Chris Braithwaite was a remarkable and inspiring black socialist, trade unionist and anti-colonialist. He was active in the British working class movement between the wars but sadly little remembered today.
He came to the fore as a leader of colonial seamen and dockers in inter-war Britain, a campaigner for the Scottsboro Boys, and an agitator against fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia.
The black Trinidadian Marxist CLR James recalled him as “a very fine comrade. Chris would get himself into a temper and explode and make a revolution at the back of the hall…at the shortest notice, he could generate indignation at the crimes of imperialism and the betrayals of Stalinism.”
For a time he had been a member of the Communist Party. But he left after its political sidelining of anti-colonialism after the rise of Hitler’s Nazis and turn to the Popular Front.
One British socialist recalled being shouted down by Communists. He was trying to highlight the French Popular Front government’s re-establishment of forced labour in West Africa and repression of nationalist leaders in other French colonies.
He recalled, “The words ‘lies’ and ‘liar’ were all that could be heard until an immense voice boomed from the back of the hall. ‘It’s the truth. It’s the truth that yuh can’t stand!’ All the delegates seemed to be turning round, as well they might, to see who my champion was. And there stood Chris, like an avenging black angel.”
Chris was born in 1885 on the Caribbean island of Barbados. As a teenager, he enrolled as a seaman in the British merchant navy, before settling in Chicago and raising a family. During the First World War he rejoined the merchant navy alongside many other colonial seamen.
He immersed himself in the British working class movement through the National Union of Seamen (NUS). Black and Asian colonial seamen experienced institutional state racism as well as scapegoating encouraged by the ship-owners under the slogan “British men for British ships”.
The NUS leadership openly colluded with ship-owners’ divide and rule tactics, but Chris challenged such racism, both in and out of the union. He adopted the pseudonym “Chris Jones” to avoid victimisation.
In 1935, Chris founded the Colonial Seamen’s Association, for the first time effectively bringing together black and Asian colonial seamen in one organisation. He also helped form and lead militant Pan-Africanist organisations such as the International African Service Bureau, led by the outstanding black socialists George Padmore and CLR James.
The three tirelessly and eloquently articulated the case against British imperialism at mass meetings of trade unionists and socialists across Britain.
All the time Chris lived the life of a poor seaman with his family—a life he kept so separate that most fellow activists didn’t know he had a wife and children.
During the Depression he organised in his own street in impoverished Stepney, east London, to make sure no children went hungry.
After Chris died suddenly in 1944 black seafarers insisted on carrying his coffin from his home to his grave in tribute.
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