CHRIS BRAITHWAITE (Barbados, c 1885 – 1944)
By Christian Høgsbjerg
The Barbadian agitator Chris Braithwaite was one of the leading black political radicals in 1930s Britain. Better known under his adopted pseudonym ‘Chris Jones’, Braithwaite was an outstanding militant Pan-Africanist and organiser of colonial seamen, indeed perhaps the critical lynchpin of a maritime subaltern network in and around the imperial metropolis of inter-war London.
Born in the materially impoverished British Caribbean colony of Barbados, Braithwaite encountered ‘the problem of the colour line’ early in life, having found work as a seamen in the British merchant navy when still a teenager. Braithwaite’s self-education and awakening consciousness of race took place while he ‘sailed the seven seas’, and as he later put it in a speech in 1941, while for ‘forty years he has been a rolling stone in every part of the world…he had yet to find a spot where under white domination elementary freedom is granted to the subject races’. Braithwaite served with the merchant navy during the Great War, when the recruitment of colonial seamen reached its height to fill the places left by recruitment of native seamen into the Royal Navy. After the war, Braithwaite moved to the ‘black metropolis’ of New York and found work for a period in a bar.
Many black Caribbean mariners settled in America, and some became leading politically radical militants in the American working class movement like Ferdinand Smith, the Jamaican born co-founder of the National Maritime Union and the equally remarkable figure of Hugh Mulzac, who after travelling to New York from Barbados worked for a period as a ship captain on Marcus Garvey’s Black Star Line. However, Braithwaite soon undertook the ‘voyage in’ to imperial Britain, where he settled down in 1920s London working for the employer’s Shipping Federation. Braithwaite’s work, based in London’s Docklands, home to many black seamen, was a highly responsible job, one usually reserved for whites only. As a Shipping Federation agent in ‘the Pool’, part of the River Thames where many ships come to dock, Braithwaite charged with finding and supplying colonial seamen, engineers, stokers and others, often at a few hours notice. However, and quite remarkably given the relatively privileged job he had acquired, he soon politically radicalised and immersed himself in the British working class movement, becoming an activist in what became the National Union of Seamen (NUS).
In Britain, Braithwaite challenged the exploitative and oppressive experience of colonial seamen in the inter-war period, which saw state racism and the threat of deportation as well as a more informal racism encouraged by the shipowners and open colluded in by the NUS. The NUS’s collaboration with employers and state meant black seamen required an identification card and had to join the union – despite its racism – in order to have any chance of employment. Braithwaite personally seems to have been better positioned to survive the dangers resulting from widespread racist state practices in shipping, including the threat of deportation under targeting of ‘aliens’, through his job and his relationship with and marriage to Edna, a white woman in Stepney, in the East End of London in close proximity to the West India docks. Braithwaite seems to have settled in Stepney and would ultimately father six children.
In 1930, Chris Braithwaite would come around the newly launched Seamen’s Minority Movement (SMM), a rank-and-file grouping of militant seamen organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) to lead a fightback against an attempt by shipowners to make seamen pay for perhaps the greatest economic crisis in the history of capitalism. Adopting a pseudonym, ‘Chris Jones’, to avoid victimisation by his employer, Braithwaite’s experience as a NUS militant and the nature of his work made him an incredibly important recruit for the SMM, and he was soon elected onto its central committee. Indeed as early as April 1930 ‘Chris Jones’ was chairing the second meeting of the SMM ‘Committee of Coloured Seamen’, and by 1931 he had joined the CPGB itself. As well as organising the distribution of such ‘seditious’ publications as the Negro Worker, he played an important role in launching the Negro Welfare Association (NWA) alongside his comrade and compatriot Arnold Ward and rallying solidarity with the Scottsboro Boys. By 1933, through his association with the NWA and his tireless campaigning, Braithwaite had also struck up a remarkable friendship with the radical Nancy Cunard, then editing her monumental 800-page fusion of Pan-Africanism and Communism, Negro Anthology, for publication in London. They would both serve together for a period on the NWA committee, and there is a famous picture taken of Braithwaite on a May Day demonstration in London in 1933 – just one of several photographs of ‘Comrade Chris Jones’ published in the Negro Worker, now edited by the Trinidadian revolutionary George Padmore – and reprinted in Cunard’s Negro Anthology.
However, the great ‘zig zag’ from ultra-left to right which characterised the Stalinised Communist International as it shifted from the catastrophist perspectives of ‘Class against class’ to an attempt to build a deeply respectable ‘Popular Front’ against fascism and war in the hope of enabling a diplomatic alliance of Britain, France and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany, was to spell the end for organisations like the SMM and ultimately end the involvement in international Communism of many black radical activists like Chris Braithwaite. In 1933, as anti-imperialist agitation against the ‘democracies’ of Britain and France was increasingly sidelined, Braithwaite followed George Padmore’s lead, and resigned in protest from the Communist Party, though he remained supportive of organisations such as the NWA.
However, despite his relative political isolation, in July 1935 ‘Chris Jones’ would emerge as the foremost tribune of black and Asian seamen opposing the new British Shipping Subsidy Act, which threatened the very presence of black colonial seamen on British ships. Braithwaite took the initiative, with support from the League Against Imperialism and the NWA, to form a new organisation, the Colonial Seamen’s Association (CSA). Impressively, from the very start the CSA embraced not only black colonial seamen, but also other Asian seamen, such as the Indian ‘Lascars’ as well. As the Indian Communist seamen’s organiser and future secretary of the group, Surat Alley, recalled, the CSA ‘started at the time when Italian Fascism threat[ened to] attack Abyssinia. The Association was the expression of the discontent existing among the colonial seamen and its aim was to redress their grievances’.
Chris Braithwaite threw himself into building solidarity with the people of Ethiopia in the face of Mussolini’s war plans. By August 1935, George Padmore had arrived in London from France, and was soon helping his friend and compatriot C.L.R. James organise the new International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA). Braithwaite was a leading activist in this new Pan-African organisation, speaking out alongside the likes of Amy Ashwood Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist and first wife of Marcus Garvey, and the Kenyan nationalist Jomo Kenyatta of the Kikiyu Central Association. Braithwaite was involved in mobilising his networks of colonial seamen to organise direct action to undermine the economy and trade of Italy and possibly even smuggle weapons to Ethiopia through the maritime industry.
Late November 1936 saw the first annual conference of the CSA in London. Braithwaite, who was elected Chair, ‘stressed the need of organisation as the one salvation of the colonial peoples’. The range of support for the organisation was unprecedented and historic, given the ethnic divisions and hierarchical racial stratifications of British shipping encompassing not only black seamen but also Indians, Arabs and Chinese seamen – testament in part to the respect for Braithwaite’s tireless work and dedication. The CSA demanded removal of ‘disabilities’ imposed on colonial seamen by 1935 Shipping Subsidy Act, which gave preference to white seamen, and also demanded that ‘the seamen of the British Empire be given full democratic rights – the right to trade union organisation, freedom of speech and assembly’. This was a great advance on the 1920s, when there had been no solidarity articulated between the various colonial seamen, and there had been no demands particular to their conditions. Initially the CSA concentrated its efforts on the effects of the Shipping Subsidy Act and by late 1937 the stringency of the application of the provisions of the Act were slackened, so some success could be recorded.
One CSA activist from early 1937 onwards, the West Indian Ras Makonnen, has perhaps left historians the most vivid description of the work of the CSA. Makonnen described it as ‘a welfare and propaganda grouping’, and recalled that since ‘we did not want a separate black union’ for colonial seamen, part of CSA work involved trying to persuade West African seamen resident in Britain to join the NUS, despite all its appalling failings. He remembers ‘Chris’s role…was to act as a mouthpiece if there was any injustice that needed taking up…he was looked on as a leader in the same way as some of the outstanding Irish dock leaders in New York’.
Braithwaite’s ‘class struggle Pan-Africanism’ found expression and flourished not simply in his leadership of the multiethnic CSA but in his key role as organising secretary for the new ‘International African Service Bureau for the Defence of Africans and People of African Descent’ (IASB), formed in May 1937. In solidarity with the heroic arc of labour revolts which swept the colonial British Caribbean – including his native Barbados – during the late 1930s, Braithwaite repeatedly again took to the podium of Trafalgar Square alongside the likes of James and Padmore. Ever since the turn to the ‘Popular Front’, Braithwaite together with James and Padmore also used to go to CPGB meetings to heckle and expose the Communists ‘pretensions at being revolutionists’ by raising awkward questions about British imperialism. As James remembered, they would speak about the struggles of French and British colonial subjects who now had been forgotten as Britain and France were declared grand ‘peace-loving democracies’ and bulwarks against fascism. ‘While I would ask a question, and Padmore might say a word or two, it was Chris Jones who made a hell of a row.’ ‘Chris would get himself into a temper and explode and make a revolution at the back of the hall…at the shortest notice, he could generate indignation at the crimes of imperialism and the betrayals of Stalinism as to shock into awed silence hundreds of British people in the audience’.
From the mid-1930s, Chris Braithwaite like Padmore worked closely with the socialist Independent Labour Party (ILP). Both developed close links with ILP supporting intellectuals around it, such as the writers Reginald Reynolds and Ethel Mannin. Critically, the IASB attempted to help ideologically arm, build solidarity with, and develop networks with the colonial liberation struggles across the African diaspora. Braithwaite wrote a monthly column for the IASB journal, International African Opinion, entitled ‘Seamen’s Notes’, and organised the distribution of this illegal ‘seditious’ publication into colonial Africa through his network of radical seamen. The contacts Braithwaite and others made in turn fed information and reports back to the IASB in London. Despite the poverty and hardships of Blitz-hit London, Braithwaite kept up his political work for African emancipation throughout the Second World War until his sudden death from pneumonia on 9 September 1944, just over a year before the historic Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester.
Padmore must have felt particularly moved by the passing of this older, dedicated militant who must have in many ways represented his very ideal of a black ‘organic intellectual’ of the international working class movement, and his obituary of his friend and comrade serves in many ways as a worthy tribute. ‘His death is a great loss to the cause of the colonial peoples as well as International Socialism, the finest ideals and traditions of which he upheld to the very end…He never spared himself in rendering aid to the cause of the oppressed. Many were the working-class battles and campaigns in which he gave his best…his memory will long remain as a symbol of the hopes and aspirations of his race’.
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Barbara Bush, Imperialism, Race and Resistance; Africa and Britain, 1919-1945 (London, Routledge, 1999).
Jonathan Derrick, Africa’s ‘Agitators’; militant anti-colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918-1939 (London, Hurst & Company, 2008).
Christian Høgsbjerg, ‘Mariner, renegade, castaway: Chris Braithwaite, seamen’s organiser and Pan-Africanist’, Race and Class (Vol. 53, No. 2, October 2011, forthcoming).
Ras Makonnen, Pan-Africanism From Within (London, Oxford University Press, 1973).
Ethel Mannin, Comrade O Comrade; or, low-down on the left (London, Jarrolds, 1947)
George Padmore, ‘Chris Jones: fighter for the oppressed’, New Leader, September 1944, online at ‘http://www.marxists.org/archive/padmore/1944/chris-jones.htm’.
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