jones, were either CPGB members, or had at some time in their lives been closely connected with the international communist movement.
James Desmond Buckle was born on 29 March 1910 in Accra, the capital of the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana), in West Africa. The Buckle family in Ghana originated from Sierra Leone and trace their ancestry from those of enslaved origin who returned to Africa from the United States. Desmond Buckle’s grandfather was Sir James Buckle, a prominent merchant who traded between Freetown in Sierra Leone and Accra in the Gold Coast. . He married into the equally prestigious Palmer family who had similar Creole antecedents and traced their origin from those of African descent from the Caribbean. Desmond Buckle’s father, Vidal James Buckle, was a prominent lawyer who had been educated in Britain. His mother, Ellen Konadu Buckle, was a member of the equally prominent Bannerman family, which has similar origins to the Buckles. In 1850 her great grandfather, James Bannerman, a British merchant, had served as Governor of the Gold Coast.
Desmond Buckle, was the second of five children, was a member of the African elite and would have had an extremely privileged childhood, even by British standards of the time. His parents were closely connected with the British governor of the Gold Coast, whose wife was the godmother of Desmond’s younger sister. However, V.J. Buckle died at the early age of thirty-three in 1920, when his son Desmond was just ten years old. Nevertheless, Ellen Buckle was determined to fulfil her late husband’s wishes and all the children were sent to Britain, where Desmond was put into boarding school at Truro College in Cornwall. This was a common practice in the first half of the last century, and indeed in the latter part of the previous one, for many of the wealthy coastal families in the Gold Coast, as the late Ray Jenkins pointed out (Jenkins, 1985). Both of Desmond’s parents had been educated in Britain, but according to family members, Ellen Buckle’s determination to have her children educated in Britain led to a life-long rift between her and Desmond, who wanted to return to the Gold Coast to complete his education, particularly after his younger brother Charles died of pneumonia in London. It seems that from this stage of his life until the early 1960s, when he was re-united with his mother and sisters in London, Desmond Buckle had little contact with his family in West Africa.
League of Coloured People
Like many other Africans, while he was a student Desmond Buckle was looked after by a guardian based in London. In 1928, at the age of eighteen, he began but failed to complete medical studies at University College, London. In the early 1930s he became increasingly active in several student and black political organisations including the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), formed by Jamaican Harold Moody in 1931 to promote the welfare and interests of the ‘coloured races’. In 1933 he took part in the LCP’s staging of Jamaican Una Marson’s play At What a Price, at the YMCA Hostel Central Club at Great Russell Street in London. At the same time Desmond Buckle became a leading member of the Gold Coast Students’ Association (GCSA), one of several West African student organisations formed in London in the mid-1920s. As a leading member of the GCSA, Buckle participated in the lively student politics of the day: opposing the imposition of the sedition and other ‘iniquitous Bills’ in the Gold Coast, welcoming the delegations of African politicians that arrived in Britain to oppose such legislation, and supporting the Gold Coast ‘cocoa hold-up’ in 1937. During the early 1930s the GCSA was largely antagonistic towards WASU, which was seen by some not as a West African organisation but as one dominated by Nigerians. In the Aggrey House dispute between WASU and the Colonial Office, many of the Gold Coast students were more tolerant of the club, which had been established by the Colonial Office with the intention of both courting and monitoring the students. Buckle appears as one of those most eager to give his support and was part of a GCSA delegation that helped in drafting the rules of Aggrey House in July 1934. Buckle was secretary of the GCSA from 1936-7, at the time when it was based at Aggrey House, and president from 1937-8. In October that year, in one of the association’s regular debates he proposed the motion that ‘this Association refuses to fight for the British Empire’. The next month in a similar debate he was the main opponent of the motion ‘that the salvation of the Gold Coast lies in close co-operation with the British Labour Party’(GCSAMB).
During this period, Desmond Buckle cooperated with and may have become a member of the Negro Welfare Association, an organisation formed in 1931 and affiliated to the Communist-led League Against Imperialism (LAI). The NWA, which was described by the Daily Worker as ‘a militant organisation of Negro workers,’ was also a welfare association, as its name suggests. It organised outings for Black children as the LCP did, but it also campaigned for support for trade unions in the Caribbean and against the colour bar in Britain and in 1933 was instrumental in forming the Scottsboro Defence Committee (MPR, 2001). In December 1938, following Buckle’s proposal the GCSA agreed to be one of the joint organisers of a meeting entitled ‘Colonies and Peace’ organised by the NWA, LCPGB and London Federation of Peace Councils (GCSAMB).
It seems almost certain that Buckle came into contact with communist politics through the NWA. Many students would have been familiar with the NWA and the LAI through their involvement in the main political issues of the day such as Aggrey House and Scottsboro. The LAI for example helped individuals and organisations in West Africa to ask parliamentary questions through sympathetic MPs (Rohdie, 1963), it also called for ‘complete freedom for African peoples and peoples of African descent’ and ‘possession by Africans of African lands and administration’, and was perhaps the only organisation in Britain to take such an anti-colonial stand (Adi, 1968, 60-61).
In February 1939 Buckle called on other members of the GCSA to ‘take more interest in public meetings concerning Negro Welfare‘, and asked for donations on behalf of the NWA. He also proposed that the GCSA invite a speaker from the NWA to address one of its meetings and subsequently in April 1939 Arnold Ward spoke to the GCSA. In July 1939 Buckle was one of the main organisers of the conference organised by the NWA, LCPGB and Coloured film Artistes Association on ‘African Peoples, Democracy and World Peace. The main purpose of this conference was ‘to show how the British people can …safeguard their own liberties, extend the boundaries of democracy to embrace the peoples of the colonial empire and, by so doing, lay the foundations for true freedom and lasting peace in the world.’ Buckle was subsequently one of four GCSA delegates who attended the conference. (GCSAMB) It was in this period that Buckle became ‘intellectually convinced of the correctness of the Communist Party’s aims and policies,’ and joined in 1937, one of the first Africans to do so (Communist Party Archives).
It is interesting to note, that at this time Buckle also became known to Colonial Office officials In February 1940 he is mentioned in the Colonial Office files amongst some 60 West African students who were in contact with the Victoria League, an organisation used by the Colonial Office to introduce colonial students to respectable families in Britain who could steer them away from ‘subversive influences’. This had for some time been the aim and concern of the Colonial Office and was seen as a key task following the report of the Colonial Students’ Committee, a body established by the Colonial Secretary in 1937. Colonial Office officials clearly felt that their strategy was working and the young communist Desmond Buckle is at this time described in rather glowing terms (Colonial Office, 1940). However just a few months later the same officials were becoming increasingly concerned about events at Aggrey House, which it was reported was ‘becoming a centre for subversion and definitely anti-allied propaganda.’ This subversion seems mainly to have consisted of political discussion that were not to the liking of the authorities. Hans Vischer, the main official at the Colonial Office responsible for ‘colonial students,’ concluded: ‘there are some responsible people behind all this, whose object seems to be to embarrass the authorities’. As a consequence of these problems the Colonial Office closed Aggrey House. But this closure led to a protest campaign by the students that was led by Desmond Buckle. This was all very unfortunate publicity for the Colonial Office and Aggrey House and the whole dispute became a cause célebre that was widely reported in the national press and that received prominent coverage in the Daily Worker. The Colonial Office maintained that at the root of the problem were two NWA members, Buckle and Peter Blackman, and requested that both should be monitored by MI5.
Monitored by MI5
So as Desmond Buckle began his membership of the Communist Party his activities were being monitored by MI5. In the CPGB records his occupation is listed as ‘electrical engineer,’ but it is not clear if this was his occupation during the war years, and no other information has yet come to light that he was employed as anything but a journalist. By 1943 Buckle was a member of the Party’s Colonial Committee and in 1947 it was Desmond Buckle who presented the report on Africa and the West Indies to the conference of Communist Parties of the British Empire held in London (Buckle, 1947 & 1949. He subsequently worked in the Party’s International Affairs Committee, was secretary of the Africa Committee, and from 1950-54 was editor of the latter committee’s Africa Newsletter. He was a regular contributor to such publication as World News and Views, the Daily Worker and Labour Monthly (Buckle, 1953 & 1958). Despite, or perhaps because of, Buckle’s knowledge of African affairs, he was excluded from the Party’s Nigeria Commission, appointed in 1953 to investigate the resignations and allegations against the CPGB leadership made by many Nigerian members. Buckle’s exclusion from the Commission, which met on over thirty occasions, at first sight appears surprising, although he did play a key role in the discussions prior to the appointment of the Commission, as did other members of the Africa Committee. The Commission’s five members were largely drawn from the very leadership that was being criticised – Rajani Palme Dutt, Idris Cox, Emile Burns and J.R Campbell. The fifth member was Barbara Ruhemann of the CPGB’s Africa Committee, and the person most directly responsible for the Party’s views on Nigeria. Some of the disaffected Nigerian members did claim that Buckle shred their views, but so far little evidence has come to light to support these claims. There is also at present no evidence to suggest that Buckle took any part in the work of the West African branch formed in the mid-1950s (Adi, 1998, 186-7). Without further evidence from internal CPGB sources it is difficult to draw firm conclusions here. Certainly many newer African CPGB members, especially Nigerians felt increasingly alienated, some even arguing that there were attempts to segregate them from other British members. Many were critical of what they felt were patronising and chauvinistic attitudes within the Party. There can be little doubt that these were matters of concern for Desmond Buckle, by this time the longest serving African Party member, but his views at present remain unknown.
Desmond Buckle did much of his political work outside of the ranks of the Communist Party. During the late 1930s and early 1940s he was a member of the short-lived Committee for West Indian Affairs. Led by two Labour MPs David Adams and Ben Riley, the Committee was formed
The New Scramble for Africa
By Hakim Adi on April 15, 2013
In 1884 The Times newspaper coined the phrase ‘Scramble for Africa’ to describe the contention between the major European powers for a share of what the Belgian king Leopold contemptuously referred to as ‘this magnificent African cake.’ Britain, France, Belgian, Germany and the other big powers each attempted to carve out their share of the African continent during the infamous Berlin Conference, held over several months in the winter of 1884-1885. They then proceeded to invade and occupy their designated colonies in the period leading up to World War I, without any concern for the fate of the inhabitants of the African continent. That was the era of the so-called ‘civilising mission’ and ‘White man’s burden,’ that provided openly racist justifications for the conquest and partition of almost the entire African continent. It was undoubtedly one of the great crimes against humanity leading to literally millions of deaths of African men, women and children even in a singly colony, such as King Leopold’s ironically named Congo Free State.
The crimes of colonial conquest and rule, which also created the arbitrary division and externally imposed boundaries that still plague Africa, were perpetrated many years ago. Today, however, commentators speak of a new ‘scramble’ for Africa when referring to the intense rivalry between today’s big powers, such as the US, China, Britain and France, that has already led to military intervention in several African countries, most recently Mali and Libya, the establishment of the US African Command (AFRICOM) with a pan-African remit, in addition to economic and other forms of intervention and external interference throughout the African continent. Recent events in the Central African Republic, where a coup has taken place that appear to favour the leading members of NATO at the expense of the members of the BRICS grouping, have also been explained in terms of a new ‘scramble’.
The contention between the world’s major economic and military powers has been a constant feature of the African continent’s recent history. It was certainly a feature of the 1930s, when the fascist powers, Germany and Italy, as well as Japan demanded a ‘place in the sun,’ a re-partition of Africa in their favour and Italy, with the connivance of Britain and France, invaded and occupied Ethiopia. Competition and contention also existed during the ‘Cold War’, the period of the bi-polar division of the world between the US and Soviet Union and their respective allies. In this period the big powers sought to subvert the efforts of African countries to rid themselves of the shackles of colonial rule and to establish proxies and clients, new neo-colonial states that provided economic and geo-political advantage throughout the continent. The activities of the Soviet Union in Ethiopia for example and the NATO powers in Angola and South Africa are obvious examples.
The New Scramble
The new ‘scramble’ might be said to have commenced with the contention for the resources of the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the late 1990s. Competition for the uranium, coltan, cobalt and other minerals in the DRC led to a major war involving seven African nations in 1996, and consequently to millions of deaths (estimates vary between 3-10m people). However, as a UN report of 2002 concluded, behind the warring African governments were the big monopolies of the major powers, multinationals such as De Beers, Anglo-American, BAE Systems, Euromet, Oryx and many others.
The new ‘scramble’ is also a consequence of the fact that Africa stands poised to break free from the economic dependency that has been one of the most enduring and damaging legacies of colonial rule and its aftermath. In the past decade six of the world’s ten fastest growing economies were in Africa. In eight of the last ten years Africa’s economic growth has been faster than that of East Asia. Africa’s population is growing too and expected to provide half of the world’s increase in population in the next forty years. It is also expected that Africa will soon have over 100m people with an income of over $3000 per annum (almost the same as India). As a consequence the World Bank has reported that the continent could be on the brink of the same kind of economic take-off as experienced by China and India in the past, even though it is still heavily reliant on external investment. Africa is becoming increasingly important not only as a supplier of raw materials but also as a location for capital investment (this has increased by 500% over the last ten years), and as a market for goods. The continent is particularly important for its oil and gas supplies in established areas such as Libya, Nigeria, Guinea, Angola, and Algeria but also in new areas such as, Ghana, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Somalia. The US gets 15% of its oil from Africa, more than from the Middle East, and this is set to rise to around 25%. However, the US and its allies often find themselves in competition with the other big powers. China, for example, now obtains a third of its imported oil from Africa. The major buyers of Sudan’s oil are China, Japan, India and Malaysia and China has also become a major purchaser of Nigeria’s oil.
At the same time as the increasing contention for economic advantage in the continent, the people of Africa are demanding an end to the consequences of neo-liberal globalisation and unpopular governments that are little more than the proxies of external powers. It cannot be forgotten that the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ actually began in Africa and that the struggles of the people of Egypt and Tunisia for empowerment and people-centred economies continue. The possibility of revolutionary change as well as economic growth has only intensified the contention between the big powers in Africa and their attempts to maintain their domination over the continent. The old imperialist powers have been joined by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and others, all contending for
following the wide-scale workers’ struggles in the Caribbean (Howe, 1993, 104). He was also involved with the work of the National Council for Civil Liberties (NCCL) and spoke at several of the organisation’s conferences both on the anti-colonial struggles in Africa and on the problem of racism and the colour bar in Britain. In 1941 for example he was one of the key speakers in the ’West Africa commission’ at the ‘Civil Liberties in the Colonial Empire’ conference and in 1949 one of the main organisers of NCCL’s defence of 14 Africans, mainly Nigerians, arrested for defending themselves against a racist attack in Deptford. Buckle, described as a ‘colonial trade unionist’ was one of the main speakers at a conference organised by the Deptford Trades Council, NCCL and Deptford Council of Churches following the incident and demanded legislation to make discrimination against anyone on the basis of race, creed or colour punishable by law (Civil Liberty, 1950).
1945 Pan-African Congress
In 1945, as a preliminary to the Manchester Pan-African Congress, Buckle drafted the Manifesto on Africa in the Post-War World, which British-based African and Pan-African organisations sent to the newly formed United Nations and which amongst other things called for ‘full self government within a definite time limit’ for all the African colonies (Adi & Sherwood, 1995, 17). The CPGB was represented in Manchester by the Secretary of the Lancashire and Cheshire District, who delivered a message to the Congress, but Desmond Buckle did not attend. However, it seems unlikely that he would have worked on the Manifesto without authorisation from the Party. After 1945 Desmond Buckle was active in the international peace and trade union movements. He represented the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions at the founding of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) in Paris in 1945 (World News, 1945). He was also a member of the General Council of the WFTU and he played a leading role in the work of the Preparatory Committee of the Pan-African Trade Union Congress, which was the French government subsequently prevented from meeting in Douala in 1951.
Buckle also represented South Africa at the World Congress of Partisans in 1949 and spoke at the Paris, Prague and Rome sessions of the congress. In his speeches to this Congress he was an enthusiastic and militant representative of all the exploited peoples of South Africa and especially those he referred to as the ‘non-European workers’. He openly denounced Malan’s government, which he characterised as openly fascist and a key danger to world peace, and he accused Malan of crimes against humanity. At the same time he also pointed out the strategic importance of the African continent as a whole, especially as a base for the Anglo-American imperialists and as a source of raw materials for future aggression against the countries of eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. For the peoples of Africa, he concluded, world peace was a burning question linked to the ending of their daily oppression and exploitation. He therefore called on the Committee of the World Congress to consider convening a conference on world peace for colonial and subject peoples which might be held in London or Paris, the capitals of the leading imperialist powers in Europe. Buckle also represented South Africa as a member of the Permanent Committee of the World Peace Congress, and was elected to the presidium of the Second World Peace Congress, held in Warsaw in 1950. Variously described in congress reports as a trade unionist and a journalist, it seems that he continued to represent South Africa in this capacity throughout the early 1950s.
It is this period of his life that is most difficult to piece together. During the post-war period Desmond Buckle was employed as a journalist by the Czechoslovak News Agency as well as by TASS, reporting mainly on sport and African affairs. He also wrote for several European papers including the East German publications Tagliche Rundschau, Neue Berliner Illustrieterte and Zeit im Bild . A committed internationalist, he even acted as Paul Robeson’s secretary during the latter’s four month stay in Britain in 1949 (Duberman, 1989, 685). It is clear that Buckle was a leading figure in both the international trade union and peace movements and had established a close working relationship with organisations in South Africa and key figures in the anti-colonial struggle in West Africa and in the United States. There is still much that remains unknown about his international activities, which extended throughout Africa, Europe and the United States. In just one of his letters to Peter Blackman, for example, Buckle reports on his recent meetings in Prague and Berlin, his work for the WFTU and the international peace movement, his discussions with Sekou Touré and Gabriel D’Arboussier regarding a regional peace conference in Africa, the work he is involved in for the preparatory committee of the All-African Trade Union congress, the speeches he and the Duke of Bedford gave at a peace meeting in Bradford, in the north of England, the work of the Council of African Affairs in the US, his journalism for publications in Berlin and Dresden, radio interviews he gave for Berlin and Czech radio as well as his editorial work for the Africa Newsletter in Britain.
It is evident that part of his work in the CPGB’s International Affairs and Africa Committees involved liaison with members of the Egyptian communist movement who were in exile in France and elsewhere in Europe. This relationship was maintained by correspondence and some visits throughout the 1950s until the ‘Rome Group’ was dissolved in 1958. Buckle’s letters afford us a glimpse into his busy life and something of the nature of the link between the British CPGB and the Egyptian exiles. In his correspondence Buckle mentions his journalistic work for the Polish and Hungarian press, his work in the World Peace Council and the WFTU, and some of the many political contacts he maintained throughout the world, including sympathetic members of parliament in Britain. But these letters also provide an interesting insight into Buckle’s views about contemporary events, especially those occurring in Africa. Desmond Buckle took a special journalistic interest in African affairs and his letters to his Egyptian contacts are full of requests for further information about Algerian and north African politics, issues he was particularly concerned about during the 1950s and early 1960s, as is evident from his published articles. But his letters also tell us something about his more private views on West African, and especially Ghanaian affairs, views that were sometimes not expressed, or expressed very differently, in his published writing. In most of the articles published in the communist press in Britain, Buckle was supportive of the independence struggle waged in his home country, Britain’s Gold coast colony, although he often issued warnings against the attempts of British imperialism to subvert that struggle, both by accommodating its leaders, as well as by open repression.
In some of his letters, Buckle takes a much more critical tone and is scathing in some of his remarks concerning Nkrumah and the Convention Peoples’ Party, both before and after Ghana’s formal independence in 1957. In one such letter he writes:
Knowing Nkrumah very well I have always considered him to be not an intelligent politician but one given to boastfulness, vanity and bombast. He is very susceptible to flattery and has attracted a gang of unscrupulous and unprincipled adventurers around him. Ghana is just one more example of what happens when demagogues without ideology exploit the nationalist sentiments of a politically immature people. Nkrumah is deporting people, even Ghana citizens, is adopting measures to restrict people to residence in a circumscribed area and is introducing concentration camps for those who criticise his policies. None of these things were done by the British during their colonial rule. You can therefore see what a gift Nkrumah is making to those circles which still want to retain colonialism.
In another letter dating from 1957, Buckle comments on the rivalry between British and US imperialism in Ghana and Ghana’s links with Israel. At the time, the two countries had recently established a joint shipping line and Moshe Dayan, who was to play a key role in re-organising Ghana’s armed forces, had just visited the country. Buckle speculates that US imperialism might well be behind such moves, which amongst other things has led to a cooling off in relations between Egypt’s leader Nasser and Nkrumah. Commenting on this situation Buckle writes:
The British raised Nkrumah to his present position because they realised that it was either him or someone else much less pliable. Now they are playing a cat and mouse game with him over the question of industrialisation which involves the Volta River Project as the most essential feature. Nkrumah cannot find the money for the project and the British and Canadian aluminium firms which encouraged the drafting of the project in the first are now very cool toward it. Will the Americans seize their chance and take up the financing of the project now that the British are hesitant? Well, the American have their own reasons for holding back, among which is the fact that they are not altogether sure that Nkrumah is not a British stooge. And they have no intention of strengthening British imperialism.
It would indeed be interesting to know how Desmond Buckle responded to the uncritical support given to Nkrumah and his government by the CPGB in the early 1960s and the opposition to such support openly expressed by some of its members such as Michael McCreery (McCreery, 1964). But as yet we know nothing about his views on this question, nor on the consequences of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, nor on the CPGB’s adoption of the British Road to Socialism and the signs are that he remained a loyal party member until his early death. A committed internationalist, Desmond Buckle was a regular speaker at meetings and conferences throughout Europe. He was one of the founders of the British-Hungarian Friendship Society, a member of the British Soviet and Czechoslovakian Societies, the British Yugoslav Society and the British Chinese Friendship League (Communist Party Archive). Desmond Buckle played a significant role on the international stage, both as an activist and as a journalist, and was a member of some of the highest bodies of the international peace and trade union movements. It might appear that he did not occupy a similarly prominent position within the CPGB itself. But without further evidence little can be made of this apparent paradox. There is nothing to suggest that Buckle was dissatisfied with his role within the CPGB, nor with developments within the international communist movement, even after 1956.
There is still much that is unknown about Desmond’s Buckle’s life and work. But from what is known, it seems to me to be a life that is well worth rescuing from total obscurity and neglect. Buckle’s work as a life-long member of the CPGB shows that the Party was indeed international in its composition and included members from Britain’s colonies alongside those from the British Isles. It shows that even those from privileged backgrounds in the colonies were often radicalised by their experiences in Britain and felt compelled to take up revolutionary politics. Most importantly it shows that those from the national minority communities in Britain played a full role in the political life of the country, and internationally, within the ranks and through their membership of the communist party.
But even this brief account also points to the need for much more research on the diversity of the CPGB’s membership, the difficulties faced by the CPGB in its ‘colonial’ work, and the differences that often arose between the CPGB leadership and the views of its African and other ‘colonial’ members . This paper also highlights some of the problems historians face when trying to piece together the life of a communist like Desmond Buckle. His published articles remain, and some of is views and activities can be gauged from reports, letters and other sources, but much of his life remains almost impossible to piece together and requires research not just in archives in Britain, but also in Africa, the US and throughout Europe. This paucity of material could lead to entirely unwarranted conclusions about the ‘African communist,’ a sobriquet that might suggest that a man who lived all but the first ten years of his life in Britain, was still seen by some as an outsider.
James Desmond Buckle died of stomach cancer at St George’s Hospital in London on Sunday, 25 October 1964. His ashes were interned at Highgate Cemetery.
Adi, Hakim. 1995 ‘West Africans and the Communist Party in the 1950s,’ in G. Andrews, N. Fishman and K. Morgan (eds.) Opening the Books – Essays on the Social and Cultural History of the British Communist Party, London: Pluto, pp.176-195.
Adi, Hakim. 1997. ‘The Communist Movement in West Africa’ in Science and Society. 61/1, pp. 94-99
Adi, Hakim. and Marika Sherwood. 1995. The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, London: New Beacon Books, p.17
Branson, Noreen. 1997. History of the Communist Party of Great Britain 1945-1951, London: Lawrence and Wishart.
Buckle, Desmond. 1947 ‘Analyzing World Imperialism Today and the Fight Against It – The Conference of Communist Parties of the British Empire’, New Africa, April.
____ 1949 ‘Supplementary Report on East and West Africa and the West Indies’ in We Speak for Freedom (CPGB) pp. 83-86.
____1953 ’Africa in Ferment’ Labour Monthly, January, pp.19-23
_____1958 ‘North Africa Shakes France’ Labour Monthly, April, pp.175-180
Civil Liberty. 1950, 10/3, February-March, p.1
Colonial Office Minute, February 1940, (Public Records Office) CO 859/20/8
Communist Party Archives, National Museum of Labour History (CPGB/CENT/PERS/1/03)
Daily Worker, 26 October 1964, p.1-3
Duberman, Martin Bauml. 1989. Paul Robeson. London: Pan Books. p.685 n.7
Eaden, James and David Renton. 2002. The Communist Party of Great Britain since 1920. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Flinn, Andrew. 2002. ‘Cypriot, Indian ad West Indian Branches of the CPGB, 1945-1970 – an Experiment in self-organisation?’ Socialist History, 21, pp.47-66
Howe, Stephen. 1993, Anticolonialism in British Politics – the Left and the End of Empire 1918-64, Oxford: Clarendon Press, pp.104-5
Gold Coast Student Association Minute Book 1934-40, Solanke Papers, University of Lagos, Nigeria.
Jenkins, Ray. 1985. ‘Gold Coasters Overseas, 1880-1919: With Specific Reference to Their Activities in Britain’, Immigrants and Minorities, 4/3, pp.5-52
McClennan, Woodford. 1993 ‘Blacks in Comintern Schools 1925-34,’ International Journal of African Historical Studies, 26/2, pp.371-90.
McCreery, Michael. 1964. ‘The National Liberation Struggle in West Africa’, in The Patriots, London: The Committee to defeat Revisionism for Communist Unity, pp.15-24.
Miller, James A., Susan Pennybacker and Eve Rosenhaft, ‘Mother Ada Wright and the International Campaign to Free the Scottsboro Boys, 1931-1934.’ The American Historical Review, (2001) 106/2, pp.387-430.
Rohdie, Samuel. 1963. ‘The Gold Coast Aborigines Abroad’ Journal of African History, 6/3, pp.389-411.
Sherwood, Marika. n.d. ‘Racism and Resistance in Cardiff in the 1930s and 1940s’. Paper presented to the Blacks in Britain Postgraduate Seminar, Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London University, p.13.
Squires, Mike. 2000. ‘Communists and the Fight against Racism during the Class against Class Period 1928-33’, Communist Review, Summer, p.14
World News and Views. 1945 ‘The WFTU and Africans’, No. 41, pp.324-5.
 Unfortunately the reports of MI5 have not yet been released for public scrutiny.
 On at least one occasion Buckle represented South Africa at the international meeting of NCCL.
 Buckle replaced the delegate from the Transvaal Council of Non-European Trade Unions, who was prevented from attending the conference by the actions of the South African government. In his speech Buckle denounced the ‘fascism’ of the South African regime and spoke in support of the proposal for a WFTU commission to investigate the political and economic conditions of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples.
 See Plenary Session of Committee of World Congress of Partisans for Peace (Rome, 1949) p.17 and World Congress of Partisans for Peace (Paris-Prague, 1949) pp.642-44. Buckle had been urged to call for such a conference by amongst others William Patterson of the Civil Rights Congress in the US. See W. Patterson to D. Buckle, 19 November 1948, CRC Pt II, Reel 3 f.00607, Schomburg Centre.
 See e.g. Peace: A World Review – Special Number of the 2nd World Peace Congress (Warsaw, 1950) p.136
 D. Buckle to Peter Blackman, 6 March 1951.
 The Egyptian communists in exile in Europe formed the ‘Rome Group’ a branch of the Democratic movement for National Liberation established in Paris in 1951. The correspondence between members of the Group and Desmond Buckle is to be found in the archives of the International Institute of Social Science (IISS), Amsterdam.
 See e.g. ‘North Africa Shakes France’, Labour Monthly, XL/4, 1958, pp.175-180 and ‘End Repression in North Africa’ in World News 2/46, 12 November 1955, pp.873-874.
 Se e.g. ‘The Gold Coast is on the March’, World News and Views (WNV), 30/11, 18 March 1950, p.128. Also ‘Gold Coast People Express Their Will’ WNV, 31/8, 24 February 1951, p.93 and ‘Gold Coast into Ghana’ World News, 4/9, 2 March 1957, pp.136-144.
 D. Buckle to Joyce (Blau?) 16 September 1957, Papers of the Egyptian Communists in Exile (Rome Group) IISH.
 Ibid. D. Buckle to Joyce, 2 November 1957.
 In one of his letters following the Soviet Union’s intervention in Hungary in 1956 Buckle acknowledges that ‘current tragic events in Hungary have affected my financial as well as other interests.’
Africa’s mineral resources and growing markets, as well as for strategic advantage in the continent. The BRICS countries used to account for 1% of Africa’s trade but now account for 20% and by 2030 possibly 50%. The biggest impact has come from China which is now the major economic power in Africa, has provided interest free loans, buys increasing amounts of Africa’s other minerals as well as oil, has tens of thousands of workers in Africa, in addition to many manufacturing and construction companies. Contention between the NATO powers and China is occurring throughout the continent and was evident in Libya, throughout the Sahel region and in other countries such as the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Unable to compete economically, the western countries led by the US have sought other means to preserve their influence. The US established its AFRICOM in 2007 allegedly as part of the ‘war against terror’ and to safeguard US national interests but with the aim of countering the influence of China and other economic rivals in Africa. AFRICOM with the support of Britain, France and other NATO allies used military might to intervene in Libya, not in the interests of the people of that country, since it was the most economically developed in Africa with its own unique political system, but in order to establish in their own interests the stated policy of ‘regime change,’ something which is entirely contrary to international law and the Charter of the United Nations. Libya was one of the few African countries not allied to NATO, nor to AFRICOM, and played a vital economic and political role in the African Union. The destruction of the ‘Great Jamahiriya’ has consequently had a major negative impact not just in North Africa and the Sahel region but also throughout the continent.
AFRICOM, which has established connections and joint training exercises with the military in most African countries, appears to have been modelled on earlier US military initiatives in Africa such as the Pan-Sahel Initiative, and Trans-Saharan Counter-Terrorism Project, that both centred on Mali. It is an extraordinary coincidence that it was precisely in a region identified as important for strategic and economic reasons and targeted by the Pentagon for ‘counter-terrorism’ for nearly a decade, that ‘terrorists’ then appeared in the wake of military intervention in Libya, necessitating further military intervention in Mali by France, Britain and other allies of the US in 2013.
It is to be noted that just as during the ‘scramble’ for Africa in the nineteenth century all kinds of justifications are now advanced for continued external interference: ‘humanitarian intervention,’ the need to control ‘ungoverned spaces’ and ‘fragile states,’ as well as the ‘right to protect’ civilians. But perhaps these pretexts should be regarded in the same way that we now regard the ‘civilising mission’ and ‘white man’s burden’.
 B. Davidson, The Story of Africa (Mitchell Beazley, 1984) p.173
 A. Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: a story of greed, terror and heroism in colonial Africa (Pan Macmillan, 1998)
 P. Carmody, The New Scramble for Africa (Polity Press, 2012)
 See e.g. http://friendsofthecongo.org/pdf/third_panel_report_october2002.pdf
 http://www.economist.com/node/21541015 and http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21572377-african-lives-have-already-greatly-improved-over-past-decade-says-oliver-august
To What Extent is Britain Post-Colonial?
By Hakim Adi on October 3, 2012
There certainly appear to be attempts in government circles in Britain to draw a line under the country’s colonial past and to claim that British colonialism is ancient history. In 2005, for instance, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, announced that ‘the days of Britain having to apologise for its colonial history are over,’ (1) while the current Foreign Minister, William Hague, recently expressed his wish to move away from ‘post-colonial guilt’ and claimed that there is now ‘a new and equal partnership’ between Britain and former colonial countries. But can it be said that the sun has now set on Britain’s imperial ambitions, or are we witnessing a ‘new imperialism’ and new forms of colonial domination? (2)
Wind of Change
It is now nearly sixty years since a British government and its allies failed in their attempts at regime change in Egypt and the resulting ‘Suez Crisis’ of 1956 exposed their machinations before the world. The Suez Crisis has been viewed as a major blow to Britain’s imperial prestige and one of the key events ushering in a new post-colonial Britain. Four years later in 1960, Britain’s Conservative Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made his famous ‘wind of change’ speech in South Africa, in which he recognised that as a consequence of growing anti-colonial struggles and the changing international situation, Britain would have to relinquish political control over its colonies in Africa.
Thereafter, in the following two decades, British governments granted formal independence to almost all colonies, although Zimbabwe, the former Southern Rhodesia, only gained its independence in 1980 after enduring a war of national liberation lasting many years and Hong Kong only returned to China’s sovereignty after lengthy negotiations in 1997. Fourteen former colonies have never become independent countries and are now termed British Overseas Territories. They include six territories in the Caribbean and three in the South Atlantic. The most well known of these are the Falkland Islands, or Malvinas, which lie off the coast of Argentina, a country that still disputes Britain’s sovereignty, a circumstance that led to the colonial Falklands War of 1982. Another disputed territory is Gibraltar, which is claimed by Spain, and was first acquired by Britain in 1713. In addition there is continuing British sovereignty of a part of Ireland and the division of the island of Ireland, perhaps the most glaring example of the continuation of Britain’s colonial past.
Moreover, even during the period when Britain and the other imperial powers claimed to be decolonising their empires, leaders of newly independent countries, such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, were warning of the emergence of neo-colonialism, whereby Britain and the other big powers maintained economic and other forms of domination over nominally independent countries by a variety of means including the power of global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank. (3)
The division of Ireland, the continued dispute over Gibraltar, and that over the Malvinas, which resurfaced again during the summer of 2012, are a stark reminder that Britain is far from being a post-colonial polity and suggest that declarations about guilt and apologies are rather premature. Indeed it is difficult to find examples of government apologies for innumerable colonial crimes and impossible to provide examples of any reparation made for such crimes. Former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, even spoke of the British Empire in glowing terms as ‘a remarkable achievement.’ Despite the wishes of governments and ministers to sweep things under the carpet, the old colonial Britain keeps raises its head.
One reason is that successive governments are unwilling to take measures to end colonial injustices even when they do not require the relinquishing of occupied territory. Examples surfaced during the summer of 2012 in two court cases, one brought by elderly Kenyans demanding redress for torture and other abuses carried out by the British authorities in colonial Kenya in the 1950s, and the other brought by the families of 24 unarmed plantation workers massacred by British troops in Batang Kali in Malaya in 1948. (4)
White Man's Burden
In the Batang Kali massacre case, the present coalition government publicly opposed the request for an independent enquiry, a position that was upheld by the High Court, despite what was referred to as ‘decades of Government-sanctioned deceit.’ In this regard the present government is therefore acting no differently from its predecessors that have also sought to cover up the crime, refused to hold a public enquiry and have even intervened in prevent investigations in Malaysia. (5) In the Kenya case, where official documentary evidence exists of the crimes, the current government, again like its predecessors is simply refusing to accept any responsibility for the offences, even going so far as to add insult to injury by claiming that the responsibility for the crimes of colonialism lie not with the British government but with the present government of Kenya. (6)
There might be some justification for considering Britain a post-colonial power if it was simply a matter of addressing the crimes of the past and there was any evidence of Britain’s governments taking appropriate measures including making reparation. Unfortunately, there has not only been a continuation of occupation of colonial territory, and unwillingness to right wrongs as mentioned above, but also a continuation of the unequal relationship between Britain and many countries in Africa, Asia
and elsewhere, as well as a resurrection of the values of the empire-builders of the nineteenth century who justified their colonial conquests, massacres and plunder with the talk about their ‘civilizing mission’ and the responsibility of taking up ‘the white man’s burden.’
At the turn of the century, for example, the New Labour governments of Tony Blair based their foreign policy on the need to establish a ‘new kind of imperialism’, as Robert Cooper, the government’s foreign policy advisor, called it. According to Cooper, this ‘post-modern imperialism’ takes two main forms: the ‘voluntary imperialism of the global economy’, allegedly necessary and benign and operated under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank; and ‘the imperialism of neighbours’, equally necessary Cooper stated when ‘instability in your neighbourhood poses threats which no state can ignore’. The notion of ‘failed’ or ‘failing’ states, especially in countries that are poor or former colonies was another part of the arsenal of justification for global intervention and new forms of colonialism. Cooper even referred to some states as pre-modern, as the imperialists of the 19th century might have done, and advocated pre-emptive intervention when there were any signs of ‘failure’ as determined by Britain and the other big powers. (7)
In the last few decades British governments have presented a plethora of justifications for global intervention and neo-colonial domination of countries around the world, from Blair’s ‘doctrine of international community,’ and ‘humanitarian intervention,’ to the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ civilian populations. Armed with such apparently noble aims and defending allegedly ‘universal values,’ which appear to be those of neo-liberal globalization enshrined in the Paris Charter of 1990, Britain’s governments have intervened throughout the world in concert and in contention with the other big powers. In countries such as Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Libya what has been established can only be described as neo-colonial protectorates in what in many cases are former British colonies. Thousands have died, and chaos and instability have ensued. The illegal aim of regime change so clearly exposed and condemned during the Suez Crisis in 1956 has again become the openly admitted aim of Britain’s foreign policy in countries such as Iraq, Libya, and Syria. (9)
Even where colonial-style invasion has not taken place every effort is made to impose ‘British values,’ which it is claimed are universal, and to advance the interests of the major British financial institutions and monopolies. The British Government acted with the World Bank, for example, to promote disastrous water privatization programmes in former colonies such Sierra Leone and Tanzania, exposing how ‘aid-funded business’ is used in the interests of the multinationals rather than to solve the problems facing impoverished countries. (10) Successive governments and the major political parties have also continually interfered in the internal affairs of Zimbabwe and other countries through such organisations as the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, while MPs regularly discuss other countries as if they were still British colonies.
In most cases the vast majority of Britain’s citizens oppose the colonialist policies of its governments. The most notable example being the mass protests against the invasion of Iraq and the widespread view that such crimes are not carried out in the name of the people of Britain. In this sense we can say that the sentiment of the majority may be described as anti-colonial rather than post-colonial, while the minority who are currently the decision-makers, far from distancing themselves from the colonial era, remain dangerously wedded to its values and appear to believe that with this outlook Britain can be made great again.
3. K. Nkrumah, Neo-Colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism (London, 1965)
7. Robert Cooper, ‘The New Liberal Imperialism,’ Observer, April 7, 2002, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/07/1
8. Charter of Paris for a New Europe, 1990 http://www.osce.org/mc/39516
9. E.g. http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/news/latest-news/?view=PressS&id=806183482
10. John Hilary, ‘DFID, UK and Public Services Privatisation: Time for Change,’ Global Social Policy, 5/2 (2005) pp.134-136. http://peer.ccsd.cnrs.fr/docs/00/57/17/73/PDF/PEER_stage2_10.1177%252F146801810500500202.pdf
A New Kind of Imperialism
Hakim Adi*, Radical History Review, Spring 2006, Issue 95: “New Imperialisms”
In 1997, when the Tony Blair’s Labour government first came to office, there was the expectation in some quarters that New Labour, as the party re-styled itself, would offer a radical alternative and a much needed change of direction after 18 years of Thatcherism and Conservative governments. Blair’s governments since 1997 have claimed that there could be a so-called “third way” in foreign, as well as domestic, policy, but the reality has been not a radical break with past but an adoption of all that is most backward at home and abroad. A foreign policy that had an “ethical” dimension was at first promoted, but this was soon found to be no longer credible. It was then hastily followed by a foreign policy in which “humanitarian concern” and “enlightened self-interest” were alleged to be the main preoccupations. Whether acting alone, or in alliance with the US, in Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Yugoslavia, Sudan, Afghanistan or Iraq, Britain’s governments have always sought to establish a moral or ideological justification for their actions.
Now, in the summer of 2005, a series of events have led to a situation in which Britain’s foreign policy is coming under more scrutiny than ever before. It is a policy that, particularly in regard to Iraq, had already produced unprecedented opposition from millions of people in Britain. Now we have witnessed the G8 summit and most recently the bombing and attempted bombing of London’s transport system that led to nearly 60 deaths. At the present time, it is the bombings, attempted bombings and their consequences that are making the headlines and filling the televisions screens every day. Rumours and speculation about the nature of the bombings and the motivation of the perpetrators are rife and in many quarters there is also speculation about the actions and motives of the government, police and security services. In particular there is great concern about the consequences of the bombings, the “shoot to kill” policy, racial profiling, Islamophobia, and the plans for even more draconian legislation that may even breach the European Convention on Human Rights; deportations, the banning of organisations, the closing of bookshops, websites and even mosques, which is being likened by some to the introduction of fascism in Britain.
A few weeks before 7/7, Britain had been presented with saturation coverage of the G8 summit, Live8 and African issues in general. An unprecedented publicity campaign had been unleashed focusing on Africa. Newspapers and television screens were full of African news, events, documentaries, films, and music. The main daily news programmes were broadcast from Africa, as were several popular TV shows. All this was accompanied by Africa 05, “the biggest celebration of African culture ever organised in Britain”, partly financed by the British government. In case anyone was unaware of the fact, Tony Blair had made Africa, that “scar on the conscience of humanity”, as he referred to it, the focus of Britain’s presidency of the G8 and the European Union. Bob Geldof and Live8, and even the Make Poverty History campaign, were all co-opted as part of the British government’s alleged attempts to persuade the leaders of the big powers that Africa’s poverty and indebtedness must be brought to an end and the recommendations of Blair’s Commission for Africa implemented.
But despite all these efforts, propaganda and disinformation, it is difficult to completely mask reality. Tens of thousands of people demonstrated in Scotland, not just to lobby the G8, as the British government had encouraged and instructed, but because they were thoroughly opposed to the neo-liberal agenda of all the G8 countries, Britain included. The deliberations of the G8 summit announced in the 32-page Gleneagles Communiqué were criticised from nearly all sides and were brought into stark relief by the crisis in Niger only a few weeks later. Once again however, the G8 summit, Blair’s Commission for Africa and the British government’s alleged humanitarian concern with Africa, had all thrown the spotlight on Britain’s foreign policy and relationship with the African continent. The question was constantly being asked, just what is the British government up to in Africa?
But concern over Britain’s involvement in Africa has now been superseded by other events, the bombings and attempted bombings in London. Two major questions remain unanswered: why did these terrible events take place in London and who organised them? For Tony Blair and the British government the answers are simple – these were terrorist atrocities inspired by an “evil ideology” and carried out by “Islamic extremists”. But on the streets, and indeed throughout the length and breadth of the country, another answer to this question is being discussed. Britain is under attack, it is said, because of its invasion of Iraq, and other countries; because of its slavish alliance with Bush and the United States; as a result of its foreign policy of intervention and interference throughout the world. This is the answer that was presented in Security, Terrorism and the UK, a briefing paper based on a five-year government-funded academic research programme, and published by the eminently respectable Chatham House. It suggested that Britain was at particular risk from such attacks because, amongst other things, “it is the closest ally of the United States, (and) has deployed armed forces in the military campaigns to topple the Taleban regime in Afghanistan and in Iraq”.
The Chatham House report was followed by an ICM opinion poll published in the Guardian, one of the country’s main broadsheets, which showed that: “Two-thirds of Britons believe there is a link between Tony Blair's decision to invade Iraq and the London bombings despite government claims to the contrary.” Then the often outspoken Labour Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, who was interviewed on BBC Radio, argued that several factors had created the conditions for such attacks to take place including: “80 years of western intervention into predominantly Arab lands because of the western need for oil.” He went onto say that Britain and the US had “propped up unsavoury governments”, and “overthrown ones we didn't consider sympathetic”. He also added, “a lot of young people see the double standards, they see what happens in Guantanamo Bay, and they just think that there isn't a just foreign policy," and he denounced “those governments which use indiscriminate slaughter to advance their foreign policy”. Similar links between Britain’s foreign policy and the London bombings were even made by the British security service MI5 and by one of those arrested in connection with the failed bombing of July 21.
But the fact is that as yet there is no clear answer to the question of who was responsible for the bombings of 7/7. Indeed, at the present time almost nothing is being said officially about the investigation of this atrocity. Instead all the attention is being focused on those allegedly involved in the events of July 21. Even in this case it is a murky business and people are loathe to give any credibility to the explanations offered by the police and politicians. Nevertheless, the terrible events of July 2005 have, despite all the efforts of the British government, once again placed the spotlight on Britain’s foreign policy, on the policy of intervention that has been the hallmark not only of the present government but also of its predecessors.
The Blair government's foreign policy has been based on the need to establish a “new kind of imperialism”, as Robert Cooper, the government’s former foreign policy advisor, called it, in the context of the conditions that exist in the world at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. According to Cooper, this new kind of imperialism would be “one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values”. In Cooper’s view, “post-modern imperialism” takes two main forms: the “voluntary imperialism of the global economy”, necessary and benign and operated under the auspices of the IMF and World Bank; and “the imperialism of neighbours”, equally necessary when “instability in your neighbourhood poses threats which no state can ignore”. Cooper adds one additional point; he argues that Osama Bin Laden has demonstrated that the whole world can now be considered “our neighbour”, and that therefore intervention can be justified almost anywhere. It has been the aim of the British Labour government, both before and since 9/11 to develop this “new kind of imperialism”, which in many respects borrows not only the methods but also some of the justifications of the old imperialism of the 19th century.
Britain, and the other big powers, developed their “post-modern” imperialism in the conditions brought about by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ending of the bi-polar division of the world and the striving of the US for a unipolar world. They codified their values, what were then called “fundamental human values”, and are now referred to by Blair and others as “universal values”, in the Paris Charter, signed in 1990 at a meeting of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, by all the countries of Europe, as well as Canada and the US. This document was a declaration that the big powers would strive to impose on the entire world their Eurocentric values: the free market economy, political pluralism and representative democracy, the rule of law and human rights based on the sanctity of private property. These were to become “universal values”, to be adopted and upheld by all. It is during the last 15 years, and in the face of the growing global opposition, that the big powers have sought to impose these values, as a means of re-ordering the world as best suits the interests of the big monopolies and financial institutions. The so-called war against terrorism is but the latest and most dangerous phase of this offensive for neo-liberal globalisation.
The Labour governments of Tony Blair have gone out of their way to try to develop this “new kind of imperialism” as part of the stated aim of making Britain “great” again, in other words in an attempt to turn the clock back to the times of the British empire, which Blair himself has referred to as “ a most extraordinary achievement”, and striving to make Britain a key player, not only in Europe, but also in the global market. Following the tried and tested approach of previous post-war governments, Blair has recognised that the best way of achieving this aim is to tie Britain as closely as possible to the coat-tails of the United States, and therefore British governments pride themselves on being the most loyal ally of America, although in recent years even this subservient position has been justified as being one that enables Britain to exercise a moderating influence on the American government. Blair’s governments have thus often appeared as the ideologists or apologists for the Anglo-American alliance, attempting to provide a moral veneer of respectability, a human face for all aspects of neo-liberal globalisation, including the well-know breaches of international law, disregarding of the UN and its Charter and armed intervention throughout the world.
One of the main ways in which Blair’s government’s have acted has been to present military intervention as justified on the grounds of “humanitarian concern”, a 21st century version of the notions of “white man’s burden” and “civilising mission” that were favoured by the 19th century imperialists. British governments have utilised this approach particularly in their dealings with African countries, many of them former colonies such as Sierra Leone. In fact Britain’s intervention in Sierra Leone, its first colony in Africa, has been almost continuous for the last two centuries. Britain’s role in the colonial and neo-colonial exploitation of that country, now one of the poorest in the world but at the same time one of the world’s leading producers of diamonds, is conveniently forgotten. It is also conveniently forgotten that Blair’s government was involved in attempts to break the UN military sanctions imposed on Sierra Leone in 1997 and restore to power the president, Ahmed Kabbah, who had been ousted by a coup. Rather the British government has widely promoted its alleged humanitarian role in Sierra Leone and other African countries and has attempted to create the impression that it is Africa’s greatest friend. These efforts culminated earlier in 2005 with Blair’s Commission for Africa and the events surrounding the G8 Summit at Gleneagles. But the notion of “humanitarian concern” has been used much more widely, as the basis for military and other forms of intervention, and was of some significance in terms of justifying intervention in both Afghanistan and Yugoslavia.
In regard to Africa it is significant that British governments make no mention of the colonial legacy, nor the crimes carried out by Britain in Africa during, before and after the colonial era. Indeed, last year there were those infamous remarks of Gordon Brown, Britain’s Chancellor and the man widely seen as Blair’s successor, to the effect that Britain should stop apologising for colonial rule in Africa. But there has never been any official apology, let alone reparations for these crimes. This is most glaringly obvious in regard to Zimbabwe but also in Kenya, Sudan and elsewhere. The professed humanitarian concerns masks the reality of continued interference by Britain, in one form or another, by the demand that African countries continue to accept Eurocentric political institutions, the privatisation and dependency of their economies, and the exploitation of their human and other resources.
The notion of failed and failing states is another part of the arsenal of justification for global intervention in which British governments have played a significant role. We could say that they have functioned as both propagandists and practitioners of the ideas of Cooper and others. According to these ideas, there are states that are “pre-modern”, those countries that are poor and often former colonies, where the state, as recognised by the big powers, has ceased to exist or for a variety of reasons is weak. In such states it is necessary, so it is claimed, for the big powers to intervene under the guise of good neighbourliness, in order to prevent countries descending into anarchy, or falling prey to criminals, or what are usually referred to as terrorists. Of course, so the argument goes, it is no use waiting until states have totally failed, what is important is to recognise the signs of failure so that their can be pre-emptive intervention in states that show signs of “failing”. It is particularly significant that it is the Eurocentric criteria of the big powers that will determine whether a state has failed or is failing, but at the same time it is asserted that that such failure is only likely to occur in those states where it is advantageous, for geo-political or economic reasons for the big powers to intervene. The theory of failed and failing states is particularly concerned with those states that were either former colonies or that might be considered ripe for colonisation or re-colonisation in the future. It is also significant that the theory asserts that in dealing with these states entirely different laws should be applied. “When we are operating in the jungle,” Cooper states, “we must also use the laws of the jungle.”
In Britain, Labour governments have historically been linked with the workers and trade union movement, although in the past this has not in any way prevented them administering an empire, nor developing foreign policy which it is difficult to distinguish from those of their political rivals. In 1997 New Labour came to office not promising to be the party of labour but rather the party of business. It jettisoned any vestiges of social democracy from its programme but sought to make use of those sentiments and traditions that still bound many people to it. No doubt it was the perfect vehicle to attempt to develop a new acceptable kind of imperialism.
However, it cannot be said that in this aim Britain’s Labour governments have been entirely successful. Even before 9/11 there was growing and widespread opposition to a world based on the medieval principle that “might is right”, a world where the big powers ride roughshod over the UN and international law and just do as they please. There was also mass opposition to neo-liberal globalisation and its consequences throughout the world, in rich and poor countries alike. Despite all the attempts to persuade people that globalisation is a positive phenomenon with a human face that can bring prosperity to all, facts remain stubborn things. Even the British government’s alleged humanitarian concern with Africa, so-called debt relief, poverty reduction, aid and fair trade, is increasingly seen as being more concerned with “conditionality”, privatisation, dependency and intervention. Indeed after 9/11, people in Britain, and many other countries too, were even less inclined to support military intervention, the view that “might is right” and the policy of resolving the world’s problems by threats and violent means. Opposition to all forms of terrorism, necessarily including state terrorism, remains widespread, while the demand for another world is becoming louder and more insistent.
The notion of a new kind of imperialism remains firmly wedded to the racism and Eurocentrism of the past. Its “civilising mission” is the export of “good governance” and “stability and liberty” from the strong to the week, the establishment of proxy states that can do the dirty work of the big powers, and protectorates and mandates that are open for investment and exploitation. As in the past the aim is to create the fiction that, as far as possible, all this is based on the voluntary principle, that all have adopted the “universal values”. The attempts to create a new kind of imperialism are also based on the notion that this is necessary because of an alleged lack of imperialism, because of the “death of imperialism”. But the death of imperialism seems to be very much exaggerated. Monopoly capitalism remains alive even if it is moribund. The classic features of imperialism identified at the beginning of the last century also seem to be much in evidence and continuing to create enormous problems even for those who deny their existence. The mega-mergers and monopolisation of all aspects of economic life, the quest for new markets and sources of raw materials such as oil, the contention between the big powers and their blocs for a re-division of the world are features that are difficult to deny and have led to the current increasingly dangerous and unstable world.
The British government has recently announced a whole raft of new measures that it claims are necessary to protect “our way of life”. It will, for example, attempt to make it an offence to promote the use of violence for political ends. But such laws will not be used against those who invade or declare war on other countries, nor those who justify the use of violence in international affairs, or against states such as Iran, Cuba and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. It now seems to many of us in Britain that what is new about this new kind of imperialism is that its consequences are evident not just abroad, in far away places, but at home too, in a way that increasingly is affecting everyone’s lives. The significance of Britain’s recent foreign policy is not just that it arrogantly claims to be exporting freedom abroad but rather that it is also leading to the increasing curtailment of freedom at home.
London, slavery and abolition
Dr Hakim Adi
Academic Dr Hakim Adi writes here about London's connections with the slave trade.
It is impossible to conceive of the modern city of London without considering its involvement with the enslavement and trafficking of African captives. Modern London grew rich and prospered as a result of Britain’s involvement in what is referred to as the trans-Atlantic slave trade from its earliest beginnings in the 16th century.
All the major institutions in London from the Bank of England to the National Gallery and British Museum are intimately connected with the money generated by this great crime against humanity.
But London was also a centre of the demands for abolition which grew throughout the late 18th century. In particular it was a centre of the mass popular movement against the enslavement of Africans, one of the earliest and largest political campaigns in Britain’s history, but which hitherto has largely been ignored.
That London played a central role in establishing Britain as the world’s greatest slave trafficking power is well documented.
It was from London that some of the earliest slave traffickers, such as John Hawkins set out in the mid 16th century. In the early 17th century the monopoly companies established by royal charter to engage in this trade, the Guinea Company, the Royal Adventurers into Africa and the Royal Africa Company, were all based in London.
Indeed every monarch and their family from Elizabeth Tudor onwards were financiers and beneficiaries of this trade in human flesh. So too were many of London’s lord mayors, sheriffs and aldermen. Owning an African slave was the height of fashion in London during the late 17th and 18th centuries.
London was a major port sending slave ships to Africa and the Americas and handling and processing most of the sugar and other slave-produced goods imported into the country.
It was for this purpose that the West India docks were constructed. It was also the financial centre of the trade and the economies it supported in the Americas.
Banking and insurance in London, the genesis of the fortunes of the Barclays and Barings was based on slavery, as was the development of Lloyds and the Bank of England.
In the 18th century wealthy Londoners, such as the major slave owners William Codrington and William Beckford, were able to buy their way into high office and control of parliament.
But it should not be forgotten that although trafficking in human flesh brought massive profits to the rich and powerful, this was at the expense of the lives of African men, women and children.
Enslaved Africans were bought and sold throughout London in the 17th and 18th centuries, at the Royal Exchange, in coffee houses in the City, in ships berthed in the Thames and at inns throughout the capital.
Resistance to slavery was also common in London and grew throughout the 18th century.
Enslaved Africans, especially young men, liberated themselves by running away from their owners or in some cases demanding wages. Owners posted rewards for their ‘lost property,’ while Africans helped each other to escape and were aided by the ordinary people of London.
It was through meeting one of these Africans, Jonathan Strong, in his brother’s surgery in Mincing Lane, that Granville Sharp first became involved in the abolitionist movement.
The campaign against enslavement and trafficking was initiated by Africans and their supporters in London.
In 1772 the famous judgement of Lord Chief Justice Mansfield was celebrated by over 200 Africans in a Westminster public house, it was reported in The London Packet.
By the 1780s Africans in London including the famous writers Olaudah Equiano and Ottabah Cugoano, had formed their own political organisation, the Sons of Africa, which lobbied in London’s daily papers, such as The Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, and collaborated with other abolitionists
All sections of the abolitionist campaign were active in London. The Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, led by Thomas Clarkson, was established in the city in 1787 and printed and distributed thousands of copies of anti-slavery literature from its publishing house in George Yard.
But perhaps most importantly the mass popular campaigns of the 1780 and early 1790s too were strongly supported in London, where the radical London Corresponding Society linked the struggle against slavery with the fight for political rights for working people in Britain.
Regular public debates, sometimes addressed by Africans, and involving the participation of women, were also held in London at the Lyceum in the Strand and the Coach-makers’ Hall Society near St Pauls.
Such activities, and other such the participation of Londoners in boycotting slave produced sugar and petitioning parliament in the late 18th century, demonstrated widespread popular support in London for an end to slavery and the trafficking of Africans.
The wider historical context of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade Hakim Adi 2007-05-02,
Issue 302 http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/41131
Trade in African slaves underpinned the British economy in the 18th century: the rich and powerful, the monarchy and the Church. So why was an enterprise that was so economically important ended so abruptly in the first decade of the 19th century? Hakim Adi explains...
In March 2007 large-scale commemorative events were organised to mark the bi-centenary of the parliamentary act to abolish the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
This unprecedented commemoration of a historical event, in which the British government itself is playing a leading role, was difficult to avoid.
There has been a frenzy in the British media. We have seen government publications (allegedly designed to enlighten the public); meetings and exhibitions; a debate in parliament; an apology from London’s mayor; the issuing of postage stamps; a service in Westminster Abbey; and release of the film Amazing Grace which promotes the well-established myth that abolition was largely due to the efforts of the Hull-based MP William Wilberforce.
It would be hoped that owing to the vast amount of information that is being disseminated, everyone would be now disabused of such erroneous views; and would be able to place both the so-called abolition and the centuries of trafficking of human flesh from Africa in historical perspective. The commemorative events certainly provide the opportunity for broad and in depth discussion of Britain’s history and the crimes against humanity committed over many centuries.
But are we any clearer about what went on 1807? More importantly, do we know why parliament decided to make illegal an enterprise which had underpinned Britain’s economy throughout the 18th century, when Britain was the world’s leading slave trading power?
After all, Britain was involved in the trafficking of kidnapped and enslaved Africans from the mid-16th century, when this enterprise was pioneered by John Hawkins and Elizabeth Tudor, until the early 1930s, when legislation was still being passed outlawing slavery in Britain’s African colonies.
World’s leading slave trading power
In the 18th century Britain, as the world’s leading slave trading power, transported about half of all enslaved Africans not only to its own colonies but also those of other major powers such as France and Spain. British ships transported at least 3,500,000 Africans across the Atlantic.
In total, this entire ‘trade’ led to the forced removal of some 15,000,000 Africans, transported to the colonies of the European powers and the Americas. Many millions more were killed in the process of enslavement and transportation. Historians now estimate that Africa’s population actually declined over a period of four centuries, or remained stagnant until the early 20th century.
In 1713 the British government was militarily victorious against its rivals in Europe. By the Treaty of Utrecht (the same treaty by which Britain lays claim to Gibraltar) , it gained the lucrative contract to supply Spain’s American colonies with enslaved Africans.
The government promptly sold the contract for £7.3m to the South Sea company, whose first governor happened to also be the chancellor of the exchequer.
Indeed the trafficking of Africans was the business of the rich and powerful from the outset. The monarchy was a zealous supporter and beneficiary, as was the Church of England. The slave trade was Britain’s trade in the 18th century. The British Prime Minister William Pitt declared that 80 per cent of all British foreign trade was associated with it. It contributed to the development of banking and insurance, shipbuilding and several manufacturing industries. Most of the inhabitants of Manchester were engaged in producing goods to be exchanged for enslaved Africans. Their trafficking led to the development of major ports of London, Bristol and Liverpool. Today it is difficult to find any major stately home, or cultural or financial institution which is not connected with the profits generated by this trade and the luxury items associated with it such as sugar, tobacco and coffee.
It might be wondered therefore why an enterprise that was so economically important to the rich and powerful in Britain in the 18th century should have been so abruptly ended in the first decade of the 19th century.
Myths and disinformation
The answer requires the abolition of various myths and disinformation peddled since that time. One such myth is that abolition was largely the work of one man – William Wilberforce; and that it was carried out largely for humanitarian reasons. And there is another myth: that abolition was the work of an enlightened parliament, finally acknowledging the barbarism and inhumanity of the kidnapping, enslavement and trafficking of other human beings.
However, on the contrary, it is a matter of historical fact that the struggle to end the enslavement and trafficking of Africans was first initiated and pursued primarily by Africans themselves.
Historians now speak of centuries' long wars of resistance in the Caribbean; of the maroons; of day to day large and small-scale liberation struggles.
But such resistance also took place throughout the American continent, wherever enslaved Africans were to be found. There were also significant acts of resistance within Africa itself, and on many ships engaged in the human trafficking, most famously on the Amistad.
Such acts of resistance also took place in Britain, where enslaved Africans who liberated themselves were subjects of court cases contesting the legality of slavery throughout the 18th century.
It was as a result of this self-liberation of Africans that drew some leading abolitionists, such as Granville Sharp, into the abolitionist movement in the late 18th century. While the resistance acts of Africans culminated in the famous legal judgement of 1772 which declared that it was illegal for self-liberated Africans to be re-enslaved in Britain and taken out of the country against their will. Africans in Britain had organised their own liberation. But they were assisted by the ordinary people of London and other towns and cities.
African resistance to enslavement and kidnapping contributed to growing public support and opposition to slave trafficking in Britain and elsewhere.
In Britain, a popular movement opposing the trade began in the 1780s. It soon became a broad mass movement of enormous proportions, possibly the biggest. It was certainly one of the first mass political movements in Britain’s history, although it is conveniently ignored in most historical accounts.
Hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people eventually took part in this movement which involved the petitioning of parliament and the boycotting of slave-produced sugar. This abolitionist movement coincided with a more general concern with and struggle for the ‘Rights of Man’. Its more advanced elements consciously promoted the view that the rights of Africans were indeed part of that struggle. Therefore what was required was a struggle for and defence of the rights of all.
Africans themselves played a leading role in this movement as lecturers, propagandists and activists. The most notable was Olaudah Equiano, formerly enslaved, whose autobiography became a bestseller. But we should not forget the writing of others, for example Phyllis Wheatley, Ottobah Cugoano and James Gronniosaw.
Africans in London, including Equiano and Cugoano, formed their own organisation, the 'Sons of Africa', which campaigned for abolition. It worked with both the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and the wider mass abolitionist campaign.
But African resistance in the Caribbean and elsewhere was an even more important factor in the abolitionist struggle, since it had the tendency to make slavery both less profitable and more dangerous for the slave owners.
Uprisings by enslaved Africans threatened not just the profits of individual owners but the control of entire colonies and the fate of Europe’s economies.
The most important of these liberation struggles, the revolution in St Domingue, the largest and most prosperous French colony in the Caribbean, broke out in 1791 not long after the revolution in France. Revolutionary St Domingue therefore became the first country to effectively abolish the enslavement of Africans.
In Britain, the popular mass abolitionist movement coincided with wider demands for political change, at a time when the vast majority were denied the vote. It also coincided with crucial economic changes; the industrial revolution; the emergence of new social forces with the workers
on one side and industrial capitalists on the other, attempting to consolidate their economic and political domination of the country. The industrialists were sometimes at odds with the economic and political power exercised by those who owed their position to the slave-based economies of the Caribbean.
Mass petitioning of parliament, the only means open to the disenfranchised, against the trade was often strong in manufacturing towns such as Manchester, where perhaps a third of the entire population signed. This was viewed with alarm by the ruling class.
The Prime Minister of the time, William Pitt, recognised that popular sentiment might be used to persuade parliament to abolish Britain’s exports of enslaved Africans to its main economic rival, France. It was Pitt who first encouraged Wilberforce to bring an abolition bill before parliament. Wilberforce’s bill was first introduced in 1791. It was defeated, as were several similar bills during the next 15 years.
But during this period several significant changes took place. First, the French Revolution of 1789. Britain’s declaration of war against revolutionary France in 1793 allowed the suppression of the political activity of the people at home, effectively limiting the popular abolitionist campaign and driving it underground.
The revolutionaries in St Domingue successfully defended their revolution against the French army then against invasions by both Spain and Britain. It is worth remembering that this war was pursued by Pitt and supported by Wilberforce, who clearly did not belief that Africans should liberate themselves.
In 1804 St Domingue declared its independence and was renamed Haiti. The revolution in Haiti contributed to, and occurred alongside, other major insurrections across the Caribbean, in Jamaica, Grenada, St Vincent and elsewhere, which severely threatened the entire colonial system.
Even those Africans forcibly recruited into Britain’s West India regiment in Dominica mutinied. Toussaint L’Ouverture and some of the other leaders of the Haitian revolution became nationally known figures in Britain. Abolition came to be viewed by some both as a means to press home a naval and economic advantage over France and its allies, and a means to limit the numbers of Africans imported into British colonies; thereby preventing the likelihood of further revolutions and maintain the slave system.
It was with these aims in mind that parliament passed the Foreign Slave Act in 1806, banning the export of enslaved Africans to Britain’s economic rivals, a measure that effectively ended around 60 per cent of Britain’s trafficking, but which is now hardly remembered, and certainly not commemorated.
There is no doubt that for many in parliament and outside, the demand for abolition was based largely on economic motives. Prime Minister Pitt, and others had been concerned about competition from St Domingue and other Caribbean colonies even before 1791. They had unsuccessfully sought agreement from both France and Holland to prohibit the trafficking of Africans.
Others were more concerned about what they saw as the subsidies given to slave owners and sugar producers in the Caribbean; and government support for economies and a trade that was declining in importance by the end of the 18th century, not least because there was over-production of sugar.
Others in Britain became more interested in developing direct trade links with India, Brazil and other Spanish American colonies. The trafficking of Africans to Britain’s colonies was no longer so important and was seen by some as being an impediment to important trading links elsewhere.
These economic motives for abolition have long been associated with the names of Eric Williams and C.L.R. James. Many attempts have been made to discredit them. In fact very similar views were expressed by British historians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Most importantly economic justifications for an end to ‘the trade’ were strongly advanced in the period preceding the Abolition Act.
What is significant is that this explanation for abolition is hardly ever discussed. It has been largely absent from many of the commemorative events so far and even from the government’s own publication which, it is claimed, is designed to educate the public.
Simply stated, this explanation means that the parliamentary act was passed not for humanitarian reasons but because it was in the interests of the rich and their representatives in parliament to do so. And it should be added that it was the actions of people, and most importantly of the enslaved themselves, in the Caribbean, Britain and elsewhere that made enslavement and trafficking increasing inefficient, unprofitable and dangerous.
In 1807 therefore, parliament was persuaded to pass the Abolition Act; partly on the basis of such economic concerns, partly on the basis that limiting the importation of enslaved Africans would likely limit future revolutions and preserve slavery throughout the Caribbean colonies. Partly it seems, because it was seen as a way of diverting attention away from an unpopular war against France and its allies, and persuading the people that such a war was being fought in the interests of abolition.
Of course after the 1806 act it is arguable that most of ‘the trade’ had ended already. Even some of the major established Caribbean planters were in favour of abolition since this worked against the interests of their commercial rivals, both foreigners and those who had acquired newly captured territory in the Caribbean from Britain’s enemies. They reasoned that this might be especially advantageous if abolition could be forced upon other countries as a consequence of Britain’s military and naval supremacy. Other representatives of the rising bourgeoisie supported the measure as a means to limit the economic and political power of those who had hitherto retarded the development of industrial capitalism and ‘free trade’.
The 1807 Act was subsequently used as the representatives of the rich envisaged, not least as a means by which the Royal Naval might interfere in international shipping across the atlantic.
Yet it did not end British citizens’ involvement in the trafficking of Africans nor slavery itself. Following other major insurrections in the Caribbean and similar economic and political considerations, slavery itself was only later made illegal in 1834. But it continued in some areas of the British empire for another century. The trafficking of Africans in general increased during the 19th century. Many British slavers sailed under foreign flags of convenience.
The 1807 Act did not end Britain’s dependence on slave produced goods such as cotton, the mainstay of the industrial revolution. Even that so-called ‘legitimate commerce’ subsequently developed with Africa, such as the extraction of palm oil, was largely produced with slave labour. The act increased rather than diminished Britain’s interference in Africa which culminated in the so-called ‘scramble’ for Africa at the end of the 19th century: the invasion of the continent and imposition of colonial rule.
It is sobering to reflect that Britain’s first colony in Africa was Sierra Leone. This was the region from where the first enslaved Africans had been kidnapped in the 16th century. It was established allegedly as a haven for liberated Africans in 1807, and has now been under Britain’s domination for the last 200 years Much of this time, it has been occupied by British troops, while its shores are still patrolled by the Royal Navy.
Today the government is demanding that even its basic utilities, such as water, should be privatised for the benefit of British multinationals. Centuries of interference by British governments have produced a country that manages to be one of the world’s poorest - and at the same time the world’s leading producer of diamonds.
Crime against humanity
The trafficking of Africans over many centuries was one of the greatest crimes against humanity. The current commemorative events, which are organised for a variety of purposes, at least provide the opportunity for widespread discussion.
What is vital is that the myths are shattered and disinformation combated. We must ensure that appropriate and adequate reparations are made for slavery, colonialism and all crimes against humanity. People themselves must draw the appropriate lessons from history, one of the most important being that it is people that make and change history; and that therefore, we are our own liberators.