With ‘father of African liberation’ George Padmore commemorated with a plaque in London this week, Cameron Duodu reflects on Padmore’s enormous influence on the anti-colonial movement and his experiences in Trinidad, the US, the USSR, the UK and across Africa.
On Tuesday 28 June 2011, the late George Padmore – who was been described by the famous West Indian writer C.L.R. James as ‘The father of African emancipation’ – will be honoured with a ‘heritage plaque’, better known as a ‘blue plaque’, which will be unveiled at No. 22 Cranleigh Street in Camden, north London. Padmore lived there from 1941 to 1957, with his partner and collaborator, Dorothy Pizer.
The address was familiar to almost every African nationalist involved in the 20th century struggle against British colonialism. Two Africans who became the first presidents of their countries – Dr Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya – were habitués of 22 Cranleigh Street, as was Joe Appiah, a Ghanaian politician and lawyer, who became the son-in-law of Sir Stafford Cripps, a former British chancellor of the exchequer.
Many of the statements and pamphlets, as well as the correspondence with which leaders of the British colonies in Africa combated the policies of the Colonial Office in London, were drafted at the dining table of 22 Cranleigh Street. It was also the venue at which George Padmore organised the 5th Pan-African Conference in Manchester in 1945. Padmore and Nkrumah were joint-secretaries to the conference, one of the largest gatherings of black anti-colonial politicians ever seen.
In those days, West Indians and African-Americans often found common cause with their African brothers, and the Manchester Conference elected Dr W.E.B. DuBois, the most famous African-American intellectual of the era, as its honorary chair.
The part played by Padmore’s home in the anti-colonial struggle was sketched for me vividly by a Ghanaian trade unionist, J.P. Addei, then a journalist on the Ashanti Times, who was invited to visit Britain by the Colonial Office. During the visit, a Nigerian companion of Addei’s encountered an act of racial discrimination in London, which they reported to Padmore.
Padmore immediately fired a letter of protest to the Colonial Office on behalf of the Nigerian. The result was a full-scale reception held for the two visitors, at which a minister from the Colonial Office expressed his regrets for the ‘unfortunate incident’.
The late John K. Tettegah, former secretary-general of the Ghana Trades Union Congress and member of the central committee of Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s Convention People’s Party (CPP), told me that it was George Padmore who drafted, at 22 Cranleigh Street, the ‘Motion of Destiny’ which Dr Kwame Nkrumah moved in the Ghana National Assembly on 10 July 1953, requesting independence for Ghana within the British Commonwealth ‘as soon as the necessary constitutional arrangements are made’. Independence was granted to Ghana less than four years later on 6 March 1957, with Dr Kwame Nkrumah as the country’s first prime minister.
Nkrumah invited George Padmore to move down to Accra from London to become his ‘advisor on African affairs’. In Accra, Padmore and Dorothy Pizer were housed in a beautiful colonial bungalow, which has now been turned into the ‘Padmore Library’ in Accra. It was there that I met Padmore for the first time. I had been invited to the Soviet Union as a member of a delegation to the Afro-Asian Writers’ Conference held in Tashkent in September 1958, and because in those days Ghana still maintained the old colonial practice of vetting anyone who travelled ‘behind the Iron Curtain’, Padmore, as an expert on communism, was asked to vet me.
He was a very urbane figure and never directly asked me anything about what I thought of Marxism or even Ghana’s politics. We just had tea and chatted about African and world affairs. He apparently approved of me, for when he asked me whether I needed anything for my journey and I said I had no suitcase, he asked Dorothy to bring me what I heard as ‘that revolution suitcase’.
Now, I’d heard that Padmore had travelled incognito throughout colonial Africa, stoking the fires of revolution on behalf of the Comintern, and always managing to stay one step ahead of the British ‘007s’ of the time and their French and Portuguese counterparts. So the idea that he was going to lend me his ‘revolution suitcase’ (probably equipped with a false bottom) excited my imagination a great deal. It was years later that I discovered that what he had actually told Dorothy must have been to bring me his ‘Revelation suitcase’ (‘Revelation’ being the brand name of a popular suitcase)!
The mild American nasal twang that characterised his speech had misled me to mishear ‘revelation’ as ‘revolution’. So my fantasy of lobbing George Padmore’s ‘bag of tricks’ around the world was quite misplaced, and even if I had never subsequently lost it, the suitcase would not now be fetching me a million quid or so at Christie’s auction house.
George Padmore was christened Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse on his birth in Arouca, Trinidad, on 28 June 1903. He was educated at St Mary's, and later became a journalist at the Trinidad Guardian. Even at an early age, Padmore held strong views, and after a disagreement with his editor, he left the paper and travelled to study medicine in the USA in 1924. But he soon shifted to law.
However, he didn’t devote himself to his studies, but involved himself in organising black workers. He gained a reputation as a powerful political speaker, and joined the Communist Party of the United States. In 1929, Padmore travelled to the Soviet Union as a member of the party. In the USSR, he was, in 1930, appointed head of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUC-NW), an organisation that represented the concerns of black trade unionists to the international communist labour organisation (Profintern).
In this job, Padmore secured the finances and organisational structure to become a full-time anti-colonial activist. It enabled Padmore to develop contacts that would prove useful for his later Pan-African initiatives. As mentioned earlier, he was also able to travel secretly to African colonial countries.
However, around 1934 the Soviet line on African colonialism softened, as the Soviet Union embraced an anti-Hitler line that put it in the same boat as the British and French governments.
Padmore was expected to ‘toe the line’ and tone down his attacks on colonialism in the publications of which he was in charge, so as not to offend the Soviet Union’s new bedfellows. This infuriated Padmore and he resigned and left the USSR. He moved to the United Kingdom and in 1941, made his abode at 22 Cranleigh Street. It became the base for his assault on colonialism and imperialism. Organising the 5th Pan-African Conference was his greatest achievement after he settled in England.
In 1957, Padmore accepted Dr Kwame Nkrumah’s invitation to become his advisor on African affairs in Accra, and as soon as he established himself there he set about following up the proposals that had been formulated at the Pan-African Conference in Manchester in 1945.
First he and Nkrumah organised a Conference of Independent African States in Accra in April 1958. This conference declared that ‘the existence of colonialism in any shape or form’ was a threat to the security and independence of the African States, and to ‘world peace’.
This was a significant declaration, for the desire not to upset the Western powers had created an ambiguity in the attitude of some of the independent African states regarding the liberation of the rest of the continent.
The conference went on to state: ‘Condemning categorically all colonial systems still enforced in our Continent … [this Conference"> calls upon the Administering Powers to respect the Charter of the United Nations in this regard, and to take rapid steps to implement the provisions of the Charter and the political aspirations of the people, namely self-determination and independence.’
Significantly, the conference also recommended that ‘all Participating Governments should give all possible assistance to the dependent peoples in their struggle to achieve self-determination and independence’, and ‘offer facilities for training and educating peoples of the dependent territories’.
Padmore and Nkrumah followed the Conference of Independent African States with an ‘All-African People’s Conference’ attended by freedom fighters from African countries still under colonial rule. Within two years of this conference over a dozen African countries, including the biggest countries – the Congo and Nigeria – gained their freedom. Padmore did not live to see this African triumph however. He died in London of a long-term liver ailment on 23 September 1959.
The unveiling of the plaque at 22 Cranleigh Street, London, will be performed by His Excellency Garvin Nicholas, High Commissioner of Trinidad & Tobago, His Excellency Professor Kwaku Danso-Boafo, High Commissioner of Ghana, and His Worship Councillor Abdul Quadir, Mayor of Camden.
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