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Review of Africa's Agitators: Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918-1939


By Nicholas Grant

Africa's Agitators: Militant Anti-Colonialism in Africa and the West, 1918-1939. Jonathan Derrick. Hurst & Company, London, 2008. Pp. 483. ISBN. 978-1-85065-936-5 (pb). £17.99.

The interwar period was key in shaping anti-colonial nationalism in Africa. The global upheavals and conflicts that characterised the era helped contribute to the increasing importance of Africa and its resources to the political and economic fortunes of the imperial powers. A particularly striking feature of the anti-colonial activism of the era was its transnational character. In recent years transnational studies have traced the interconnections that have been forged between nation-states; through the movement of people, ideas and institutions across national boundaries. This approach has had a particular significance for historical accounts of how groups and individuals challenged the structures of colonial oppression. For many black anti-colonial activists throughout history national borders were only marginally relevant. Their peripheral position in colonial society caused them to repeatedly look beyond the borders of the nation-state in order to form anti-colonial alliances throughout the diaspora. Recognising this need to engage with the transnational in order to understand African anti-colonial protest, Jonathan Derrick has compiled a comprehensive work that helps trace the formation and activities of these global colonial networks. Africa’s ‘Agitators’ is a truly transnational work that provides an overview of the diasporic activism of a variety of individuals who challenged colonial power in diverse ways in the interwar period.

The book relies primarily on British based archives and secondary literature. Despite the lack of African-based research, Derrick manages to skilfully fuse a vast amount of historical data into an impressive overview of anti-colonial agitation between the wars. In fact the text’s reliance on ‘Western’ source material means it is able to demonstrate the crucial contribution diasporan blacks within the metropole made to anti-colonial struggles. As a result, Derrick’s research successfully highlights the cross-cultural exchange that occurred between Africans and diasporan blacks in the West and raises important questions concerning the nature of this sometimes problematic relationship. The sources also document white support for anti-colonialism, allowing Derrick to examine the dynamics of interracial anti-colonial cooperation in the period. However, perhaps the most valuable aspect of the research is the fact that the source material is collected from both the Anglophone and Francophone world. All too often they have been written about in isolation from one another, which can sometimes give the impression that anti-colonial activists were largely unaware of the concerns and activities of their counterparts who spoke other European languages. By resisting this tendency and instead focusing on the interconnections that existed between anti-colonial protest in both regions Derrick’s research goes someway to rectifying this.

The book addresses many of the key debates that shaped anti-colonial agitation in Africa and the West between the wars. This era is viewed by Derrick as a formative period for anti-colonialism that significantly contributed to, and shaped the character of African anti-colonial nationalism post-1945. The ‘agitators’ of the title are viewed as early anti-colonial nationalists. Despite being small in number, Derrick sees them as representing the broader feelings of African unrest that characterised the period. His account expertly explores the organisational activities of many groups throughout Africa and the diaspora in a way that successfully demonstrates the widespread nature of colonial resistance at this ‘high point’ of imperialism. Central to the book is the relationship between Africa and the wider black diaspora. Derrick shows how travel to the West was often a radicalising factor for Africans. He frequently notes the importance of western education in this and documents how living in Europe or America helped transform the outlook of many Africans, and in many cases fuelled black nationalist sentiment. As part of this focus on the influence of the wider diaspora, the role of close-knit anti-colonial groups based in the metropole, such as the Ligue de Défense de la Race Nègre (LDRN) and George Padmore’s International African Service Bureau (IASB) are addressed alongside Garveyism and its impact on the developing militant race consciousness in Africa. By stressing the international factors that influenced black colonial thought in Africa, Derrick effectively demonstrates the permeability of national borders. It is clear that African activists were not just shaped by their immediate local or national surroundings, but, when seeking potential allies and support for their struggles, often look abroad in order to push for racial equality and even black self-determination.

The book also attends to the role of Communism to African anti-colonialism. Derrick downplays Communism’s contribution to the anti-colonial activism of the period. Whilst he points to how Communism’s commitment to colonial independence influenced black activists, and how it provided readymade structures and finances for anti-colonial agitation, he ultimately questions its impact, arguing that Communism should not be viewed as the primary instigator of struggles for black self-determination. His assessment of the role of Communism in anti-colonial activism is both forceful and engaging as Derrick convincingly expels the misconception, held particularly by colonial governments that Communism was at the heart of the majority of the unrest in Africa. Instead anti-colonialism is presented as an African led phenomenon; a response to primarily racial concerns originating from within the African continent. Derrick sees confirmation of this in the many highly public defections of key black activists from the Communist Party in the period. However it could be argued that he fails to fully examine the ways in which black activists themselves managed to reshape communist ideology and organisations. Communism was not an immovable ideology and black anti-colonialists were particularly adept at using it to advance their own black national, even Pan-Africanist, concerns.

Overall, this impressively researched and well-written narrative provides a highly engaging overview of anti-colonial activity and attitudes in the interwar period. Whilst it will be perhaps lacking in depth for those wishing to examine specific regional events or debates in detail, it succeeds masterfully in highlighting the international character of anti-colonialism and encourages the reader to acknowledge the extent to which Africans looked beyond the boundaries of the nation-state when challenging colonial rule.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 71 (Winter 2009/10), pp. 77-79]

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