Discovering Africa in London

NOV 27, 2018

Dr. Hakim Adi, scholar of the African Diaspora, on the histories of migration informing Barber Shop Chronicles

by Hakim Adi

“I discovered Africa in London,” wrote Paul Robeson, the famous African American actor and singer who devoted his life to the struggle for African liberation and human rights for all, recalling his experiences in London in the 1920s and 1930s. A visitor to London today might expect to have very similar experiences in the district of Peckham, or throughout many parts of London where Africans and those of African and Caribbean heritage often comprise at least 25% of the entire population. Peckham today is often known as “Little Lagos,” or “Little Nigeria,” the place to buy Nigerian culinary delicacies and as famous for its association with Hollywood star John Boyega as it is for the tragic death of Damilola Taylor.

In much of south London today, the population of those from the African continent is the dominant Black demographic, outpacing the Caribbean population in the boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark, Lewisham, and Greenwich. Indeed, throughout the capital it is a similar picture, with growing populations of those from Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia, and many other African countries that have outstripped the previously dominant Caribbean population. It is a phenomenon that is causing many to question the dominant narrative which associates all Black Londoners with the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948, an event commonly credited as having kicked off mass post-war immigration from the Caribbean and other parts of the empire to the UK.

Before Empire Windrush, the African and Caribbean population of London was certainly not as large as it is today, but that does not mean it was any less significant, nor is its size any justification for hiding a history which predates the Roman occupation of Britain. There were Africans living and working in London in Shakespeare’s time and throughout the following centuries; indeed, Shakespeare is supposed to have fallen for an African woman, Lucy Morgan, and celebrated her beauty in his sonnets.

Maynard Eziashi in Barber Shop Chronicles.

In the eighteenth century, Africans, led by Olaudah Equiano and Ottobah Cugoano, even formed their own organization, the Sons of Africa, to contribute to the mass popular campaign to end Britain’s trafficking of millions of African men, women, and children across the Atlantic. At the end of the nineteenth century, London was the venue for the first Pan-African conference, organized by African and Caribbean residents to demand human rights for Black people throughout the world. It featured music by the famous Black British classical composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, who was born in Croydon, London.

Members of London’s populations of African and Caribbean heritage contributed to mobilization efforts in both world wars, even when racism and the color bar in the services made it difficult for them. Others, like the Jamaican carpenter Isaac Hall, refused to fight. In 1916, as a conscientious objector, Hall was sent to Pentonville Prison and tortured but refused to renounce his principles.

Wartime service by African and Caribbean volunteers led to many returning to Britain to settle in the period after 1945. Britain’s colonial rule produced poverty and no opportunity for higher education, so many others made the journey to Britain to better their lives and those of their families. The most well-known voyage was that made by the Empire Windrush in 1948, but many other ships made the journey from the Caribbean before and after that date. They were further encouraged when the newly created National Health Service (NHS) began to recruit in the Caribbean in 1949, followed by London Transport in 1956. Britain’s post-war demand for labor led to tens of thousands of people settling in London from the 1950s onward. The barber shop/hairdresser became and remains one of the most visible signs of this settlement, which was established in different parts of London—Brixton, Croydon, Peckham, as well as Harlesden, Hackney, Notting Hill, and Paddington.

The continental African population of London arrived in the capital for a variety of reasons. Nigerians and Ghanaians were sojourning in the capital in the 1950s and 1960s, drawn by the need to gain qualifications or working in such sectors as the NHS. Some had arrived much earlier and were amongst those who helped Paul Robeson “discover” Africa in the 1920s and 1930s. In that era, Robeson became the patron of the West African Students’ Union (WASU), which had been founded in 1925 to campaign for the rights of Africans in Britain’s colonies Nigeria, the Gold Coast, Sierra Leone, and Gambia and to campaign against the infamous color bar: at that time, racism was legal in Britain, and Africans might be barred from hotels and public houses and denied employment. Even African women training as nurses sometimes found it difficult to secure positions in London’s hospitals. The WASU therefore established its own hostel in Camden Town, which also provided the capital’s first African restaurant, amongst other things adopting and adapting ground rice for Nigerian culinary purposes. The WASU also provided one of the first modern African barbers.

In those days, Peckham was known as the place of residence of Dr. Harold Moody, a Jamaican physician, and the headquarters of the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), of which he was president. Whereas the WASU united West Africans, the LCP’s membership included those from the Caribbean as well. Moody campaigned on behalf of nurses and other victims of the color bar just as the WASU did. Such was the situation facing London’s African and Caribbean population at that time, a population that contained students and professionals but also many others who existed as seafarers, or earned a living as best they could.

Original company of Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre.

Africans settling in London during this period were pulled and pushed by the same factors as those from the Caribbean. Though the numbers were not as large, thousands came to study with the aim of soon returning home but later remained. Others came to seek employment. Before the 1962 Immigration Act, all colonial subjects were entitled to British citizenship and residence. Even after that, many Africans came as refugees and asylum seekers following civil wars in Nigeria in the 1960s and Somalia in the 1980s and onward, as well as other conflicts in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea in the last decades of the twentieth century. Still others were directly recruited, especially by the NHS, which initiated a program for this purpose in the mid-1990s. By the start of this millennium, the largest African communities originated from Nigeria, Ghana, Somalia, and Zimbabwe, located particularly in south London but also in boroughs such as Newham, Hackney, Brent, and, more recently, Barking, and Dagenham.

Although there are distinct African and Caribbean communities within London, there is also a common “Black” experience based on living in the city and, increasingly, on being born to parents, and growing up with family members, who may also be native Londoners. The barber shop/hairdresser is another of those common experiences, along with remittances, holidays “back home,” and increasing familiarity with what might be described as Pan-African cuisine and, of course music, from Highlife and Calypso in the 1950s to Reggae and the more recent Afrobeat. It is now increasingly common to find young Nigerians taking Congolese partners, Sierra Leoneans with Jamaicans, and every other Pan-African combination. The fluidity of Afropolitanism, we are told, is in vogue. Yet, as at the start of the twentieth century and long before, it is often the common problems facing all those of African descent—poverty, racism, eurocentrism, neo-colonialism—and their solution, that create the conditions for the most passionate discussions, whether in the barber’s or elsewhere.

Hakim Adi (PhD SOAS) is Professor of the History of Africa and the African Diaspora at the University of Chichester. He has appeared in many documentary films, on TV and radio, and has written widely on the history of Africa and the African diaspora. He is currently writing a history of Pan-Africanism, to be followed by a book on the history of African and Caribbean people in Britain.


Image Credits
Original company of Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

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