Almost an Englishman: Marcus Garvey in London

black and white photo shows black leader Marcus Garvey seated in a chair at a desk

 

Colin Grant, author of 'Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey', examines the crucial significance of the international networks forged the race leader in London. Here, he takes us on a tour from Garvey's first flat in Borough High Street to his burial in Kensal Green.

Young Garvey arrives in the glamorous metropolis

London made Marcus Garvey; it also broke him. The great race leader’s career was marked by two migrations to the capital. The first in 1912 when, after seventeen days at sea, he arrived aboard one of the Elder Dempster banana boats. A penniless twenty-five-year-old adventurer, he was unknown and unheralded. England, for him, as for the majority of its Imperial subjects, was an abstraction. ‘Viewing the Mother Country with an adoring eye,’ wrote Eric Walrond, ‘the Negro in the British overseas colonies is obviously at the mercy of a rainbow…This deception is partly a case of “distance lends enchantment,” partly a by-product of the black man’s extraordinary loyalty to the Crown.’ Marcus Garvey’s adoring eye yearned for such wonders that his compatriot Claude McKay had anticipated in Old England, to see ‘de ancient chair where England’s kings deir crowns put on.’

176 Borough High Street, south of the river was as close enough, and the signs “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish” were yet to decorate the windows of rooms for rent. ‘When we visited England,’ he would later write, ‘we of ourselves, who are not coloured but black, found no difficulty in securing lodgings.’ Garvey was seduced by the glamour of the Metropolis, especially the House of Commons and Speakers’ Corner where commandeering a soap-box, colour would have been his unique calling card; As A.B.C.B Merriman-Labour observed of Edwardian Britain, ‘credulous people…believe that every Negro with a decent overcoat and a clean collar is an African prince.’ Garvey was always well-turned out but pretty soon his belly was knocking on his backbone. Within a couple of months he was reduced to applying for assistance from the Colonial Office.

Luck intervened, though, because eventually he found piecemeal work at London’s dockyards where one of the brother seamen tipped him off about the intriguing prospect of alternative employment at the newly-launched African Times and Orient Review, run by the Egyptian-born Duse Mohamed Ali. In its inaugural edition, Ali had called for contributions from the ‘young and budding Wilmot Blydens, Frederick Douglasses and Paul Laurence Dunbars’. The advert appeared tailor-made for the young Garvey, and in early 1913, after laying siege to its offices at 158 Fleet St.; he was taken on, not yet as a writer, but as a messenger and handyman.

1913

Relentless lobbying later secured him his first journalistic commission, with, in the October 1913 issue, ‘The British West Indies in the Mirror of Civilisation’, an unflattering account of Albion’s greed in the Caribbean. That early literary outing displayed a love of learning. Yet despite a later fondness for being photographed in academic robes, Garvey had little hope of formally furthering his education. He did, however, attend lessons in law at Birkbeck College, and even managed a mini grand tour of European capitals.

On 10 December 1913, Garvey wrote to Thaddeus McCormack of his sojourn in Paris, Monte Carlo, Boulogne and Madrid. ‘I have seen wonders…at some places… I have been the only black man…some of the tourists take me for an African millionaire.’24 And even more unlikely on 2 March 1914, Garvey confided bashfully, ‘I am engaged to a Spanish-Irish heiress whom I had the pleasure of meeting on the Continent.’ It was, he acknowledged, ‘somewhat destructive of my principle, yet I hardly think I can change my mind in marrying her.’ On his return to London, the good times quickly came to an end. He was forced to solicit funds from the charitable Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, stating that he was ‘willing in part to work his passage back’ to Jamaica. Whilst they deliberated he took refuge in the safe, un-judgemental world of books, setting up camp in the great domed reading room of the British Museum, and famously discovering the book that would prove the most influential on his life: ‘I read [Booker.T.Washington’s] Up from Slavery,’ wrote Garvey, ‘and then my doom – if I may so call it – of being a race leader dawned on me.’ Soon after he boarded the S.S Trent on 17 June 1914 and would not return to London for another two decades. In the intervening years, Garvey founded a massive organisation, the Universal Negro Improvement Association which at its peak boasted millions of followers, and had inspired black people in the Diaspora with his “Back-to-Africa” movement.

1935

1935 saw him regularly featured among the crowd-pullers at Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner. Back in Jamaica, the Gleaner speculated that he was on his way to receiving a Labour Party nomination to become an MP. In the same article the more concrete achievement of another compatriot in London was registered. Amy Ashwood (his ex-wife) had opened a nightclub and restaurant, the ‘Florence Mills’ on New Oxford Street which had become, almost overnight, a hub for black intellectual life. In the evenings they took to dance floor as Ashwood’s business partner, the Calypsonian, Sam Manning and his orchestra broke out into Caribbean melodies and the foxtrot. C.L.R James, Jomo Kenyatta, George Padmore and Ras Makonnen were amongst the glittering clientele.

Marcus Garvey did not patronise this establishment. In London his UNIA clamoured for attention in an already crowded field of dynamic black organisations, such as the League of Coloured People and the West African Students Union. From a small office at 2 Beaumont Crescent, West Kensington Garvey pumped out missives to the world. A new monthly magazine, the Black Man took its bow in 1935 with Una Marson, who’d eventually head the BBC’s Caribbean Service, serving as his personal secretary. The proprietor’s column ‘The World As I see it’ was an accurate index of his frustrations. That year Italian aggression presented a conundrum. In an interview with Joel Rogers, Garvey reflected excitedly that Garveyites had an earlier claim on fascism: ‘When we had 100,000 disciplined men, Mussolini was still an unknown. Mussolini copied our Fascism. But the Negroes sabotaged it.’ But for any Negro worthy of the name, Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia was monstrous and galling.

Making enemies of George Padmore and CLR James

By October, Garvey was refining his position. He began to think that Haile Selassie might well have brought on the disaster by his un-preparedness, which was ‘characteristic of the Negro, [and] contrary to the doctrine of the UNIA.’ When the exiled Emperor made his way to England he snubbed a welcoming coalition of black delegates that included Garvey. Thereafter the editor of the Black Man was more brutal in his assessment of the ‘feudal Monarch who looks down upon his slaves and serfs with contempt’. But there were signs of Garvey’s negative opinions on Selassie costing him allies in London. George Padmore, remembered that Garvey’s stand ‘made him very unpopular among the African university students, who attempted to break up his meetings.’

Two years later in June 1937, his wife and children, Amy Jacques, Julius and Marcus Jnr, joined him in London. Jacques recalled that ‘in appearance, [Garvey] had not changed much, though his hair was thinning out front.’ No sooner had they settled into their new home than Garvey signalled no change in his peripatetic fund-raising life; he left for Canada. Later he wended his way to Trinidad and ran straight into the middle of a violent strike, where he surprised many by suggesting that the strikers had been misguided, most probably by George Padmore’s International African Service Bureau. ‘Trinidad workers,’ Garvey is reported to have said, should not ‘risk their employment for the sake of these agitators in London who have nothing to lose.’

Such views were unlikely to endear Garvey to the youngish Trinidadians, Padmore and C.L.R James who stalked him on Sundays at Speakers’ Corner, and heckled him whenever he rose to speak.

Family Life at Talgarth Road

The Garveys later rented a house at 53 Talgarth Road, but it was no home. 1938 was not a happy year: their anxiety mostly centred on the health of the eldest boy, who after recovering from measles, contracted rheumatic fever, requiring months of medical care. And when, in the summer, Garvey set out on yet another international trip, his wife had clearly had enough; she packed up her suitcases and children and booked passages on the S.S Casanare bound for Jamaica.

Marcus Garvey cut a lonely figure when he returned to an empty house. The war made it doubly difficult for him to keep in touch with his estranged family and remaining UNIA divisions. ‘The collapse of the [UNIA] empire was sudden and tragic,’ wrote Adam Clayton Powell. The adoring crowds that had greeted Garvey at Speakers’ Corner had mostly melted away by the end of 1939.

'Marcus Garvey Dies in London'

Not long after that, on 18 May 1940, Marcus Garvey sat down and scanned the front pages of the newspapers. One, in particular caught his eye. The Chicago Defender carried the most extraordinary headline: ‘Marcus Garvey Dies in London.’ His secretary tried to shield him from the worst of the premature obituaries but Garvey insisted on reading them. ‘As he opened all his letters, and cables, he was faced with clippings of his obituary, pictures of himself with deep black borders,’ she wrote, ‘he collapsed in his chair, and could hardly be understood after that.’ Marcus Garvey died on 10 June 1940. He would be buried in the catacombs of St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Kensal Green but many of his supporters, confused by the false obituaries, refused to believe the fact of his death, Amy Ashwood amongst them.

That night she had been disturbed by a dream. Garvey beckoned her to the yard at the back of the house: ‘There I saw him on the scaffold[ing] of a big ship driving rivets into its side. After he completed his task, he turned to me and cried out loud ‘Build for Africa, work for Africa.’

Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey and his Dream of Mother Africa is published by Oxford University Press

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