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Figures from the African nationalist and independence movements


Figures from the African nationalist and independence movements

This release includes the first set of Security Service files relating to prominent figures connected with pan-African and independence movements. It is clear from these files that the motivation for Security Service interest in these figures was because of actual or suspected links to Communist organisations or to the Soviet Union, rather than because of their pro-independence or pan-African activities.

Jomo Kenyatta (KV 2/1787-1789)

Kenyatta (c.1892-1978), the first prime minister and president of independent Kenya, came to Security Service attention in 1929 when he arrived in Britain and was kept under surveillance by the Metropolitan Police Special Branch because of his suspected links to the International Committee of Negro Workers.

The first file on his activities KV 2/1787 (1930-1940) follows Kenyatta's activities in this period through Special Branch reports, and from 1934 through intercepted mail (the warrant for intercepting his correspondence states (at Serial 23) that Kenyatta was "believed to be succeeding George Padmore as principal Soviet propaganda agent for the British colonies."). This activity post-dates his visit in 1932-3 to the Lenin school in Moscow. The file contains copies of correspondence to Kenyatta, until the watch on his mail was suspended in December 1934. There are many reports of his speeches, including one (at an Indian National Congress in Britain meeting in The Strand in December 1935) where he is quoted as saying: "The only way I can see independence being obtained…is by the rising of the native peoples, casting aside their chains and driving their common enemy from their land, if need be by the use of bombs, machine guns and such things." It is reported that this remark was not taken seriously by Kenyatta's (presumably mostly Indian) audience, who regarded him as "a comedian rather than a serious speaker". Other elements that emerge on the file are pressures from Kikuyu organisations in Kenya for Kenyatta to return home, and (for example at serial 104) details of Kenyatta's financial worries.

The warrant on Kenyatta's mail was reapplied following a request from the Kenyan police in 1939, since he was now suspected of engaging in subversive work in Kenya. It becomes clear from the intercepted correspondence that Kenyatta, no doubt to manage the evident financial worries, had taken work censoring native language recordings made by various gramophone companies intended for export to East Africa. His services were dispensed with in 1940. One strange inclusion on the file is a copy of the passport application form for British archaeologist Louis Leakey, father of TV paleo-anthropologist Richard Leakey.

KV 2/1788 (1940-1953) contains further copies of intercepted correspondence ad reports of Kenyatta's activities. There is some interest taken in 1946 in Kenyatta's marriage to Edna Grace Clarke, and investigations were made to establish if it was in fact legal. Eventually a marriage certificate was located at St Catherine's House, and the matter was dropped. He returned to Kenya that year, but the watch on his activities continued, and particular interest was taken in his involvement in the Mau Mau movement. He was arrested in connection with Mau Mau activities in October 1952.

KV 2/1789 (1953-1954) focuses on Kenyatta's trial and conviction for managing the Mau Mau rebellion. One interesting aspect of this file is the allegation made that even while he was in custody, Kenyatta was able to continue exchanging covert messages with Padmore, who was by now working as Kwame Nkrumah's personal assistant, using secret radios.

Kwameh Nkrumah (KV 2/1847-1851)

Nkrumah (1909-1972) was the first prime minister and later president of Ghana. While studying in the United States during the Second World War, he came to the attention of the Security Service in 1942 when it was informed of an anti-British speech he had made at a meeting on The Role of the Negro in the War Effort in Philadelphia. As there was nothing specific to link Nkrumah to Communism, no further steps were taken at this time.

By 1947 Nkrumah was living and studying in London and his name began to appear regularly in intercepted telephone and mail communications with other targets. It became clear he was in regular contact with various left-wing individuals and organisations. These early exchanges are all recorded in KV 2/1847 (1942-1949). In July 1947, the Security Service passed a warning about Nkrumah to the police in the Gold Coast, and careful note was made of references to Nkrumah in intercepts, though he does not seem to have been targeted himself. Nkrumah was arrested in the Gold Coast in connection with riotous unrest there in March 1948, at which time documents associating Nkrumah with a plan to form "The Circle" (a hitherto unknown group seeking to establish a pan-West African socialist republic) were found. The file includes a photograph of Nkrumah attached to a Gold Coast police personality report (serial 61).

The four more files of similar material on Nkrumah give a large amount of detail about his activities at this time, but also show that he was not specifically targeted by the Service. KV 2/1848 covers 1949-1950, and includes (at serial 92) a case summary showing the Service's view of his political beliefs at this time: "His interest in Communism may well be prompted only by his desire to enlist any aid in the furtherance of his own aims in West Africa." The first elections in the Gold Coast, in which Nkrumah emerged as the leader in waiting of independent Ghana, are covered in KV 2/1849 (1950-1951). This file includes reports on Nkrumah's return to Britain (serial 157a). In KV 2/1850 (1951-1953) the chief point of interest is information surrounding George Padmore's arrival in the Gold Coast to work with Nkrumah, and their partnership is recorded in some detail in this file and in KV 2/1851 (1953).

Paul Robeson (KV 2/1829-1830)

Son of pastor and former slave William Drew Robeson, Paul Robeson was born in New Jersey in 1898. He abandoned work in the legal profession in America when it became clear that racial prejudice would hold him back, and took up a career in the performing arts where from the mid-1920s he was an outstanding trans-Atlantic success. He was at this time a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and a strong supporter of left-wing and civil rights causes, and it was these connections that brought him to the attention of the Security Service.

KV 2/1829 (1933-1950) begins with reports of Robeson's address to a League of Coloured Peoples meeting in London where he denied "that there was any discrimination against coloured persons in Britain. Any prejudice that may exist is due to the presence of Americans in this country." The Security Service gathered many reports on Robeson's activities, but did not maintain an active watch on him. In 1935 it concluded that there were "no indications that Paul Robeson has taken more than an academic interest in Communism." However, because of his links to many left-wing causes, and the regularity with which he was approached for support by individuals in whom the Security Service was taking a close interest, reports on Robeson and his activities continued to be gathered. His trips overseas to the Soviet Union and Spain from the UK were of particular interest. One report from the Secret Intelligence Service of 1943 (serial 51a) says: "Robeson is known to be rather gullible…he is rather stongly anti-white and slightly anti-British…he is a crank on the colour question." Of some interest on the file are reports made by officials of Robeson's concerts in Trinidad in December 1948 and Gateshead in May 1949, which combine punctilious recording of political aspects of his performance with admiration for the qualities of his voice. The file includes two examples of tickets for concerts in Gateshead, and his activities in the UK in 1949 are usefully summarised at serial 110a.

The file continues in KV 2/1830 with similar material for 1950-1955, which includes some copies of Robeson's letters to Desmond Buckle, and a copy of Robeson's pamphlet Forge Negro-Labour Unity for Peace and Jobs. Perhaps the most interesting element of the file is the Security Service's response to the possibility in 1951 that appeals would be made from Britain that Robeson be allowed to return to the UK from the USA despite the American authorities having impounded his passport. In the file minutes W M Drower notes "I have no doubt that if Robeson comes to this country in the near future he will be a first-rate nuisance in the world 'peace' campaign." There are indications on the file (serial 176z) that Sir Adrian Boult was to be enlisted to put pressure on the Home Office to secure Robeson's admission.

C L R James (KV 2/1824-1825)

A leading associate of Jomo Kenyatta, James (1901-1989) was a leading Trinidadian author, historian and journalist. One of the founders of the African nationalist movement, he edited the journal of the International African Service Bureau, the pan-African organisation led, among others, by Kenyatta. He was also cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian and the Glasgow Herald. He performed on the London stage in his own play, Toussaint L'Ouverture in 1936, co-starring with Paul Robeson. The files released here show that while the Security Service took an interest in James, it did not take any active part in monitoring his work and activity.

KV 2/1824, covering 1932-1941, consists mainly of material copied to the Security Service by the Special Branch and references to James in intercepted correspondence and phone calls of other targets. These give a good picture of James' contacts and political activities and there are several accounts of meetings addressed by him. They allow researchers to trace his development as a public speaker - for example in 1936 an observer notes "James made a poor rambling speech…his diction is poor", but by 1941 he is described as having "exhibited considerable facility of speech." Kell, the Head of the Security Service, did warn McBrien of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police of James impending visit to Canada in December 1936, and asked the Secret Intelligence Service for information on his activities in the United States in 1941, but the Service otherwise took little active interest in the case.

The file continues in KV 2/1825 (1941-1954), which contains similar papers and reports from various sources. A 1945 report from the Commissioner of Police in Port of Spain, Trinidad speculates that James' illness in Mexico in 1942 was caused by "hard drinking and drugs", and there is a lengthy FBI report on James requested by the Security Service dating from 1953.

Other African, Caribbean or black British nationalists featured in this release include: Benjamin Nnamdi Azikiwe (KV 2/1817-1819), independence leader and later president of Nigeria; Peter Blackman, former priest and British Communist active in the Party's Colonial Bureau (KV 2/1838-1839); Ghanaian nationalist journalist Kweku Bankole Awoonor Renner (KV 2/1840-1841); Nigerian law students Amanke Okafor (KV 2/1853-1854) and Uchemefuna Omo (KV 2/1856-1857); and Kojo Botsio, Ghanaian independence leader (KV 2/1915-1916).