West Indies Calling: Una Marson in London

Una Marson with Trinidadian Cricket-Star Learie Constantine, during a recording of “West Indies Calling”, 1943. © Imperial War Museum, Screenshot from IWM CCE 211

The biography of Una Marson is one of many “firsts”. Born in Jamaica in 1905, she lived between London and Kingston as a secretary, journalist, poet and radio broadcaster, with an especially remarkable period of her life as the first female Black broadcaster of the BBC during the Second World War. In the words of the Canadian literary scholar Anna Snaith, her life was one in the “context of pan-African politics, Caribbean nationalism, and Britain’s colonial relationships, (…) colonialism and feminism in modernist London”.[1]

After finishing school, Marson started working in Kingston as a secretary and then as a journalist. After a brief stage at the political magazine Jamaica Critic, she founded her own magazine in 1928, called The Cosmopolitan, which dealt with issues related to equality, and the social and economic status of women. With this, she not only ran the first feminist magazine in the Caribbean but was also the first woman in Jamaica to hold the position of editor-in-chief.[2] Marson was not shy to speak her mind: In 1929, dealing with a recent article of fellow journalist, who had criticised Jamaican women for starting to wear make-up and short skirts, she demanded: “A big rally of women workers would be the best thing to sweep the cobwebs from certain brains and dust out the eyes so they can see better”.[3]

In 1932, Marson joined the ranks of numerous black intellectuals who had moved to London in the interwar years. She settled in Peckham, where she met the activist Harold Moody, and soon joined the black rights organisation “League of Coloured Peoples”. Subsequently, she became editor of the organisation’s magazine The Keys, which she influenced strongly with her editorials and by publishing her own and other Caribbean literates’ poetry. Additionally, she published several plays and collections of her own poetry. In her literary work, she dealt with her Caribbean heritage, the role of black women in political movements and the experience of everyday racism as a black woman in Great Britain, like in the following poem “Little Brown Girl” (1937):

Little brown girl

Don’t you feel very strange

To be so often alone

In a crowd of whites?

Do you remember you are brown

Or do you forget?

Or do the people staring at you

Remind you of your colour?

(…)

From whence are you little brown girl?

I guess Africa, or India,

Ah no, from some island

in the West Indies,

but isn’t that India all the same?[4]

Marson’s poetry offers a comment on the discrimination of Black people in Britain and the “colour bar”. The black woman in the poem is being exoticised by the speaker, who is unable to individuate between Africa, India and the West Indies. Through poems like these, Marson expressed everyday rascist experience the Black community had to face in Britain, whose identity as British subjects was alienated in the urban context of London.[5]

In 1935, she began to work as a personal secretary to the Ethiopian Emperor-in-exile Haile Selassie, and as part of the Ethiopian delegation became the first black woman to be invited to the League of Nations in Geneva. However, in the following year, she suffered from depression and moved back to Jamaica to recover. There she continued to publish poetry which dealt with Caribbean identity.

Upon returning to London in 1938, after the outbreak of the war, the BBC “Empire Service” looked for additional staff given the large number of West Indian servicemen when Marson was hired by the BBC for the programme “Calling the West Indies”. The show broadcast war propaganda, music from the West Indies and West Indian soldiers and service personnel stationed abroad, who read messages to their friends and families. It was designed to boost morale and to provide a link between thousands of soldiers from the British Caribbean territories to the colonial metropole. Snaith notes that, “Marson’s work at the BBC shows how deeply conflicted her position was as a colonial writer in London. Her voice emanates from that most British of institutions, resenting and fostering imperial unity.”[6]

In wartime London, Marson noted the change in the city´s Black community. Fewer students arrived from colonial territories and instead Black soldiers from Africa and the Caribbean came, with whom Marson associated regularly, especially through “Calling the West Indies”.[7]

Picture 2: Una Marson addressing the guests on her show “West Indies Calling” before going on air, 1943. © IWM HU 55684

Proud of its successful propaganda effort, the BBC commissioned a short movie to be made about the radio programme:

Short movie, commissioned by the BBC, about the “West Indies Calling” program, 1944. Una Marson features prominently from about 2:40. © IWM CCE 211

To watch the movie, click here: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060021318

After a short period of time and with vivid support from the writer George Orwell, she got promoted to be the main producer of the show and subsequently the BBC’s first female black broadcaster. She renamed the show “Caribbean Voices”. With the literary expertise she had acquired as an author and publisher at the The Keys, she remodelled the programme to include discussions on Caribbean literature. “Caribbean Voices” thus became one of the most important influences for the formation of a Caribbean identity. In a speech given in 1938, she expressed her desire to learn and inform people about the Caribbean, stating that in school she was “taught nothing about my own island. Since then I have tried to learn all I could about it.”[8] Among the numerous guests in the show were the Afro-American actor Paul Robeson, the Trinidadian cricketeer Learie Constantine or the Indo-Trinidadian future Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul. With her own work and the promotion of West Indian writers through the BBC, Una Marson is generally credited to have significantly advanced a Caribbean feeling of identity, which created a fertile ground for independence movements to grow on. The literary scholar Lisa Tomlinson credits Marson to have challenged “Britain’s hold on Jamaica’s cultural imagination” and to have freed “their nation of colonial authority and cultural dominance”.[9]

After suffering from depression again in 1945, Marson returned to Jamaica, where she lived a relatively quiet life. From that time period, few sources exist. However, her story exemplifies the complex interconnected history between Jamaica and Britain as a weaving of colonised and colonising territory. While London was the power source of the British Empire, the city also offered space where people from overseas territories could meet, share ideas and develop critique of colonialism. Marson´s life, including her roles as first black female editor-in-chief in Jamaica, invitee of the United Nations and broadcaster of the BBC illustrates how literature had a strong influence on identity formation and the independence movements throughout the British Empire.


[1] Anna Snaith: “Little Brown Girl” in a “White, White City”: Una Marson and London, in: Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, 2009, p. 94.

[2] Alisson Donell: “Una Marson: feminism, anti-colonialism and a forgotten fight for freedom, in: Bill Schwarz: West Indian intellectuals in Britain, Manchester, 2003, pp. 114-131.

[3] Una Marson: “Jamaica’s Victory “, in: The Cosmopolitan, Vol. 2, No. 2, June 1929, pp. 66-67.

[4] Una Marson “Little Brown Girl”, in: The Moth and the Stars, Kingston, 1937.

[5] Cf. Snaith, Una Marson, p. 99.

[6] Snaith, Una Marson, p. 108.

[7] Donnell, Una Marson, p. 124.

[8] British Library: Una Marson, “The Story of Jamaica”, in: The Listener, July 1939.

[9] Lisa Tomlinson: Una Marson: Cultural and Literary Nationalist, Kingston, 2019, p. 1.



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