Pan-Africanism: 50 Years On

By Rathbone, Richard | History Today, October 1995 | Go to article overview

Pan-Africanism: 50 Years On


Rathbone, Richard, History Today


As it took place only months after the end of the War, it is not completely surprising that very little press attention was devoted to a meeting in Manchester of Africans, black Americans and West Indians. Most historians now regard the sixth Pan-African Congress, which met in October 1945, as a significant event in the history of decolonisation and of African reassertion. It differed from earlier meetings in that this was dominated by young Africans and West Indians and not, as had been the case of previous meetings in 1900, 1919, 1921, 1923 and 1927, by mostly African-American intellectual activists. Although the great American civil-rights campaigner and scholar Dr W.E.B. Du Bois, the founding-father of the pan-African movement, was present, the central roles at the week-long meeting were played by a new generation of political activists many of whom were to become household names in the decades to come.

The timing was right, the international atmosphere propitious. Fascism, which had rehearsed its propensity for violence in the bloody invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, had been finally defeated. And it had been defeated by an alliance between the two most powerful nations on earth, the Soviet Union and the United States of America; both were hostile to colonialism albeit for strikingly different reasons. Article III of the Atlantic Charter was being widely read as asserting the universal right of self-government even it Churchill had continued to insist that this did not apply to colonies. Britain now had a Labour government under a prime minister who had told West African students in 1941 that `we in the Labour Party have always demanded that the freedom which we claim for ourselves shall be extended to all .. I look for an ever increasing measure of self-government and political freedom in Africa'. And above all it was clear to everyone that the major colonial powers had been significantly weakened not only by war but also by a much longer process or relative economic decline. The star of nationalism was in the ascendant.

The Manchester meeting was jointly organised by the veteran West Indian journalist George Padmore and by a then largely unknown student from the Gold Coast (Ghana), Kwame Nkrumah. The congress's assistant secretary was Jomo Kenyatta. Others attending included C.L.R. James. Dr Peter Milliard, Joe Appiah, Dr Kurankyi Taylor, Chief H.O. Davies, Chief S.L. Akintola, Wallace Johnson and Dr Ralph Armattoe. Picture Post, one of the few periodicals to take any interest in the proceedings, acutely titled its coverage `Africa Speaks in Manchester'.

What Africa was saying was much more radical than anything voiced at earlier congresses. Amongst its many resolutions the congress affirmed `the right of all colonial peoples to control their own destiny. All colonies must be free from foreign imperialist control whether political or economic ... Today there is only one road to effective action - the organisation of the masses'. And `organising the masses' was rather precisely what many of the delegates proceeded to do on their return to their colonial homes.

The language of the resolutions was strongly nuanced by that of Marxism. This is hardly surprising. A few of the delegates had spent time in Moscow before the War; others had flirted with, or had even joined, the British Communist Party. And to some extent the congress was a consequence of the meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions in London eight months earlier, a meeting which had been attended for the first time by representatives of organised labour in the colonies. The young activists had visibly moved from the incorporationist agenda of their predecessors to the rhetoric of revolution. It would, for example, have been unthinkable for an earlier generation of nationalists to have condemned, as the Manchester delegates were to do, organised Christianity as being `identified with the political and economic exploitation of West African peoples by alien powers'. …

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