The West Indian Gazette: A symbiotic dialogue between the local and the global

In the month of October we will be marking Black History Month by sharing a series of short essays written by four recent graduates of the History Department at the University of Manchester. These students were part of Kerry Pimblott’s third-year seminar on the Black Freedom Movement and were tasked with putting their new historical skills to work by performing original research on the transnational links between movements for racial justice in the US and UK. We would like to extend our thanks to the many archivists and librarians who assisted the students in developing these important profiles in Black British History. 

Our first blog post on the West Indian Gazette is from Tariq Chastanet-Hird, a graduate of the University of Manchester History Department who is now studying Law at BPP Law School in London-Waterloo. 

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Tariq Chastanet-Hird presenting on the West Indian Gazette at Manchester Central Library in December 2018.

By Tariq Chastanet-Hird

The first commercial black newspaper in Britain, the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News (WIG) is a critical resource through which black British political consciousness emerged during the early 1960s.

The Gazette became a source of information for people interested in internationalist perspectives on racism and anti-imperialism. In doing so, the paper both facilitated the development of a British West Indian identity and forged an imagined diasporic political community.

Origins

The Gazette was founded in March 1958 by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian born activist who settled in London in 1955. The communist leader had been deported to Britain from the United States as a victim of the Smith Act trials of the McCarthy era. With Jones as the founding editor, the paper was published above Theo Campbell’s music shop at 250 Brixton Road, South West London. [1]

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Claudia Jones, ca. 1960 (Wikimedia Commons)

The Gazette was formed in the midst of, and as a response to, a series of racially motivated attacks on West Indians from working-class white communities. Hostilities during the 1958 Nottingham and Notting Hill riots engendered rising consciousness and resistance among immigrants. Claudia Jones and the Gazette formed to lead this new movement and take a strong line against racial discrimination.

“The West Indian Gazette was born into a struggle and its life was destined to be short, tortuous, and somewhat bruising.” [2]

The WIG was released monthly, although it struggled to keep to its publication deadlines for three months consecutively. The paper fluctuated in size but was generally between eight and sixteen pages. Available at the Paddington Travel Bureau, the Gazette could also be purchased in several shops across South London and at selected locations in North and West London. By 1959, the paper had a total circulation of around 10,000. [3]

The WIG struggled financially and relied on unpaid contributions from local and overseas activists, intellectuals and journalists. Its contributing editors were Amy Ashwood Garvey and Jan Carew. Garvey was a Jamaican Pan-Africanist who co-founded the Committee of Afro-Asian Caribbean Associations (CAACO). [4] Jones’ charisma attracted Donald Hinds, the paper’s City Reporter, and Ken Kelly, who provided features. Abhimanyu Manchanda, an Indian communist and friend of Jones, served as the paper’s General Manager for most of its life.

The Gazette was vast and ambitious in its scope of reporting. Writers delivered thoughtful commentary on race relations in Britain, African independence movements, and on the US Civil Rights Movement (CRM). The paper provided a linkage between the daily issues of West Indian immigrants in Britain and the global struggle against colonialism and racism.

The paper’s larger ideological commitments were balanced by its attempts to generate a sense of cultural consciousness among West Indian migrants in Britain. Starting in 1959, London’s first six instalment of the Notting Hill Carnival were sponsored by the WIG. [5] The advertisement columns contained announcements of meetings, steamship lines to the Caribbean, and West Indian shops, clubs and restaurants in London.

The Gazette’s Historical Moment

Key lines of inquiry into the Gazette include the paper’s wider historical moment; who the major foci of the publication were; what issues the paper gave attention to and why, and finally why the paper felt compelled to align their local movement with the global black freedom movement.

The Gazette sought to unify African-Caribbean immigrants divided by island nationalism. West Indian arrivals defined their identity as nationals of their own island and then British, rather than African-Caribbean. [6] Through reports on West Indian federalism, Caribbean community initiatives, and the shared experience of racism, the Gazette forged a unified cultural group.

Jones and the paper’s contributors intentionally generated symbiotic dialogue with international black freedom movements. The WIG sought to blend the local and the global to bolster the importance of the struggles facing black Britons. Aligning their fight with internationally recognised black freedom movements “gave British activists a platform to raise the profile of their campaign and garner the attention of global audiences. [7]

The insidious nature of racism in Britain undergirded the Gazette’s strategy. Whilst racism in Jim Crow America was codified and overt, discrimination in Britain was elusive and functioned largely through custom. To uncover the political, economic and social strains of prejudice in Britain, appeals to more recognised anti-racism struggles were a necessity.

Race Relations in Britain

The 1948 British Nationality Act had vested African-Caribbean migrants with full rights and privileges of British citizenship. In practice, however, immigrants’ skin colour limited them from accessing the entitlements of citizenship. The Gazette reported on questions and instances of discrimination towards West Indians in Britain. Exposing cases of prejudice against African-Caribbean migrants as a group helped to forge a collective identity based on shared experience.

Job opportunities for migrants were limited by employers’ legal autonomy to claim that they did not hire ‘coloureds’ or ‘darkies’. Official papers discussing Caribbean migration “labelled potential recruits as ‘coloured colonial labour’ and often stereotypes them as inferior to British workers.” Colour bar policies often operated within employment sectors. [8]

The cover page of the July 1961 Gazette reported on Mr Ernest Marples’, the Minister of Transport, refusal to investigate a “staff colour bar at Paddington railway station”.

Unsigned, the article claimed that “only 27 W.I.s sent to Paddington. According to the record book of… the recruiting centre detailing the number of coloured workers sent to Western region last year, only 15 compared to 367 white workers were sent there – clearly a policy of deliberately steering West Indians away from Paddington”. [9]

The Gazette reported on individual cases of public racial discrimination towards immigrants. Pubs, clubs, dance halls and churches would often bar black people from entering. In its April 1961 edition, the paper headlined with ‘Ladbroke Grove Pub Colour-Bar’, revealing the story of Archie Spencer, a Jamaican-born masseuse who, having asked for a glass bitter in a Ladbroke Grove public house, “was told that ‘we don’t serve coloured people here'”. The Gazette shared Spencer’s narrative that having arranged a mixed party of coloured and white persons to revisit the pub, it was the three coloured who were refused service and told: “we don’t serve you people here… we have trouble with them”. [10]

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The story of Archie Spencer is detailed in the April 1961 edition of the West Indian Gazette, p. 1, Lambeth Archives, London.

The Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 reversed policies of unrestricted immigration by only permitting those with proof of employment to settle in Britain.

The Gazette persistently campaigned against the Act through a series of instalments. Claudia Jones’ 2-page editorial in November 1961 labelled it “an official colour-bar”, “designed primarily and solely to prevent the entry also the ejection of coloured citizens”. The activist pointed towards the potential “absolute power” of the Home Secretary to “allow in white commonwealth citizens while excluding all coloured citizens”. [11]

A Shared Caribbean Identity

The Gazette became a vehicle for the development of a shared identity among West Indian migrants in Britain. Jan Carew’s article ‘What is a West Indian’ was published in April 1959 and in May 1961 Shirley Gordon put forward the case for revisiting the teaching of West Indian History.

Gordon discussed the “collective memory of the West Indian community” and pointed towards the need to overcome European colonialism which overshadowed a transnational West Indian narrative. [12]

Such analytical articles were combined with regular coverage of a potential ‘West Indian Federation’. Geographical Caribbean unity was to be translated into a shared identity among the region’s settlers in Britain.

Global Black Freedom Movement

The Gazette juxtaposed its concerns about racial discrimination in Britain with stories detailing anti-colonial struggles in Africa.

The paper combined commentary on the momentum of independence movements across Africa with segments spotlighting the diaspora’s most respected intellectuals on the topic of self-determination. The likes of Sekou Touré, Kwame Nkrumah, and Frantz Fanon, all featured over the paper’s short existence.

The cover page of the November 1960 edition of the Gazette proclaimed: ‘And Now Nigeria – 35 Million Africans Free’. The paper underline the significance of Nigerian independence: “As the largest populated African nation, Nigeria is destined to become a powerful impetus not only to the surge of African freedom but to what Kwame Nkrumah termed recently in the U.N. ‘the momentous impact of Africa’s awakening upon the modern world'”. The unsigned article emphasised,” it is not only because possession of colonies have become incompatible with membership in the United Nations, but because Nigeria fought for freedom that she is free.” [13]

In September 1960, Claudia Jones delivered an analysis of the progress of Congolese independence from the Belgian Government. Titling her article ‘These are the facts: Behind the Congo upsurge’, Jones penned that the “embattled young African Republic has experienced military intervention by its former enslavers; downright attempts to sabotage its right of self-determination by the Belgian conspiracy… internal and external plots to thwart its will to implement its own national destiny”. Jones saw the struggle for Congo as “one of the most intense and critical struggles for national independence of a new African state, the outcome of which may lay the pattern for African states with a similar colonial heritage”. [14]

The Gazette’s coverage of successful African anti-colonial efforts served to expose the vulnerability of white supremacy on a global scale. Colonial rule was presented as a system that could be successfully challenged, serving as a model for the diaspora to follow suit in confronting local racial hierarchies and discrimination.

The US Civil Rights Movement

The Gazette aligned its fight with the African-American CRM in the United States. The publication consistently reported on the movement’s struggle against Jim Crow racial segregation.

An editorial asking ‘Freedom Riders: What were the Negroes Doing in Church?’, featured as the cover story of the June 1961 edition of the Gazette. The article explained that “negroes were listening to the Rev. Martin Luther King outlining the next steps in the campaign in which the Freedom Riders, coloured and white, in their march through the South have determined to end Deep South segregation, Jim-Crow and Colour Bar discrimination once and for all”. [15]

In June 1963, the Gazette devoted a spread over six pages to coverage of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s (SCLC) Birmingham movement. Civil rights activists initiated a campaign of nonviolent direct action to pressure the US government to change the city’s discrimination laws.

The paper lead with the headline: ‘Negro people in the U.S.A. mount struggles to end Jim Crow’. The Gazette claimed “we are witnessing a new leap in their freedom struggle”, outlining the long-term goals of “independence, release from dependence on the white supremacists who control their destinies, freedom, the right to vote, dignity, equal treatment before the law”. [16]

On 31 August 1963, Jones and the CAACO led supporters on a march from Ladbroke Grove Tube Station to the American Embassy in London. The march was in solidarity with March on Washington staged by African-Americans three days earlier. [17] Demonstrators carried messages that read “Equality for negroes in the U.S.” and “No racialism, no imperialism”. [18] The Gazette reported on the ‘London Solidarity March’: “750 Afro-Asians, Caribbeans and friends marched in support of the Negro rights struggle and against U.K. colour bar”. [19]

By aligning their movement with that of the African-American struggle against Jim Crow, black British activists generated a lens through which the customary nature of racism in Britain could be uncovered. An understanding that the system of colour bars, social discrimination and police hostility was only different to U.S. conditions in its overt legality, required the conceptualising of the British movement as a collective black freedom struggle by victims and onlookers, the profile of and support for the British campaign could be raised.

‘The Progenitor of All Black Journals in Britain’

The WIG closed in 1965, eight months and four editions after Claudia Jones’ death in December 1964.

The Gazette represents the beginnings of an African-Caribbean political consciousness in Britain. In developing a shared culture among migrants, fighting local racial discrimination and constructing transnational linkages, the paper was unrestricted in its ambitions. Ultimately, Jones and her colleagues possessed the intellectual but lacked financial resources to realise their ambitious goals.


Notes:

[1] Donald Hinds, ‘The West Indian Gazette: The Mother of All Black Newspapers in Britain Since 1950’, 2008, Black History, Lambeth Archives, London, Pamphlet 16.7, 01247484.

[2] Marika Sherwood, Claudia Jones: A Life in Exile (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999), p. 125.

[3] Ibid., p. 134.

[4] Rosie Wild, ‘”Black Was the Colour of Our Fight”: The Transnational Roots of British Black Power’, in The Other Special Relationship, eds., Robin D. G. Kelley and Stephen Tuck (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp. 25-46 (p.33).

[5] Hinds, ‘The West Indian Gazette: The Mother of All Black Newspapers in Britain Since 1950.’

[6] Wild, ‘Black Was the Colour of Our Fight’, p.33.

[7] Kennetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship and the Politics of Race (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p.184.

[8] Linda McDowell, ‘How migrants helped to rebuild Britain’, 4 October 2018, https://www.bl.uk/windrush/articles/how-caribbean-migrants-rebuilt-britain [accessed 3 December 2018].

[9] West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, July 1961, Vol. 4 No. 3, Lambeth Archives, London, p. 1.

[10] WIG, April 1961, Vol. 3 No.6, p. 1.

[11] WIG, November 1961, Vol. 4 No. 11, p. 1.

[12] WIG, May 1961, Vol. 3 No. 6, p. 6.

[13] WIG, November 1960, Vol. 3 No. 3, p. 1.

[14] WIG, September 1960, Vol. 3 No. 1, p. 3.

[15] WIG, June 1961, Vol. 4 No. 7, p. 1.

[16] Ibid, June 1963, Vol 5 No. 11, p. 1

[17] Daily Worker, Keable Press 1930-1966, Open Access News Media 1930-1966, British Library, London, BLL01013910349, 23 August 1963, p. 5.

[18] Ibid, 2 September 1963, p. 3.

[19] WIG, September 1963, Vol 5. No. 13, p. 1.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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