Skip to main content

Remembering the Fifth Pan-African Congress


By Christian Høgsbjerg

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 77 (Winter 2015/16), pp. 119-139]

This essay is based on a talk given as part of an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Fifth Pan-African Congress for Leeds University Union’s Black History Month in October 2015.


On Chorlton Town Hall, All Saints, in Manchester, there is a red plaque marking the fact that the Fifth Pan-African Congress was held there from the 15th-21st October 1945, and noting that participants included such towering figures as Kwame Nkrumah, future leader of Ghana, Jomo Kenyatta, future leader of Kenya, the Jamaican Pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey (first wife of Marcus Garvey), the black American W.E.B Du Bois who was hailed by many as ‘the Father of Pan-Africanism’, the Trinidadian radical George Padmore and Ras Makonnen from British Guiana.  The plaque goes on to describe the congress as an ‘historic event’ as ‘decisions taken at this conference led to liberation of African countries’.

This strikingly bold statement today seems to have fallen victim to what E.P. Thompson famously called the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’, for the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester struggles to register even a passing footnote in most conventional historic narratives about the decline and fall of the British Empire.[1]  These tend to stress undoubtedly critical questions of geopolitics and world economy relating to how the old European colonial powers like Britain and France were weakened by the Second World War, and how the rising super-powers who came to dominate the Cold War era, the United States and Soviet Union, were nominally against colonialism. For neo-conservative imperial historians like Niall Ferguson, any notion of African agency in decolonisation is seen as incidental at best: ‘What Harold Macmillan called “the winds of change” when he toured Africa in 1960 blew not from Windhoek or Malawi but from Washington and Moscow.’[2]  It is true that Washington under the guise of Woodrow Wilson’s ‘liberal right for national self-determination’ did want American businesses to gain access into previously protected imperial markets, hence the role played by the U.S. during the Suez Crisis of 1956 in blocking British and French attempts at further empire-building.  But the U.S. also needed the support of Western Europe during the Cold War, and so colluded with for example the French Empire when it was under challenge in Algeria and Vietnam – a country where Washington would of course soon make a destructive and disastrous imperial intervention of its own.   As for the Soviet Union’s apparent anti-colonialism by the time of the Cold War, the brutal crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 suggests that it was at best useful propagandist rhetoric in the service of its own bid for global hegemony.[3]

Given this, and as a counter-blast to the likes of Ferguson, rather than dwelling on those impersonal forces which apparently inexorably paved the way for decolonisation ‘from above’, it is perhaps useful to reverse the lens and see decolonisation as an active process, which in a central sense was fundamentally driven ‘from below’, by the actions of colonial subjects themselves. The Second World War had given rise to a new mood of militancy among colonial Africans, Asians and West Indians.  They had already been promised movement towards self-government if they fought for the British and French empires during the First World War – only to have such promises betrayed – and many were determined not to be fooled again.  In September 1941, an Atlantic Charter had been drawn up by President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and its third clause stated a commitment to ‘respect the rights of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live; and …  to see sovereign rights and self-government restored to those who have been forcibly deprived of them’. However the two men disagreed over how far this might apply, with Churchill bluntly declaring in 1942, ‘I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire’.[4]   Anger at the hypocrisy and double-standards of colonial Tory overlords like Churchill found reflection at the Manchester Pan-African Congress in October 1945, as Amy Ashwood Garvey boldly declared that ‘We are here to tell the world that black peoples, supported by the semi colonial people in America and millions of other people, are determined to emancipate themselves’.[5]

The historian Marika Sherwood, who has perhaps done more than anyone to recover the history of the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester, describes it as ‘the first major step in the postwar struggle by people of African descent and of Africa to join together in the struggle to free themselves from yoke of British imperialism’.[6]  It saw some two hundred people in attendance, with 87 delegates representing some fifty organisations.  The delegates were predominantly representatives of the Anglophone working people of African and Caribbean colonies, though others like the South Asian activists Surat Alley and T. Subasingha also attended.  Seventy years is not such a long time, and there are still those who played an important role alive.  Peter Abrahams, the black South African novelist, for example, was the congress publicity secretary.  Abrahams spoke at the congress attacking the Pass Laws in South Africa and reminding delegates that ‘the world’s first concentration camps were in the British empire, used by the British imperialists to protect their interests in South Africa’.[7]

Overseeing the Fifth Pan-African Congress as its ‘International President’ was the outstanding veteran black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, born in 1868 and famous for his role campaigning against the ‘problem of the colour line’ as editor of The Crisis, journal of the premier civil rights organisation in America, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP), and for his work as an outstanding historian of the American Civil War (Black Reconstruction, 1935).  Du Bois had attended the first Pan-African conference organised by the Trinidadian barrister Henry Sylvester Williams in London in 1900, and had subsequently organised and opened the four previous Pan-African Congresses, in 1919, 1921, 1923, and 1927 respectively, which were held in imperial centres such as London, Paris, Brussels and New York and reflected the rising mood of anti-colonial sentiment after the First World War and the impact of the Russian Revolution.  These first four congresses however had been quite moderate affairs in themselves, calling for better provision of education and greater political participation for colonial subjects, but stopping short of calling for self-rule or self-government.[8]  The Fifth Pan-African Congress was a far more radical affair, shaped by a new militant generation of nationalist leaders from the continent such as Kwame Nkrumah, and a more working class composition of delegates.  By 1945, the veteran campaigner Du Bois himself was identifying more and more with socialism and Communism.  As Du Bois put it at the end of the Second World War,

'Accomplish the end which every honest human being must desire by means other than communism, and communism need not be feared. On the other hand, if a world of ultimate democracy, reaching across the colour line and abolishing race discrimination, can only be accomplished by the method laid down by Karl Marx, then that method deserves to be triumphant no matter what we think or do'.[9]

Though Du Bois flew over to Britain from America to preside over the Fifth Pan-African Congress, and though there was also a contingent of other black American delegates as at the previous four congresses, it was the black Trinidadian George Padmore who Du Bois always acknowledged was ‘the organizing spirit’ of the congress.[10]  Born Malcolm Nurse in colonial Trinidad in 1903, he came a journalist before moving to America and becoming a Communist during the 1920s, when he took the pseudonym George Padmore.  Padmore had become a leading black figure in international Communism, writing works like The Life and Struggles of Negro Toilers (1931) and editing the Negro Worker.  After breaking with the Communist International in 1933 given their sidelining of anti-colonialism after Hitler’s Nazis seizure of power Germany, Padmore tried to organise a Negro World Unity Conference in Paris in 1935.[11]  When this failed to come off, he moved to Britain where he worked with his boyhood friend from Trinidad, the Trotskyist C.L.R. James, and others like Amy Ashwood Garvey from Jamaica, Chris Braithwaite from Barbados, Ras Makonnen from British Guiana and Jomo Kenyatta from Kenya to build a militant Pan-Africanist movement.  Their work here was embodied in organisations like International African Friends of Ethiopia – formed in 1935 to rally solidarity with the people of Ethiopia at the time of Mussolini’s war.  In 1937, the arrival in Britain of I.T.A. Wallace-Johnson, a giant of trade unionism in Sierra Leone, meant Padmore and James decided to launch the International African Service Bureau (IASB) to continue their anti-colonial and Pan-Africanist agitation.  Though the organisation found it hard to sustain itself with the Second World War, in 1944 it was re-launched as the Pan-African Federation (PAF), which included figures like Peter Abrahams from South Africa and in 1945 Kwame Nkrumah, who had arrived from America with a letter of introduction to Padmore written by C.L.R. James.[12]

The Strategy and Tactics of Colonial Liberation

The anti-imperialist perspective of IASB activists can be seen through examining its publications like International African Opinion, but also in, for example, works like that of C.L.R. James, editor of International African Opinion and author of the classic history of the Haitian Revolution, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint Louverture and the San Domingo Revolution (1938). As James later reflected, The Black Jacobins

'took armed rebellion for granted as the only road to metro­politan and colonial freedom, and from this premise flowed certain theoretical perspectives. The San Domingo revolution had been directly inspired by the French revolution, had developed side by side with it, and had had an enormous influence upon the course of that revolution. The book there­fore constantly implied that the African revolution would be similarly contingent upon the socialist revolution in Europe. It did not envisage an independent movement of Africans as being able to succeed in face of the enormous military power that a stable imperialist government would be able to bring to bear'.[13]

However, as the Second World War came to a close, James recalled that among IASB activists around Padmore in Britain ‘in 1945 there came a sharp break with the theory outlined above. The Bureau changed its position from the achievement of independence by armed rebellion to the achievement of independence by non-violent mass action’.[14]  Armed rebellion was now declared to be a last resort.  As the Congress’s opening ‘Challenge to the Colonial Powers’ declared,

'The delegates to the Fifth Pan-African Congress believe in peace.  How could it be otherwise when for centuries the African peoples have been victims of violence and slavery?  Yet if the Western world is still determined to rule mankind by force, then Africans, as a last resort, may have to appeal to force in the effort to achieve Freedom, even if force destroys them and the world … we will fight in every way we can for freedom, democracy and social betterment'.[15]

James later explained the thinking behind this ‘sharp break’ in theory, strategy and tactics:

'The colonial govern­ment in power can call upon the power of the metropolitan country as soon as it is aware of any dangerous movement against it. To stake independence upon armed rebellion was therefore to have as a precondition the collapse or military paralysis of the metropolitan government. It was in other words to place the initiative for African struggle upon the European proletariat …

But by the end of the war the proletariat of Britain and France had not spoken. Imperialism still held sway at home. Only a radical alteration in theory could form a basis for action. The perspective of armed rebellion was abandoned (though held in reserve) and non-violent mass action was substituted …

The colonial government forces consisted of soldiers and police who were able to deal with a riot or a demonstration of a few thousand people. They could easily shoot down demonstrators, very often they would provoke them in order to put a quick end to a movement which threatened to involve large masses. But colonial governments had neither the forces nor the experience to deal with a general strike of the great body of the people who refused to be provoked.

It was calculated that the organisation of the masses, in trade unions, co-operatives, political organisations, those that existed and new ones, in whatever form they presented them­selves, strikes in industry, political demonstrations, etc. were all constitutional, and therefore, in theory at least, could be carried out with a fair chance of being able to avoid cruel reprisals. By the time the masses were organised, it would be possible then to challenge the government. This also was constitutional in that it did not involve armed rebellion.

By 1945 it was clear that the bourgeoisie in Britain could not attempt extra-legal action against a legally elected Labour government; it was fairly clear in 1945 that it would never be able to carry out military action against India in revolt. The relation of forces had changed and changed decisively to the increase in energy and audacity of any colonial people determined to revolt. Undoubtedly the influence of Gandhi’s non-violent campaigns played a great role. But in 1945 when the change was made, India was not yet free.'

The decision to re-launch the IASB as the ‘Pan-African Federation’ showed that Padmore’s change in strategy was inspired not just by Gandhi but also by the strategy of militant non-violence now being advocated by Du Bois. As James recalled, ‘In 1945 Du Bois and Padmore merged their ideas and influence to hold the fifth Pan-African conference in Manchester, and it was at this conference that the resolution analysed above [with a new stress on militant non-violence] was produced.’[16]  The debates about this new strategic turn inevitably animated the congress itself.  So Chief Soyemi Coker from Nigeria put the case for non-violence, noting ‘we must take India as an example’.  I.T.A. Wallace Johnson, who had recently been released after over five years of imprisonment and exile at the hands of the British colonial state during the Second World War in Sierra Leone, responded, noting that ‘although Mr. Gandhi opposed the use of force, he used different kinds of force, including the force of fasting’. The struggle for Indian independence had involved violence and mass strikes, and as Joe Appiah from the Gold Coast (Ghana) put it, the only language the Englishman understood was that of force: ‘it is only force that will bring us out of this disgraceful condition in which we find ourselves’.  Kwame Nkrumah supported his compatriot Appiah, by calling for the downfall of imperialism, noting ‘we fight for these ends even by revolutionary methods – seizure of power is an essential prerequisite for the fulfilment of social, economic and cultural aspirations of colonial peoples, we condemn internal self-government within the empire – we stand for full and unconditional independence’.[17]  Another young student from the Gold Coast in attendance, F.R. Kankam-Boadu, later recalled, ‘the notion was expressed that the British government would not, out of its free will, “donate” self-rule to a colony, and that the application of some element of force might be necessary’.[18]  As Du Bois, summing up the mood at the congress at the time, put it clearly, ‘the tempo of coloured people has changed.  Either the British government will extend self-government in West Africa and the West Indies or face open revolt’.[19]


The Road to Manchester

Du Bois had been thinking about organising a Fifth Pan-African Congress for a while before 1945, and envisaged such a congress being held in Africa itself – perhaps in 1947 in Liberia.   Du Bois had been in correspondence with various people including Amy Ashwood Garvey, Harold Moody – another Jamaican who headed up the main civil rights organisation in Britain, the League of Coloured Peoples, which had been formed in London in 1931 – and Lapido Solanke, founder of the West African Students' Union (WASU) in Britain.  Du Bois had also corresponded with Max Yergan and Paul Robeson of the New York-based Council on African Affairs about such a post-war conference.[20]   However, as historian Hakim Adi has related, the fact that the World Trade Union Conference was held in London in February 1945 meant that many leading representatives of trade unions from West Africa, Caribbean and what was then Northern Rhodesia (Zambia) came together.  Delegates such as Wallace-Johnson representing the Sierra Leone Trade Union Congress proposed a ‘Charter of Labour for the Colonies’ challenging the institutional racism affecting colonial subjects and state repression of trade unionists in colonies and demanded that the clause of the Atlantic Charter relating to self-determination should be applied universally.  George Padmore helped co-ordinate many of these delegates, including Ken Hill of Jamaica and Hubert Critchlow from British Guiana to speak alongside PAF stalwarts including Jomo Kenyatta, Wallace-Johnson, Ras Makonnen and Padmore himself at a 300 strong public meeting.[21]   In June 1945, an All Colonial Peoples’ Conference was held in London organised by PAF, WASU and others which was attended by 40 delegates and 25 observers and was an important manifestation of Afro-Asian unity a decade before Bandung, where plans for a ‘Colonial International’ were sketched out.  On 21 June 1945, Nigeria was hit by a fifty-two day long General Strike involving seventeen trade unions and 150,000 workers in a battle for higher wages which inevitably also took on an anti-colonial character, and the British colonial authorities responded with repression, including suppressing Nnamdi Azikiwe’s popular newspapers.  In London, the PAF – now joined by Kwame Nkrumah - rallied solidarity and helped organise a strike fund with WASU. In July the PAF began to organise for what would become the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester in October, planning that it to take place in the aftermath of the next World Trade Union Conference in Paris.[22]

At the end of July 1945, Clement Attlee’s Labour government were elected in Britain, part of what has been hailed as the optimistic and collectivist ‘spirit of 45’ in Britain after the war, a spirit also embraced by Pan-Africanists in Britain. Padmore’s Pan-African Federation seized the opportunity to write an ‘Open Letter to the Prime Minister’ in September 1945 demanding the ‘immediate right to self-determination’ and ‘that discrimination because of race, colour or creed in Britain be made a punishable offence’ as ‘an expression of Socialist goodwill’:

'We wish to welcome Labour’s great victory, for which we, as colonials, have hoped and worked alongside Britain’s workers.  It makes possible the inauguration of the century of the common man.  Courage, vision, planning and fearless work can turn this possibility into reality.  The dark-skinned workers, no less than the pale-skinned, want freedom from war, want and fear.  The victory of the common man here is the victory of the common man in Africa, Asia and other colonial lands.

To consolidate this great victory, however, courage is needed.  The courage to face squarely the fact that imperialism is one of the major causes of war.  The courage to admit that any high-sounding blue prints that beg the questions of man’s territorial and political domination by other men, whether their skins are white, yellow or black, is only staving off the day when the evils of war with their ghastly new scientific twists will again be unleashed on humanity.  It is the challenge of our time that you, Mr. Attlee, and your Government should give the Socialist answer to the Tory imperialism of Mr. Churchill’s “what we have we hold”.  What will your answer be?

To condemn the imperialism of Germany, Japan and Italy while condoning that of Britain would be more than dishonest, it would be a betrayal of the sacrifice and sufferings and the toil and sweat of the common people of this country.  All imperialism is evil.'[23]

It might come as something of a surprise to some who like to comfort themselves with what might be called the ‘myths of Labourism’ around British decolonisation, and who see Attlee as a great liberator who apparently ‘gave’ India its independence in 1947, that the Labour government made no response to this letter.[24]  Herbert Morrison, Deputy Prime Minister and the man thought most likely to succeed Attlee as leader, admired what he called ‘the jolly old empire’, and bluntly described any talk of self-government as ‘ignorant dangerous nonsense … it would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank account and a shotgun’.[25] As for making ‘discrimination because of race, colour or creed’ a ‘punishable offence’, this would take another twenty years of struggle by civil rights activists in Britain until the Race Relations Act of 1965. Nonetheless, as perhaps a ‘gesture of Socialist goodwill’ (or more likely an understanding that the upcoming Pan-African Congress was not so threatening) the Labour government did help facilitate the travel of two delegates from Gambia to the Pan-African Congress. The local Labour Party in Manchester also helped provide the Pan-Africanists with a venue for their Congress, Chorlton Town Hall.[26]

Why the Congress was held in Manchester – rather than say London – was because two West Indians in the PAF, Ras T. Makonnen and Dr Peter Milliard had established strong community roots there. In 1943 Milliard had founded the Negro Association in Manchester, which was by then a quite multicultural community with prominent local black radical activists like the boxer and Communist Len Johnson and James Taylor of the Negro Welfare Centre.  As C.L.R. James recalled,

'The Bureau needed money and organisation in order to live a material existence at all. This had been supplied in the first case by Makonnen … a man of fantastic energy and organisational gifts who found the money, found the premises, kept them in order not only as an office but as a sort of free hostel for Africans and people of African descent and their friends who were in any way connected with the Bureau or needed assistance, organised meetings, interested people and did his share as propagandist and agitator. When during the war he was able to run a successful restaurant business in Manchester, he devoted most of the money he made into furthering the interests of the work and helping to finance the fifth Pan-African Conference. Chairman of the conference was another West Indian, this time from British Guiana, Dr. Peter Milliard, who had had experience in the United States [and also as a trade union militant on the Panama Canal] and had practised for many years in Manchester.'[27]

As Ras Makonnen himself remembered,

'Manchester had become quite a point of contact with the coloured proletariat in Britain and we had made a name for ourselves in fighting various areas of discrimination in Britain ... You could say that we coloured people had a right there because of the age-old connections between cotton, slavery and the building up of cities in England ... Manchester gave us an important opportunity to express and expose the contradictions, the fallacies and the pretensions that were at the very centre of the empire.'[28]


The Congress Proceedings

The remarkable photographs of the congress taken by celebrated Soho photographer John Deakin for Picture Post magazine give perhaps a better sense of the atmosphere and the occasion in some ways than reading the transcription of proceedings.  Perhaps the most famous photograph shows John McNair – a veteran of the Spanish Civil War and secretary of the socialist Independent Labour Party giving his fraternal greetings to the assembly at its opening, with Dr Peter Milliard in the chair (he would soon hand over to Du Bois) and Amy Ashwood Garvey also on the platform.  Behind and in front of the platform it is possible to make out a range of posters, which give some sense of the politics and demands of the organisers: ‘Labour with a white skin cannot emancipate itself while labour with a black skin is branded’ (a quote from Karl Marx’s Capital), ‘Arabs and Jews unite against British Imperialism’, ‘Down with Trusteeship’, ‘Oppressed peoples of the earth unite!’, ‘Freedom for all subject peoples’, ‘Africa for the Africans’ (a slogan popularised by the late Marcus Garvey), ‘Down with Colour Bar’, ‘Ethiopia wants exit to the sea’, ‘Africa Arise’, ‘Freedom of the press in the colonies!’, ‘Down with lynching and Jim-Crowism’, ‘Down with anti-semitism’, ‘African peoples want the four freedoms’ (the goals articulated by President Roosevelt in 1941: freedom of speech, freedom of worship and freedom from want and freedom from fear).[29]

The congress opened with a session on institutional racism in the imperial metropole, ‘The Colour Problem in Britain’, at which a Mr. A Richardson from Barbados ‘delivered a bitter attack against the Colour Bar practices in England.  He said he had lived here for 45 years and intended to remain in England “to help civilise the English people, because they are not civilised”’.[30]  Others referred to the barbaric race riots against black communities in British ports during 1919, and Ernest Marke, born in Sierra Leone and representing the Coloured Workers’ Association ‘was glad that we are at last beginning to awaken from our long sleep.  We have been kept down so long that if we had not begun to realise that we are members of the human race, we should have been keep permanently down.’ Noting black people ‘had fought in the two great wars’, Marke hoped ‘the things which happened in 1919 would not occur again in 1945’ and ‘our co-operation must prevent that’.  Dr Peter Milliard noted that he had lived in Manchester for 21 years and he praised the city for its high liberalism and rich traditions of working class internationalism going back to the American Civil War, when cotton workers went against their own material interests to side with the North in the struggle against slavery. ‘This assistance should never be forgotten.  It illustrated the hospitality and human understanding of the Lancashire people’. Miss Alma La Badie, a Jamaican member of the Garveyite Universal Negro Improvement Association, brought up child welfare, noting that ‘one of the most vital problems that the Congress is asked to consider is that of the children left behind by coloured American troops.’

'Many of these babies were born to married women whose husbands were serving overseas.  Now that the husbands were returning the condition of forgiveness was that the children be sent elsewhere.  Consequently it was imperative to form a committee to look after these babies.  There is a home actually in existence, but money is needed to help it function.'[31]

Since there is a Leeds connection to this story – though sadly not one that reflects particularly well on the city - it may be worth dwelling on this issue. As the great Trinidadian cricketer and civil rights activist Learie Constantine noted in his 1954 book Colour Bar, during the Second World War, ‘hundreds of thousands of American troops were stationed in Britain without their wives’.

'The consequence was a large crop of illegitimate children by British women and girls.  Since a number of the American soldiers were coloured, some of these children were coloured, too.  This aspect of the situation was made worse by the action of the United States military authorities, who absolutely forbade marriage under any circumstances between their coloured troops and white women in England, though such marriage was permitted to women in the Northern States of the U.S.A. In fact, the American official attitude was that they exported their coloured troops to Britain knowing that some coloured children must result, but they intended Britain to be burdened with those children; they were not prepared to take responsibility for what their troop movements had brought about.

Very often, as I learned when I began to take action to help these half-white scraps of humanity, the coloured American soldiers and the white mothers were both eager to marry, and the older generation on both sides assented to the union.  That fact was of no interest to the American authorities, who had decided that the children should be illegitimate and a burden on the British taxpayer.

In association with Pastor Daniel Ekarte of the African Churches Mission, I began to interest myself in the task of finding a home where such children could be cared for.  A property in Leeds was decided upon, and I started, with others help, to raise money, by charity cricket matches and by other methods, to buy it.  The Committee decided that the place should be called the Booker T. Washington Home, after the great American Negro educationalist.  But then were discovered some old clauses in the deeds which prevented the use of the building in the way we proposed.  In the end, the project had to be dropped.  There was opposition when we looked elsewhere, and finally the money raised was, by consent, devoted to other charitable purposes, partly for coloured people and including the Royal Infirmary at Liverpool.  We had a bank manager as treasurer and everything was wound up in legal order, but I was unhappy at this further experience of furtive opposition to any effort to help these coloured children, condemned to illegitimacy by a distant Government, and in the nature of things likely to grow up as enemies of society.'[32]

The next session was on ‘Imperialism in North and West Africa’, and with Du Bois chairing, this session was notable for a powerful opening speech by Kwame Nkrumah, who ‘outlined the political and economic trends in North and West Africa.  Six years of slaughter and devastation had ended, and peoples everywhere were celebrating the end of the struggle not so much with joy as with a sense of relief.  They do not and cannot feel secure as long as Imperialism assaults the world.  He indicted Imperialism as one of the major causes of war, and called for strong and vigorous action to eradicate it’.[33] Key Nigerian activists Obafemi Awolowo, H.O Davies and Ja Ja Wachuku were delegates to the Pan-African Congress, and others in this session pointed to the exploitation of natural resources by the British colonial government.  This was something George Padmore had highlighted back in 1943 in an article about the world’s largest diamond which had been discovered in Sierra Leone by African miners being paid 2 shillings per day while the Sierra Leone Selection Trust were estimated to profit £75,000 after the stone had been cut.  As Padmore commented,

'Ask any British colonial expert – which I have often done – why Africa is backward, he invariably replies that Africa is poor.  Pursue your inquiry further and ask why Africa is poor, the “brilliant” answer is because Africa is backward.  But behind all this official sophistry the truth is Africa is one of the richest continents in the world.  The natives are poor and backward because the various imperial powers who own and control this vast continent have been exploiting it not in the interest of the Africans, but for the great mining companies and monopolistic trusts, cartels and syndicates.'[34]

Sessions on ‘Oppression in South Africa’, ‘The East African Picture’ (which saw a lengthy speech by Jomo Kenyatta), ‘Ethiopia and the Black Republics’, and ‘The Problem in the Caribbean’ followed.  The ‘problem’ in the Caribbean was identified as imperialism, and George Padmore wittily noted that ‘the West Indies could be briefly described as the sugar section of British imperialism, for in the West Indies you have a government of sugar for sugar by sugar.  Sugar dominates every aspect of social existence.’[35] Amy Ashwood Garvey was also among the contributors to this session, noting ‘very much has been written and spoken of the Negro, but for some reason very little has been said about the black woman – she has been shunted into the social background to be a child bearer – this has been principally her lot’.  Yet Amy Ashwood Garvey drew attention to a progressive moment of ten thousand black women in the schools of Jamaica, while women were joining the trade union movement in the postal service.[36] Summing up the congress discussion, Du Bois noted that ‘it is perfectly clear’ as ‘to what the African peoples want.  They want the right to govern themselves.  As to how this is coming about and how it is going to be done we shall have to see.  We must impress upon the world that it must be Self-Government.’

'A great many of us want to say that we can govern ourselves now and govern ourselves well; that may not be true.  Government is a matter of experience and long experience.  Any people who have been deprived of self-government for a long time and then have it returned to them are liable to make mistakes.  That is only human, and we are saying we have a right to make mistakes as that is how people learn, so we are asserting that we must have self-government even if we make mistakes.'[37]


Aftermath and Legacy

In conclusion, as George Padmore noted, the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester was ‘the largest and most representative congress yet convened’.[38] The congress made it evident that Pan-Africanism was an idea whose time had come, and helped lay the ideological and organisational basis for decolonisation in British Africa.  As C.L.R. James (who was based in America during the 1940s and so missed the congress himself) once noted, ‘it was attended by over two hundred delegates from all over the world, the great majority of them engaged in trade union work or other type of work connected with the organisation of the masses of workers and farmers in Africa.’   But more than this, James stressed the new militant nationalist leadership around Kwame Nkrumah which emerged out of the congress, and would help lead Ghana to independence in 1957, just twelve years later:

'Nkrumah had landed in Britain in June 1945. By October he was joint political secretary of the conference with Padmore and he made the report on the problems of the West African colonies and European domination. The merg­ing of the two currents represented by Padmore and Du Bois and the entry of Nkrumah signalised the ending of one period and the beginning of another.

Until Nkrumah came, it is true to say that despite the faithful work of some Africans and a few Negro workers, the moving spirits in this work were West Indian intellectuals living in England. … Many gifted young West Indians, though not organisationally connected with the Bureau, were under its influence and shared its emphasis on the importance for all peoples of African descent of the emancipation of Africa  ... In the political thirties they participated fully in the intense discussions and activities of the time, and few in England, except European refugees, had had more actual inside experience of revolutionary politics than Padmore. It was to this circle with its accumulated knowledge, experience and wide contacts that Nkrumah was introduced in June 1945. Nowhere in the world could he have found a better school. For two years and a half he worked and lived in the very closest association with Padmore.

Nkrumah not only took. He gave. This large body of active workers in Africa who attended the Manchester conference symbolised a new stage of the work in England. Nkrumah brought to this work what had never been done before. To theoretical study, propaganda and agitation, the building and maintaining of contacts abroad, he added the organisation politically of Africans and people of African descent in London. He helped to found a West African National Secretariat in London for the purpose of organising the struggle in West Africa. The leading members of this were Africans, and thus Africans with roots in Africa began to take over from the West Indians who had hitherto been the leaders.  Most important of all, he was the leading spirit in the formation of the Coloured Workers’ Association of Great Britain.  Through this organisation he linked together the students and the workers from Africa and the people of African descent living in England, organised them and carried on political work among them.

It is now possible to form some estimate of what Nkrumah represents … a unique individual.  In his elemental African consciousness of centuries of wrong and an unquenchable desire for freedom, there had met and fused, by theory and practice, some of the most diverse, powerful and highly developed currents in the modern world … To this day the Colonial Office and the government have no idea of what hit them, and if they haven’t now, it can be imagined how blank they were in 1947 [when Nkrumah returned to the Gold Coast].  While they were meditating on how to restore order … Nkrumah sat alone and wrote out his precise plans for what they would have considered stark insanity, their final and irrevocable ejection from Ghana.'[39]

It was not just Nkrumah who would attend the congress and ultimately end up leader of an independent nation state in Africa, the same was true of Jomo Kenyatta (who would be imprisoned for nine years by the British as they tried to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya) and Hastings Banda (Nyasaland / Malawi).  Within twenty years of the congress all the African colonies Britain dominated had political independence, except for South Africa and what was then Rhodesia.   However, with the victory of national liberation movements came the ultimate transformation of Pan-Africanism from a social movement into a state ideology representing and legitimating the interests of new class elites.  As Ken Olende has noted, ‘the logic of independence was nationalist. Each leader looked to develop their own nation.’   Padmore’s own stage-ist approach to ‘Pan-African Socialism’ (arguing that ‘countries must be first nationally free before they can begin to practise their communism’), only reinforced the tendency to place national development before anything else.[40]  By 1959, the British Foreign Office could note in a secret memorandum, ‘Africa: The Next Ten Years’, that ‘Pan-Africanism, in itself, is not necessarily a force that we need regard with suspicion and fear’.[41]  The inherent tensions between Pan-Africanism as both an ideology of trans-Atlantic racial unity and an inspiration for local national liberation movements were apparent soon after the congress ended.  In late 1945, Nkrumah moved to set up a West African National Secretariat – much to the initial consternation of West Indians like Padmore who felt Nkrumah’s narrowing of organisational focus went somewhat against the spirit of what had been decided democratically by the delegates at Manchester.  Some sense of the problems that had arisen by the 1970s can be seen from the Sixth Pan-African Congress held in Dar es Salaam in Julius Nyerere’s Tanzania in 1974, which refused to recognise delegates (often trade unionists and socialists) that were not officially sanctioned by their respective governments.  This provoked C.L.R. James to now organise a boycott of a congress he had originally championed and help work for, declaring ‘I know those Caribbean governments as well as anybody else … and I was not going to be a representative of any one of them!’[42]

Nonetheless, despite the subsequent failings and betrayals of Pan-Africanism, the Fifth Pan-African Congress in Manchester deserves to be remembered, in the words of Imanuel Geiss, as ‘a landmark ... in the history of ... decolonization ... [It] served as a pace-maker of decolonization in Africa and in the British West Indies’.[43]  It should also be recognised as an important moment in British history, an integral part of the progressive democratic zeitgeist which made up the ‘Spirit of ‘45’.[44]  Indeed, the unfulfilled vision and dream of ‘Pan-African Socialism’, which animated and inspired the likes of Abrahams, Du Bois, Makonnen, Nkrumah and Padmore, and so many other of the delegates at the congress, retain relevance given the ravages of neo-colonial interventions, economic inequalities and social injustices present in so much of ‘post-colonial’ Africa today.  ‘The delegates of the Fifth Pan-African Congress believe in the right of all peoples to govern themselves’ … ‘we condemn the monopoly of capital and the rule of private wealth and industry for private profit alone.  We welcome economic democracy as the only real democracy’.[45]  As W.E.B. Du Bois eloquently put it in 1963, just before his passing at the age of 95, the Fifth Pan-African Congress ‘carries messages which must not die, but should be passed on to aid Mankind’.[46]

Christian Høgsbjerg is currently a Teaching Fellow in Caribbean History at UCL Institute of the Americas and the administrator for LUCAS.  He is a former student of the University of Leeds and is the author of C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Duke University Press, 2014) and the editor of a special edition of C.L.R. James’s 1934 play about the Haitian Revolution, Toussaint Louverture: The story of the only successful slave revolt in history (Duke University Press, 2013).


[1] See for example the work of John Darwin, whether his early Britain and Decolonisation (London, 1988) or his more recent The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge, 2009); Peter J. Cain and Anthony G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2000 (Harlow, 2002).

[2] Niall Ferguson, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (London, 2003), p. 352.

[3] For an excellent pioneering analysis of decolonisation, see Nigel Harris, ‘Imperialism Today’ in Nigel Harris and John Palmer (eds.) World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism (London, 1971), pp. 117-167

[4] Marika Sherwood, World War II: Colonies and Colonials (Oare, 2013), pp. 89-90.

[5] Daily Herald, 17 October 1945, p.3, quoted in Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London, 1995), p. 44.

[6] Marika Sherwood, ‘Introduction’ to Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited (London, 1995), p. 9.

[7] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 43, 86.

[8] P. Olisanwuche Esedebe, Pan-Africanism: The Idea and Movement, 1776-1991 (Washington, 1994), p. 66. For Du Bois’s own history of the Pan-African Congresses, see W.E.B. Du Bois, ‘The Pan-African Movement’, reprinted in Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 62-74.

[9] Quoted in C.L.R. James, ‘W.E.B. Du Bois’, in C.L.R. James, The Future in the Present: Selected Writings, vol. 1 (London, 1980), p. 211.

[10] Goodwill Message from W.E.B. Du Bois’, reprinted in Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 165.

[11] On Padmore, see Leslie James, George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below: Pan-Africanism, the Cold war and the End of Empire (Basingstoke, 2015).

[12] For more on this agitation, see Christian Høgsbjerg, C.L.R. James in Imperial Britain (Durham, NC, 2014); Carol Polsgrove, Ending British rule in Africa: Writers in a common cause (Manchester, 2009); Matthew Quest, ‘George Padmore’s and C.L.R. James’s International African Opinion’, in Fitzroy Baptiste and Rupert Lewis (eds.), George Padmore: Pan-African Revolutionary (Kingston, 2009), pp. 105-32, and Minkah Makalani, In the Cause of Freedom: Radical Black Internationalism from Harlem to London, 1917-1939 (Chapel Hill, 2011).

[13] C.L.R. James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution (London, 1977), pp. 68-69.

[14] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, p. 69.

[15] ‘The Challenge to the Colonial Powers’ in Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 55.

[16] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, pp. 71-75.

[17] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 44-45.

[18] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 36.

[19] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p.49.

[20] Hakim Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism in Britain: Background to the 1945 Manchester Congress’, in Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 14.   On WASU, see Hakim Adi, West Africans in Britain, 1900-1960: Nationalism, Pan-Africanism and Communism (London, 1998).

[21] This meeting was held in Manchester, ‘the largest Negro mass meeting in Manchester’s history’ up to then according to one report. See Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism in Britain’, pp. 14-17.

[22] Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism in Britain’, pp. 19-23.

[23] Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism in Britain’, pp. 23-24.

[24] David Blunkett for example has argued that Attlee was ‘Labour’s greatest hero’ for ‘in freeing hundreds of millions of people from imperialism after the war (not least in India), he laid the foundations of a commonwealth of equals’.  David Blunkett, ‘Labour’s greatest hero: Clement Attlee’, Guardian, 19 September 2008.

[25] Quoted in John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London, 2006), p. 159.

[26] Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism in Britain’, pp. 24, 26.

[27] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, p. 76.  For more on Milliard’s early activism as a trade unionist, see Jacob Zumoff, ‘Black Caribbean Labor Radicalism in Panama, 1914-1921’, Journal of Social History, 47, 2  (2013), pp. 429-57.  On Makonnen’s restaurants, see John McLeod, ‘A Night at “the Cosmopolitan”: Axes of Transnational Encounter in the 1930s and 1940s’, Interventions: International Journal of Postcolonial Studies, 4, 1 (2002), pp. 53-67.

[28] Ras Makonnen, Pan-Africanism From Within (London, 1973), pp. 163-64.

[29] For the photograph of McNair speaking, see Brennavan Sritharan, ‘The Manchester town hall meeting that shaped Africa: remembering the Fifth Pan-African Congress’, online at  John McNair stressed to delegates that ‘the coloured races in the British Empire will never win political independence by trusting in the hypocrisy of the British imperialist class.  British imperialists have often asserted that they went to Africa to bring the natives Christianity and civilisation.  But the truth is that they went to rob and to exploit blacks.  Imperialists of Britain, headed by the Tories are as short minded and short sighted as they are ignorant’.  Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 45.  For McNair’s full address, see Robbie Shilliam, ‘Race, Class, and the Pan African Congress in Manchester 1945’, online at  The minutes as published by George Padmore can be read online here:

[30] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 45.

[31] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 77-78.

[32] Learie Constantine, Colour Bar (London. 1954), p. 100.  ‘The Booker-T-Washington Children’s Home’ was due to be at Lynwood Park Villas, Old Park Road, Roundhay, Leeds.  For more on this story, see Marika Sherwood, Pastor Daniels Ekarte and the African Churches Mission, Liverpool 1931-1964 (London, 1994).

[33] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p.80.

[34] James, George Padmore and Decolonisation from Below, p. 87.

[35] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 93.

[36] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, p. 98.

[37] Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 100-101.

[38] George Padmore, Pan-Africanism or Communism? The Coming Struggle for Africa (London, 1956), pp. 148-49.

[39] James, Nkrumah and the Ghana Revolution, pp. 75-78.

[40] Ken Olende, ‘Planning the end of Europe’s empires – the 1945 Pan-African Congress’, Socialist Worker, 13 October 2015.

[41] ‘Africa: The Next Ten Years’ (A Memorandum Presented to British Cabinet by Secretary for Foreign Affairs, 1959), p. 29.  Available online at

[42] Kent Worcester, C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (New York, 1996), p. 190. For more on the Sixth PAC, see Fanon Che Wilkins, ‘“A Line of Steel’’: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974’ in Dan Berger (ed.), The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism (New Brunswick, 2010), pp. 97-114.

[43] Imanuel Geiss, The Pan-African Movement (London, 1974), p. 408.

[44] Given this, it is disappointing that Ken Loach’s otherwise excellent documentary film, The Spirit of ‘45 (2013) did not mention the Fifth Pan-African Congress and other comparative moments of metropolitan anti-colonialist agitation.

[45] ‘Declaration to the colonial workers, farmers and intellectuals’ and ‘The Challenge to the Colonial Powers’, Adi and Sherwood, The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited, pp. 55-56.

[46] ‘Goodwill Message from W.E.B. Du Bois’, p. 165.


Article keywords:

Article Categories: