By Hassan Mahamdallie
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Mariner, Renegade and Castaway by Christian Hogsbjerg

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Published by London Socialist History Society and Redwords, 4.00
Issue 387

Christian Hogsbjerg has done a magnificent job in piecing together the story of the revolutionary seaman Chris Braithwaite.

Along the way Hogsbjerg shines light on a generation of radical fighters against racism, injustice and exploitation, their lives and political careers sandwiched between not only two world wars, but the spark of light generated by the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the crushing darkness of Stalinism.

During this period there were a number of talented working class black radicals, exemplified by Braithwaite, who threw their whole lives into the revolutionary socialist project.

They moved between the Caribbean colonies, the US, Europe and Britain, agitating and organising with ferocious will. In a real sense they had most to gain from international revolution and most to lose if the project failed.

A fictionalised sketch of Braithwaite uncovered by Hogsbjerg paints a vivid picture: “He had an enormous voice, an impassioned desire to secure justice and freedom for his oppressed people in Africa… The Negro loved speaking; he loved haranguing the crowd. He was in his element. He had five hundred and more people ranged in rows before him.

“It was a superb opportunity to put the anti-imperialist case, with special reference to Africa… He went on for a solid hour before reaching his final peroration. Then, covered with sweat and triumph, and amid prolonged applause, he came round to the back of the table and shook Mary by the hand, grinning hugely”.

Braithwaite was born in the British colony of Barbados in 1885. Although Barbados had been a hugely profitable island under slavery, it was in serious economic decline and by the turn of the century, the teenage Braithwaite, like many others, left the island to become a seafarer in the British merchant navy.

He then settled in Chicago and raised a family before returning to sea during the First World War. He then lived in New York in the turbulent post war period which produced not only worker militancy but anti-black race riots on both sides of the Atlantic.

Braithwaite then settled in east London where he raised another family and became a trade union militant, attempting to stop black seafarers being exploited by employers, and scapegoated by the unions for supposedly driving down wages.

Like many other black seafarers, Braithwaite was pulled towards the Communist Party of Great Britain, because it tried to organise against racism in the shipping industry, and because it symbolised the cause of international revolutionary socialism.

Tragically for Braithwaite and others, by the time he joined in the early 1930s the revolutionary promise of the 1917 Russian Revolution was being extinguished by Stalin.

The breaking point for the generation that Braithwaite represented was the 1935 Italian fascist invasion of Abyssinia (Ethiopia), facilitated by oil supplied by Stalin.

As Hogsbjerg writes: “Many black militant activists were so understandably disgusted at the betrayal of the Soviet Union over Ethiopia that they began to retreat from radical and revolutionary politics altogether, and either turned to a purely cultural Pan-Africanism or fell back into lobbying and placing liberal demands on the British government”.

But Hogsbjerg points out that there was another pole of attraction: “A new militant and political Pan Africanist organisation, the International African Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA)…launched in London by the Trinidadian revolutionary socialist CLR James and Amy Ashwood Garvey, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist and first wife of Marcus Garvey”.

Braithwaite threw himself into agitating for the IAFA, becoming part of that generation that rejected Stalinism, and instead embraced Pan Africanism while retaining a Marxist critique of imperialism and colonialism.

It was both a political lifeline for Braithwaite, but one that plunged him into a milieu that contained many individuals that were to the right of him politically.

Hogsbjerg convincingly demonstrates that Braithwaite remained committed to the principle that all workers, black and white, held the key to future liberation of the oppressed.

Hogsbjerg has with warmth and poignancy rescued Braithwaite and brought his personality and politics vividly to life. Get this pamphlet.

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