The Tradition of Black Radicalism in Britain

Black radicalism in the UK didn’t begin with the urban rebellions of the late 1970s and 1980s. Or visit of Malcolm X to Britain in 1965. Or with the formation of the communist-led Indian Workers Association in Coventry in 1953. Or with the Pan-African Congress in Manchester in 1945. Or with the formation of the West Indian Association on Merseyside in 1951. Or with the arrival of CLR James in Britain in the 1930s. Nor even with the shooting of Lord Curzon by Indian nationalist Madan Lal Dhingra in London in the summer of 1909 after which, according to James Jackson Brown, a Black gp from Bethnal Green, ‘every coloured person had a hell of a time’.

No, we have to jump back 129 years to the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of June 1780 in London where at least 285 anti-government protestors were killed by the militia. 326 rioters were charged, including three Black participants, Benjamin Bowfrey, John Glover and Charlotte Gardiner. All three were found guilty of capital crimes, yet only Gardiner was hung (along with 20 others one of whom, McDonald, may also have a person of colour).

Who were they? Where they did they come from? Little is known of their biographies. They could have been former American slaves, of similar status but from the Caribbean. Or West Africans, like Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cuguano, both resident in London at the time. Whatever their personal details in this tumultuous summer of 1780, they were following a tradition of Blacks resident in Britain that stretched back, on record, to 210AD and Roman soldiers stationed on Hadrian’s Wall.

The last quarter of the 18th century was a period of change and threatening emancipation: the American Revolution began in 1776, the French in 1789, the Haitian, led by Toussaint L’Ouverture, in the 1790s co-terminous with the Protestant-led United Irishman Rebellion against British rule. Many of the ideas galvanising these revolutionary surges came from an exiled Norfolk man, Thomas Paine, and his thesis on citizenship entitled the Rights of Man.

With Paine’s ideas, and those of the enlightenment generally, came a continuous tide of fury against the industrially-organised slave trade. One of the leaders of the Abolitionist Movement in the UK was Olaudah Equiano – also known as Gustavus Vassa – who wrote first hand about his experiences a slave and his struggle to purchase his freedom. He first came to prominence highlighting the barbarity of the 1783 Zong massacre when the captain of Liverpool slave ship Zong threw over 130 sick slaves into the sea so that their loss as commodities could be claimed from the underwriters. (If dying of natural causes the ship’s owners bore the loss; if thrown overboard ‘for the ship’s safety’, the insures were liable.)

His Narrative… – short title My Life – published in 1789, exposed the degradation and barbarity of slavery as it was practised at the time. (Originally, Equiano was not against slavery per se but the inhumanity – as he saw it – of trading to an industrial level and mass scale.)

Equiano married Susan Cullen, from Cambridgeshire. It is no surprise that when Equiano’s young daughter Anna-Maria died in 1797 an epitaph that denounced slavery and praised common humanity was attached to the outside wall of St Andrew’s Church in Chesterton, Cambridge. It reads:

Should simple village rhymes attract thyne eye
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by
Know that there lies beside this humble stone
A child of colour haply not thine own.
Her father born of Afric’ sun-burnt race
Torn from his native fields, ah foul disgrace
Through various toils, at length to Britain came
Espoused, so heaven ordained, and English dame
And followed Christ: their hope two infants dear
But one, a hapless orphan, slumbers here.
To bury her the village children came
And dropped choice flowers, and lisped her early fame;
And some that loved her most as if unblest.
Bedewed with tears the white wreaths on their breast;
But she is gone and dwells in that abode
Where some of every clime shall joy in God

Susanna and Olaudah died within two years of each, Anna-Maria four months after her father in July, 1797. They were survived by Joanna, her story only recently emerging as yet another hitherto untold tale (alongside that of the relationships between Equiano, Clarkson, Peckard and Parkinson). She was unusual as a Black middle-class woman with good connections and being of independent means. On reaching maturity at 21 in April 1816, Joanna received £950 (about £77,000 today). Her maturity came during a period of reaction, just after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, a time Shelley was inspired to remind Britain’s peasants and workers that they were many, the ruling class few.

Equiano was at the heart of the Abolitionist Movement alongside other key figures and Cambridge residents Thomas Clarkson and Peter Peckard. There is still a great deal of research to be done on Cambridge’s links with the Anti-Slavery Movement but from what we know already it may have been the case that some of the funding for The Narrative… came from Clarkson, one of the 12 men who formed the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in May, 1787, and Peckard, master of Magdalene College in the 1780s and later vice-chancellor of the university. Wisbech-born Clarkson toured the country as fact finder general for the Committee between 1787-89 and in this role may have welcomed supportive material from the horse’s mouth. It seems too much of coincidence that Olaudah’s book was published two years later, while Wilberforce spoke in Parliament and the French rebelled against their feudal monarchy. Dr Peckard wrote letters of recommendation for the book to his friends.

Papers relating to Equiano’s Will in the Cambridgeshire Records Office show that he received an annuity/income for Dr James Parkinson – of Parkinson’s desease fame – of twenty six pounds thirteen shillings and eight pence. Just over 10 shillings a week. In fact when he died Equiano was receiving in annuities a total of one hundred and eighty four pounds, sixteen shillings and fourpence, over three pounds ten shillings per week (around £490).

Equianao was also a close friend of shoemaker Thomas Hardy, a founding member of the working-class London Corresponding Society (LCS). Set up in 1792, it campaigned for the vote and argued that liberty for working-class whites could not be separated from the struggle of dispossessed, displaced, enslaved Blacks. Those individuals and groups that made their fortune from the slave trade were the same social forces that passed laws against trade union and other forms of organised working-class activity.

Equiano was an early member of the LCS. Other Black members were William Davidson and Robert Wedderburn, both revolutionary socialists. Davidson, secretary of the shoemaker’s union, was hung in 1820 for his part in the Cato Street Conspiracy, a plot to assassinate the Cabinet in Grovesnor Square and instigate a popular revolution.

Robert Wedderburn was a printer, and like Davidson born in Jamaica to mixed parents. His tortuous rite of passage into radical politics entailed having to watch his mother and grandmother being flogged on the plantation. He wrote many essays on slavery and socialism and was imprisoned in solitary confinement for 2 years for his writing. In 1824 he published his autobiography The Horrors of Slavery.

The LCS was suppressed by the government. Hardy and other members – like Wedderburn, as we’ve already noted – imprisoned for sedition. In 1799, under new legislation, the LCS was deemed illegal.

Joanna Vassa came of age in an era when the ruling class of this country and Europe was enjoying a resurgence of power after the defeat of Napoleonism.
Unfortunately, we know little about her adult life. In 1821 she married an Appledore, Devon vicar the Reverend Henry Bromley at Clerkenwell. Living Devon, Essex, Suffolk and London, she died in 1857 and is buried at Abney Park Cemetery, Stoke Newington.

Joanna’s era was one of incredible social and economic change. She lived through the industrial revolution and saw the rearrangement of Britain as a predominantly urban society that, during her lifetime, had grown into the world’s most powerful economic and military power. Opposed to this, she also witnessed a decline in the Black population of London from its peak around 15-20,000 in the 1790s.

Alongside, a redefinition of the supposed qualities inherent in the Black was also occuring, a process speeded during the second half of the 19th century. Despite the increasing degradation of The Black as an objective figure – i.e. a body and mentality given fixed and inferior qualities – Joanna would have seen real Black people rise to prominence, defying their politically allotted social shape and economic place as less evolved, impoverished beings.

William Cuffay was one. Working as a tailor in 1834 he was sacked for going on strike, an injustice that inspired him to activism in the growing movement for electoral reform, the Chartists. In 1842 he was elected to the five man national executive of the National Charter Association. There were two wings to the movement, moral force and physical force Chartists. The latter, of whom Cuffay was a leader, believed the ruling class would concede nothing without a fight as, he argued, the history of class struggle had proved.

In 1845 The Times described the London-based physical force Chartists as “the black man and his party”. Needless to say, the government did not allow matters to move in a direction they could not control. Through the use of spies and agent provocateurs they ensnared Cuffay and other leading militants, convicting them of attempting an armed uprising. The London tailor demanded to be tried by his peers, as designated in the Magna Carta. On conviction, this was part of his courageous and defiant speech:

I say you have no right to sentence me. Although the trial has lasted a long time, it has not been a fair trial, and my request to have a fair trial – to be tried by my equals – has not been complied with. Everything has been done to raise a prejudice against me, and the press of this country – and I believe of other countries too – has done all in its power to smother me with ridicule. I ask no pity. I ask no mercy. I expected to be convicted, and I did not think anything else. No, I pity the Government, and I pity the Attorney General for convicting me by means of such base characters. The Attorney General ought to be called the Spy General. I am not anxious for martyrdom, but after what I have endured this week, I feel that I could bear any punishment proudly, even to the scaffold.

Cuffay was transported to Tasmania where he died in poverty in the workhouse in July, 1870 after continuing his struggle for working-class rights.

Two other notable Black Chartists were David Anthony Duffy and Benjamin Prophitt, also arrested in 1848 – the year of European revolutions – and transported. Little is known about them.

To give an idea of how frightened the government were of the Chartists: on the day of the Kennington Common demonstration, 10 April 1848, the Duke of Wellington, known as the Iron duke, was ordered to defend London. The Queen was sent to the Isle of Wight and all her valuables removed from Buckingham Palace. The Foreign Office boarded up its windows; the British Library was armed with muskets and cutlasses; the Bank of England reinforced with sandbags. In addition to these precautions all bridges were sealed off, and guarded by over 500 police; 7000 soldiers with heavy gun batteries deployed along the Embankment. Thousands of shopkeepers, lawyers and government clerks were enrolled as special constables. It was the closest Britain had come to revolution since the 1660s.

Although the Chartists failed in their objective of winning the vote for working-class people, this human right was eventually won for a majority of the population in 1918.

In parliamentary politics there has been representation by people of colour since 1892 when Dadabhai Naoroji was elected to the House of Commons for Finsbury. Another Bombay-born man, Shapurji Saklatvala, was elected in 1922 as the first communist mp, for north Battersea. His election agent was Black Briton, John Archer, who had been mayor of Battersea in 1913. (Battersea had a radical tradition first electing Archer in 1906, the same year another Black councillor, Trinidadian and pan-Africanist Henry Sylvester Williams was successful in Marylebone.)

Possibly the most influential Black radical of the 20 century who never entered parliament — and who probably had no intention of doing so – was Trotskyist CLR James who chaired the Finchley branch of the Independent Labour Party. Author of Beyond a Boundary, one the best ever books on cricket and its place in Empire. He was a close friend of West Indies cricketer Learie Constantine, who did enter the Palace of Westminster as Lord Constantine in the 1960s.

We cannot conclude without mentioning the Pan-African Conference of 1900 in London organised by Henry Sylvester Williams. The first collective gathering of Africans dedicated to ending colonial rule by their own hands, although comprising a variety of ideologies it laid the platform for building upon the common objective of African liberation.
A radical member of this conference was Dusé Mohamed, who launched and edited African Times and Orient Review in 1912, the first UK newspaper dedicated to a Black UK readership.
In summary, let’s remember how history unites the radicalism that has long been a feature of working-class politics in Britain. The LCS, the first mass working class organisation, argued the liberation of the working class could not be achieved without the emancipation of the Black poor and enslaved, a sentiment and emotion echoed by Malcolm X in the I960s when he maintained:

You have whites who are fed up, you have blacks who are fed up. The whites who are fed up can’t come uptown [ Harlem] too easily because the people uptown are more fed up than anybody else, and they are so fed up it is not easy to come uptown. . . .when the day comes when whites are really fed up with what’s going on.. .when they learn how to establish the proper type of communication with those uptown who are fed up, and they get some co-ordinated action going. You will get some changes. And it will take both, it will take everything that you’ve got, it will take that.