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Review of Africa, Empire and Fleet Street


By Marika Sherwood

Africa, Empire and Fleet Street: Albert Cartwright and West Africa Magazine. Jonathan Derrick. Hurst, 2017. 350pp. (hb) £35.

Jonathan Derrick’s book explores the dynamics of British colonial reporting on Africa through a biographical account of Albert Cartwright who was, for thirty years, an editor of the magazine, West Africa. The first chapter introduces the reader to the magazine itself. In the second chapter, Derrick provides an important background political and economic account of British colonial commerce and newspapers in the nineteenth century. The book then moves on in the third chapter to the early life of Cartwright in South Africa between 1889 and 1911. This chapter introduces the reader to Manchester-born Cartwright and his early work on the Cape Times and other papers and publications. It is unclear what his political attitudes were at the time and readers would have wanted to know this as a way to consider the influence of Cartwright’s early experiences on his later work on West Africa.

Chapter Four focusses mainly on the work of E.D. Morel in publicising and opposing the horrors of King Leopold’s Congo. It explains the setting up of West Africa in 1900 and, as in the second chapter, provides a strong politico-economic context for understanding the period. Derrick notes that West Africa at the time was a monthly that was full of advertisements as it was intended for traders, shippers and anyone who had a commercial or other interest in West Africa.  This chapter discusses extensively the impacts of Western ‘education’ and notes that this was a major concern of the West Africa magazine at the time. Chapter Five is about West Africa Publishing Co. which was set up in 1916 and the actors and debates around the acquisition of West Africa and what revisions of the magazine was made. The chapter provides details of the owners and the eventual appointment of Cartwright as editor. Derrick notes that it was after this appointment that the magazine became a weekly and issued its first editorial on 3rd February 1917, presumably written by Cartwright. In this editorial, which started a new phase for the magazine, it was stated that the aim of the publication was keeping ‘the public of West Africa informed upon matters of consequence in Europe and in West Africa itself, and giving to the English-reading public outside West Africa…some notion of the life and work of European men and women in West Africa and the life and work of the dim millions of African-born races comprised within the same geographical limits’ (pp. 138-9).  The magazine largely met this goal but after a while it did begin to give some space to ‘educated’ West Africans in the UK, and their organisations, and then even occasionally to Africans involved in politics and trade unions in West Africa. But generally, no reporting was provided on the lower ranks of the colonial civil service in Africa, or on those ‘dim millions’, or on racism.

The book also deals with the emergence of the West African Review which was born out of the purchase of Elders Review of West African Affairs in 1929/1930. What exactly the function/role of the ‘editor’ R.B. Paul was, the author could not uncover. The West African Review was very similar to West Africa, but larger with even more photographs and advertisements for traders and shippers. It did publish an article by the British Union of Fascists in 1935, related to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia/Ethiopia. And it seems the Review was not wholly against the Nazi claim for the return of the colonies Germany lost in the First World War.

From the 1930s, Derrick reports that there was more coverage of activism by Africans and West Indians in the UK. During this decade there were also, for the first time, some reports on French colonies and French colonial policies. Later, there were also many reports on the Second World War, support for the recruitment of Africans to the RAF, but none for the cessation of the forced recruitment of labour.  It appears the West African Review supported Smuts in South Africa, but West Africa did not. Derrick also reports that Cartwright was ‘not at ease with pan-Africanism’ (p.271). Both magazines were sold to the Daily Mirror in 1947, the year Cartwright retired.

This seems to be a somewhat strange book, as often it is necessary to look at the references to see if what is being reported is from one of the magazines, or from research by the author. It is also not clear if this book represents some sort of friendly family history since Jonathan Derrick himself worked at the West Africa magazine for 20 years. What I would have liked is a full report on the politics of the two papers. Did they work with the government?  I think a report on the advertisements would also have been interesting – which companies were supporting colonialism? What can we learn about attitudes to the colonies? And to whom in the colonies? What did they NOT report about Black activism in the UK? And in West Africa?

In spite of these flaws, this certainly is an interesting book.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 79 (Winter 2017/18), pp. 161-62]         

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