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Black people who fought for every worker

This article is over 18 years, 3 months old
October is Black History Month. Hassan Mahamdallie looks at five black figures who have made a big contribution to the working class movement in Britain
Issue 1872


‘The first object which saluted my eyes when I arrived on the coast was the sea, and a slave ship waiting for its cargo. I was carried on board.’

THE YOUNG Olaudah Equiano was captured in 1756 and thrust into the hold of a slave ship. His captors saw the African before them as no more than an animal.

Yet 30 years later Equiano was to publish a bestselling account of his life that became a rallying call for all those demanding an end to slavery.

Equiano spent ten years in bondage. Eventually he saved up enough money to buy his freedom back: ‘I who had been a slave in the morning, trembling at the will of another, became my own master and completely free.’

He joined the abolition of slavery movement in London. In 1789 he published his autobiography and broadside against slavery-The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African.

The account stoked public indignation against slavery. Written by a black man, it undermined the racism that said slaves were naturally inferior. The book was incredibly popular, going through eight British editions in his lifetime. Equiano embarked on a series of speaking tours.

He linked himself to the beginnings of the radical working class movement. Equiano joined the London Corresponding Society, which drew its inspiration from the French and American revolutions.

The society argued that ‘the rights of man are not confined to this small island, but are extended to the whole human race, black, white, high or low, rich or poor.’


‘Loved by his own order, who knew him and appreciated his virtues, ridiculed and denounced by a press that had no sympathy with his class.’ – REYNOLD’S POLITICAL INSTRUCTOR

‘THE BLACK man and his party.’

That was the sneering description that the Times newspaper used in 1848 to describe William Cuffay and the London Chartists he led.

Cuffay was the son of a freed slave who became a fiery leader of the first working class mass movement in history.

Millions were involved in the Chartists. They demanded basic rights such as the vote. But they went beyond that to represent a fundamental challenge to the 19th century ruling class.

Cuffay worked as a journeyman tailor. He lost his job when he was sacked during a strike. The experience radicalised him and in 1839 he joined the Chartists.

He ‘dedicated his whole energies to the task of enfranchising the millions’.

In 1842, the year of the first general strike in history, Cuffay was elected president of the London Chartists. He was on the radical or ‘physical force’ wing of the Chartists, believing in mass direct action.

To the Chartists he was ‘the revered Cuffay’. 1848 was the watershed year of the movement. The Chartists called a rally and 100,000 workers turned up to march on the government.

But the ruling class threatened violent repression and the Chartist leaders dispersed the march. Cuffay was incensed by the climbdown. Unfortunately he got tangled up in a small conspiracy to organise an uprising in London. The group was infiltrated with police spies.

All the conspirators including Cuffay were arrested, tried, found guilty of ‘levying war on the queen’ and sentenced to transportation to Tasmania for life.

In Tasmania Cuffay campaigned against repressive colonial laws. In 1869 he was forced by ill health to enter the workhouse. A year later he died aged 82.

But his comrades in Britain did not forget him. A Chartist journalist wrote of Cuffay after his trial:

‘Whatever may be his after fate, whilst integrity in the midst of poverty, whilst honour in the midst of temptation are admired and venerated, so long will the name of William Cuffay, a scion of Afric’s oppressed race, be preserved from oblivion.’


‘I met a Battersea charwoman yesterday who was almost in tears because she lived on the wrong side of the street and couldn’t vote for Saklatvala.’ – THE DAILY GRAPHIC – local newspaper

ON THE eve of the British General Strike in 1926 a mass May Day rally gathered in Hyde Park. Onto one of the speakers’ platforms clambered an Indian man. He declared support for the strike, calling it a ‘definite rising of labour against their oppressors’.

Shapurji Saklatvala was arrested the next day. The Communist MP was found guilty of sedition for calling on troops to mutiny and given a two-month prison sentence. As soon as he was out he was back agitating against the British state.

‘Comrade Sak’, as he was known, was born into the super-rich Indian Tata family. He was sent to England to manage the family firm’s Manchester office.

He started out as a Liberal sympathiser, but his politics shifted well to the left. He joined the revolutionary Social Democratic Federation, then the left wing Independent Labour Party and finally the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1921.

Saklatvala toured the country, and was especially popular amongst the Welsh miners. In 1921 he was adopted as a Labour candidate for Battersea North. At that time Communists could also be in the Labour Party. Battersea had a radical reputation. It had elected the first black mayor, John Archer. Saklatvala won election in 1922, doubling Labour’s previous vote. In 1924 he won again, this time standing as a Communist.

In 1927 he toured India. The British government hit back by banning Saklatvala for the rest of his life from the country he was born in.

The respect that Saklatvala drew from British workers reveals the hidden thread of black and white unity that runs through the history of workers’ struggles in Britain.


‘Claudia was very active in the work for the unity of white and coloured people and for dignity, equality, especially for the Negro people and for women.’ – Paul Robeson

CLAUDIA JONES was born in Trinidad in the West Indies. When she was a child Claudia’s family emigrated from the West Indies, and she was raised in New York’s Harlem. She joined the US Communist Party, and became a prominent activist and writer.

After World War Two Claudia, along with thousands of other US radicals, fell foul of the anti-Communist witch-hunt. Despite being very ill Claudia was imprisoned for a year before being deported to Britain, where she arrived penniless in December 1955.

Claudia settled in Notting Hill, west London, and immediately threw herself into the struggle. Racist gangs attacked the West Indian community in Notting Hill in 1958, threatening to lynch people.

As a fellow activist wrote of Claudia, ‘Many remembered her courageous leadership during the racial disturbances of Notting Hill.

‘Those were the nights of the long knives, when frightened people of colour surveyed the shattered windows of their homes, or counted the bruises on their bodies. Claudia had been through all this before in the US.’

The black community fought back physically, but people understood that more had to be done. Claudia founded the West Indian Gazette to give a strong voice to Britain’s black population.

Claudia wrote, ‘The Gazette has campaigned vigorously on issues facing West Indians and other coloured people, whether against numerous police frame-ups, to opposing discrimination and to advocating support for trade unionism and the unity of coloured and white workers.’

After the riots the West Indian Gazette sponsored the first Notting Hill Carnival celebration.

Claudia hoped that the spirit of Carnival, founded by slaves in Trinidad who used it to parade their resistance to bondage, would lift black people’s confidence and promote anti-racist unity.

Claudia Jones died in 1964 at the age of 48. She is buried next to Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery.

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