“Brotherhood between all persons of African descent”: The West African Students Union, from self-help group to colonial critique

Advertisement of the West African Students Union for a dance night at their hostel in Chelsea, ca. 1949. Source: School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Library, Special Collections, PP MS 35, Cole, Box 21, file 157.
© SOAS Special Collections

Through migration from colonial territories to Britain, London was a hub for migrant flows from all over the globe from the Victorian era onwards. As such, the city became a “junction box”[1] for Black activism. Black people from the Caribbean, sub-Saharan Africa and the USA made their way to London, and from London back to all corners of the world. Most spent their free time in community-specific restaurants, cafés and dance clubs. There, networks and friendships were forged, love affairs developed, ideas exchanged, and political discussions held. Researching community-specific places and the everyday history of those migrants can contribute to understand how global networks of colonial critique emerged in London from the interwar period onwards, and how existing ones visibly gained momentum.

German historian Michael Goebel has analysed anti-colonial networks in interwar Paris and concludes that an important part of the answer can be found in the everyday history (“Alltagsgeschichte”) of migrants, as people from colonial territories often lived in the same neighbourhoods of the city, and expierenced similar experiences of social discrimination. This discrimination led to the founding of numerous cultural and self-help associations in colonial migrant communities. These associations initially provided social support to their community. However, the permanent discrimination against migrant groups from the non-Western world led many activists to supplement their social commitment with a political one.[2] In a similar vein, the US-American historian Marc Matera has argued, that through its Black population, London as the capital of the British Empire also became a place of resistance against the imperial world order.[3]

One example for these places are the hostels of the West African Students Union, which were founded specifically as part of the self-help group for Black students from West Africa who couldn’t find accommodation otherwise. The common rooms of their hostels became an important meeting place for London’s Black community, and increasingly a vessel for the development and dissemination of anti-colonial ideas.

WASU’s roots date back to the 1920s. Out of protest against the racist portrayal of the native African population at the Empire Exhibition in London in 1924, the Nigerian law student Lapido Solanke founded the “Nigerian Progress Union” in 1924. The group evolved the following year into the “West African Students Union”, to be open to a wider range of colonial students. West Africa was interpreted generously, stretching as far as Kenya and South Africa. Aside from being constantly confronted with cultural stereotypes, one of the biggest problems for African students in London was finding accommodation, as proprietors often refused to rent rooms to Black people due to Britain´s “colour bar”.[4] At the founding event of WASU, the first point of the newly created statues therefore stated the group´s aim to open a hostel for “students of African descent”, as well as to “promote the spirit of self-help, unity and co-operation amongst its members”, and “to promote (…) brotherhood between all persons of African descent”.[5] In 1933, after a lengthy fundraising tour in West Africa, Solanke had raised enough funds to acquire a house in North-West London as the new WASU headquarters.

The WASU hostel in Camden, opened in 1933, from the outside, and view of the lounge, published in the organization’s periodical. Source: WASU Magazine, May 1940, British Library. © British Library.

In 1938 and 1949, additional hostels followed in Camden and Chelsea. After its opening, the WASU hostel went from being a “home from home”[6] for African students to an important social meeting place, where West African food was served for socials, which were organised every Saturday by the female union members. By the outbreak of the war in 1939, the WASU hostels were not only known as a contact point for newly arrived Black people in London, but also for its fortnightly dance parties, as well as their cultural and political discussion evenings. When the music clubs in London were closed during the Blitz, WASU continued to hold its dance evenings, which became the union’s most attended events with around hundred biweekly visitors.[7] These social gatherings played an important role in strengthening networks, which subsequently often developed a political note, as the US historian Nate Plageman notes: “throughout the early and mid-20th century, West African residents of London placed music at the centre of their social and anticolonial activities and embraced musical recreation as a means of fostering a sovereign future and transimperial fellowship”.[8] The role of WASU hostels and their communal spaces thus condensed the contacts of Black people in London, and consequently served as a catalyst for the exchange of ideas and political discussions.

The union’s regular political discussion evenings attracted the attention of the British authorities, and representatives from the Colonial Office eventually started to attend them to present their point of view to the colonial students. In the long run, Britain’s political leaders hoped that this would lead to better relationships with colonial elites in the future and therefore consolidate British rule, as many colonial students returned to their home countries at the end of their education to assume roles in the local administration. WASU became the mouthpiece for West African political concerns in Britain. For example, with the help of Labour MPs Reginald Sorensen and Arthur Creech Jones, Solanke represented the position of Ghanaian farmers in 1938, who demanded better purchase prices for the cocoa they planted.[9]

Discussion in the WASU common room with Oliver Stanley, Secretary of State for the Colonies, April 9, 1943. Source: WASU Magazine, June 1944, British Library.
© British Library

The outbreak of the Second World War fortified WASU´s political weight. Since Britain was dependent on war support from the colonies, the Colonial Office sought particularly good relations with the colonies and thus also with WASU, which had taken on the role of a representative of West African concerns vis-à-vis the government in London.[10] The WASU members’ expectations of concessions from the government for improved political and economic conditions for African colonies increased accordingly. At two conferences in 1941 and 1942, WASU members formulated their demands to the British government, calling for “complete self-government within five years after the war”[11]. WASU thus deliberately used its position to try to demand political concessions towards West Africa. In 1942, WASU, together with five Labour MPs, including afore-mentioned Sorensen and Creech Jones, formed their own political lobby group, the “West African Parliamentary Committee”, to exert coordinated and targeted pressure on the British government. Via the question hour in parliament the MPs were able to directly address the government. This marked a peak in WASU’s political influence in Britain and in its relations with the Labour Party.[12] WASU’s positions on colonialism further continued to sharpen during the war years. In 1945, Kwame Nkrumah, a rhetorically gifted student who freshly arrived in Britain, who would later go on to become Ghana’s first president, was elected president of WASU. Under Nkrumah, and in the absence of more moderate Solanke, who went on another fundraising tour in West Africa to gather funds for another WASU hostel in late 1944, the Union´s political position then reached its anticolonial zenith, constantly pressurising the British government for independence of the African and Caribbean colonies, which eventually came forth from 1957 onwards.[13]

The history of the WASU in the 1930s and 1940s can thus be used to show how groups that initially provided social support for newly arrived immigrants from the colonies in European metropoles developed into centres of anti-colonial activity. The permanent discrimination against Black migrants by the British state and British society led many Black migrant activists to supplement their social commitment with a political one. In many cases, they saw changing the political system of colonialism as the best way to improve their social position. An important source of politicisation for Black migrants in London in the 1930s and 1940s was thus the concrete everyday experience of discrimination as well as solidarity in self-help groups.

[1] Duffield, Ian: Black People in Britain: History and the Historians, in: History Today, 31/9 (1981), S. 34-36, S. 35.

[2] Goebel, Michael: Anti-Imperial Metropolis: Interwar Paris and the Seeds of Third World Nationalism, Cambridge, 2015, especially chapter 4: “Learning and Imparting Lessons in Anti-Imperialism: Students in the Latin Quarter”, p. 109-148.

[3] Matera, Marc, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the twentieth century, Berkeley, 2015, p. 2.

[4] Adi, Hakim: West Africans in Britain, 1900-1960: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism, S. 39-42.

[5] Ibid., p. 33.

[6] Adi, Hakim, Sherwoord, Marika: Lapido Felix Solanke, in: Pan-African History: Political Figures from Africa and the Diaspora Since 1787, London, 2003, p. 174-176, p. 175.

[7] WASU Magazine, May 1942, p. 2.

[8] Plageman, Nate: Retuning Imperial Intentions: The Gold Coast Police Band, West African Students, and a 1947 Tour of Great Britain, in: Ghana Studies, Vol. 20, No. 1, 2017, p. 111-139, p. 124.

[9] Hakim, Adi: West African students in Britain, 1900-60: The politics of exile, in: Immigrants & Minorities: Historical Studies in Ethnicity, Migration and Diaspora, Vol. 12, No. 3, 1993, p. 107-128, p. 117-118.

[10] Onuzo, Imachibundu Oluwadara: Our men in Britain: The West African Students´ Union and the politics of representation, 1925-1970, PhD-thesis, King´s College London, 2018. The thesis argues that WASU took up the role of a de-facto embassy for West Africans in London.

[11] Lapido Solanke to Colonial Office, April 6 1942, The National Archives, CO554/127/11.

[12] Adi: West African students in Britain, S. 118-119.

[13] Ibid., S. 121.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Simeon Marty (February 22, 2021). “Brotherhood between all persons of African descent”: The West African Students Union, from self-help group to colonial critique. The London Moment. Retrieved July 18, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/onmy

Simeon Marty

I am a PhD student at the Department of History of Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and member of the research project “The London Moment”. After completing my B.A. in History (major) and Science of Religion (minor) at the Universities Fribourg and Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne in 2016, I recently graduated from King’s College London with a master’s degree in World History and Cultures. My M.A. thesis “The mouse that roared: The Anguillan secessionist movement and British policy making in the decolonisation of the Anglophone Caribbean, 1966-1971” explores the interconnection between cultural stereotypes in post-war British administration and policy making in the process of decolonisation. In my PhD Project, I will explore the transnational networks that have been established by non-Europeans, especially anti-colonial and Pan-African movements, in London during the Second World War. This research hopes to uncover to what extent the “London Moment” with its extraordinarily high concentration of political groupings and international political actors offered new perspectives for anti-colonial activists and intellectuals in the formulation of social and political alternatives. In a broader sense, it will examine how this has contributed to the manifold processes of decolonisation that followed shortly afterwards.

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