Historian and guest blogger Christian Høgsbjerg writes about Chris Braithwaite, who is the subject of a new exhibition ‘A Necessary Fiction’ at the Ideas Store.
The remarkable and inspiring life of the black Barbadian socialist, seafarer, trade unionist and anti-colonialist Chris Braithwaite (1885-1944) has long been overlooked, and so it is wonderful that on the centenary of the Russian Revolution, two new exhibitions in Britain have opened to pay tribute to this great working class fighter and radical. “A Necessary Fiction” is a superb art exhibition focused on Braithwaite’s anti-colonial and anti-capitalist activism in 1930s London by the artist Basil Olton, and is at Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, a part of London that Braithwaite came to make his home. In another great port city, Liverpool, “Black Salt: Britain’s Black Sailors” at Merseyside Maritime Museum also rightly recognises Braithwaite’s pioneering contribution.
As a teenager, Braithwaite enrolled as a colonial seafarer in the British merchant navy to try and escape the desperate poverty of the colonial Caribbean, before settling in Chicago and raising a family. During the First World War he rejoined the merchant navy alongside many other colonial seafarers.
After the war, Braithwaite moved to the “black metropolis” of New York, and almost certainly would have witnessed a mass strike across the waterfront of that city in 1919. Many black Caribbean mariners settled in America, and some became leading politically radical Communist 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.
Braithwaite instead moved to Britain and managed to secure a relatively privileged job working for the employer’s Shipping Federation in London’s Docklands, finding and supplying colonial seafarers, engineers, stokers and others, often at a few hours notice. However, he quite remarkably also immersed himself in the working class movement through the National Union of Seamen (NUS), adopting the pseudonym “Chris Jones” to avoid victimisation.
Braithwaite challenged the incredibly exploitative and oppressive experience faced by black and Asian colonial seafarers, which saw institutional state racism and the threat of deportation as well as a more informal racist scapegoating encouraged by the ship-owners under the slogan “British men for British ships” and open colluded in by the NUS.
Braithwaite joined the Communist Party of Great Britain and came to the fore fighting for working class unity as a leader of colonial seafarers and dockers in inter-war Britain and developing a reputation as a powerful orator while campaigning for the Scottsboro Boys. However like many other outstanding black radicals such as the Trinidadian Marxist George Padmore, he broke with orthodox Communism after its political sidelining of anti-colonialism after the rise of Hitler’s Nazis in 1933 and the subsequent turn to the Popular Front. Yet like Padmore, Braithwaite remained a radical socialist activist, working closely with the Independent Labour Party and throwing himself into militant Pan-Africanist agitation against fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, addressing mass International African Friends of Ethiopia rallies in Trafalgar Square.
In 1935, Braithwaite founded the Colonial Seamen’s Association, for the first time effectively bringing together black and Asian colonial seafarers in one organisation. Working alongside leading black activists like C.L.R. James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, George Padmore, Jomo Kenyatta, Isaac Wallace-Johnson and Ras T Makonnen, Braithwaite also helped form the International African Service Bureau in 1937, becoming its organising secretary. He wrote a monthly column for the IASB journal, International African Opinion, ‘Seamen’s Notes’, and ensured this illegal ‘seditious’ publication was distributed through his network of radical seafarers into colonial Africa.
Like James and Padmore, Braithwaite tirelessly and eloquently articulated the case against British imperialism at mass meetings of trade unionists and socialists across Britain. All the time Braithwaite lived the life of a colonial seafarer with his family, and during the Depression he organised in his own street, Turners’ Road, in impoverished Stepney, east London, to make sure no children went hungry. After he died suddenly in 1944, black seafarers insisted on carrying his coffin from his home to his grave in tribute.
The last words might go to his good friend and comrade George Padmore, who noted that Braithwaite’s ‘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’.
Christian Høgsbjerg is a historian and the author of Chris Braithwaite: Mariner, Renegade and Castaway (Redwords, 2014), available for £4 from bookmarksbookshop.co.uk