The West African Students Union (WASU) and the London Moment

Cover of WASU’s magazine, March 1945 (© British Library)

In the northern hemisphere, autumn is heralding itself – and with it the start of the academic year. When the Michaelmas term (autumn trimester) began in 1925 London, a new group set out to recruit student members among the many societies within the University of London: The West African Students Union. Two anti-colonial activists had founded it the previous summer: Amy Ashwood Garvey from Jamaica, wife of the Pan-African politician Marcus Garvey, and the Nigerian law student Lapido Solanke.

According to its official statutes, the union was a welfare organization for African students and emigrants in London. Its aim was to improve and facilitate their living situation in the city, for example by supporting newly arrived West Africans in finding accommodation. However, the organization quickly changed into a platform to vividly discuss alternatives to the imperial world order. Solanke, himself a Pan-African thinker, saw the WASU as a training ground for practical unity and effective cooperation between all West African students.

In 1928, WASU was based at Marcus Garvey´s flat, but when his lease expired two years later, it had to look for new location. The Colonial Office offered to provide a house, on the condition that the Union would be under the control of the British government. This offer was an attempt to bring West African students closer to the positions of the British government in order to train them as future elites and middlemen in the colonial project. WASU, which was already critical of the Colonial Office’s efforts to monitor all colonial students, rejected the proposal because they felt that the government was pursuing a “plan, whereby it might exercise the same control over those studying in England” as over those living in the colonies. Instead, they called for, “all Africans, students or otherwise, to wash their hands of this scheme … which would destroy their individuality.”[1]

Fuelled by events such as the Italian attack on Ethiopia, WASU, previously only considering a reform of the British Empire, continued to move in the direction of anti-imperialism. During the Second World War, with the help of the Fabian Society´s Colonial Bureau, WASU formed a Parliamentary Committee with WASU friendly parliamentarians, a total of five, who met twice a month. Thus, during the war years, WASU developed into a „channel for bringing African grievances before Parliament.“[2] In August 1942, at its annual congress, WASU finally adopted a petition to demand immediate self-government of the colonies and independence within five years of the end of the war and played an influential role in the fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in October 1945.

During the Second World War, London served students and intellectuals – often from well-off classes of colonial societies, which formed the core of anti-colonial resistance – as a place of education and training.  Via WASU, they equipped themselves with intellectual and ideological tools from which the anti-colonial movements in the peripheral regions later benefited. WASU also provided essential exchange with other activists, be they from colonial regions or critics of imperialism from Europe itself as, for example, the British Fabian Society.

The history of WASU is richly documented through archival sources of the organization itself and the private papers of some of its members. WASU’s own journal, entitled “Wasu” (Wãsù also meaning “to preach” in Yoruba), can be found in the archives of the British Library in London for the years 1926-1947. The newspaper appeared irregularly between one and four times a year.

The case of the West African Students Union fits well into my PhD-thesis “Crossroads of Empires. Colonial Powers, and Anticolonial Movements during the London Moment 1940-1945” which will explore how the colonial question was discussed during the London moment, with one focus being anticolonial activists.

Therefore, another collection of archive material that will be explored for this project is the personal legacy of Robert Wellesley Cole, a physician from Sierra Leone who came to England in 1923 to study, presided over WASU and advised the Colonial Bureau of the Fabian Society on colonial issues in addition to his work as a physician from 1943-1950. His papers are accessible in the archives of the School of African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London.

The example of WASU shows that living in London had a transformative influence on the intellectual and political development of the people from the colonies. Some of these individuals returned home from London and became leaders or important participants of independence movements and post-colonial states such as Jomo Kenyatta, Hastings Kamuzu Banda or Kwame Nkrumah, who would later become the first presidents of Kenya, Malawi and Ghana. London as the administrative centre and capital of the British Empire was also a place of resistance against the imperial world order, as Matera put it: „The city acted as both facilitator and provocateur, providing the context and resources for the creation of a rich array of subaltern networks of the colonized and an effervescently hybrid political culture.“[3]

Literature

Fryer, Peter, The History of Black People in Britain, London, 2018, 3rd edition.

Matera, Marc, Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the twentieth century, Berkeley, 2015.

Adi, Hakim, Panafricanism: A History, London, 2018.

Eckert, Andreas: Afrikanische Intellektuelle und Aktivisten in Europa und die Dekolonisation Afrikas, in: History and Society 37 (2) (2011), p. 244-274.

Primary sources

Wasu: Journal of the West African Students´Union of Great Britain, Oxford, years 1926-1947, held at the British Library, London. (Link to the British Library Archives: https://bit.ly/2qiigrU).

Papers of Dr. Benjamin Ageh Wellesley Cole, 1928-1991, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) Archives, London, Signatur PP MS 35. (Link to the SOAS Archive: https://bit.ly/2PYeH5s).


[1] WASU, The Truth About Aggrey House: An Exposure of the Government Plan for the Control of African Students in Great Britain, 1934, p. 6-7, cited after Fryer, Peter, Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, London, 2018, 3rd edition, p. 328.

[2] Ibid., p. 325.

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



You may also like...

1 Response

  1. 01/05/2019

    […] forces, and the further 14 million who died in the conflict. Or studying the histories surrounding anti-colonialist movements in Britain, as well as studying Empire itself. It’s not only not knowing their history, it’s the potential […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.