Black and Asian histories are a vital part of England’s story. Yet in our books, at our historic sites and in our records they're not well represented.
By Dorothy R C du Boulay
When reading about Chris Braithwaite in Black British history, where he is mainly referred to as Jones, his real name is (occasionally) added in brackets. More often than not, he is described as ‘overlooked’ or ‘little known’; epithets that in no way reflect who he was in his lifetime.
Chris Braithwaite lived in Turners Road, Stepney, with his wife Edna and six children from the late 1920s until his death, at just 59, in 1944. As Chris Braithwaite he lived a fairly ordinary life, working for the Shipping Federation, and as an organiser for the National Union of Seamen, but as ‘Chris Jones’ his activities extended far and beyond these roles.
Chris Braithwaite was most prolific throughout the 1930s where records show he campaigned tirelessly against inequality and injustice, both domestic and foreign. He first appeared in print in Nancy Cunard’s Negro anthology (1934), in a photograph taken in 1932. Standing in between the lions in Trafalgar Square at a Scottsboro protest meeting, he can be seen addressing a sizeable gathering. In the same anthology in a photograph taken at a May Day march (1933), he is shown with his comrade H. Kwesi Oku, holding a placard on behalf of International Labour Defence, Beech Street, London, EC1.
In 1934, Chris Braithwaite met George Padmore at a ‘mass meeting organised in London on behalf of the Scottsboro boys’. The two became firm friends and, by 1937, he had secured a position on the Executive Committee of the International African Service Bureau, which, from 1941, mainly operated from Padmore’s residence in Cranleigh Street, Camden, London. In the interim, Chris Braithwaite formed the Colonial Seamen’s Association. In addition to speaking at rallies nationwide, he also wrote extensively on the travails of his seafaring comrades in the IASB newspaper, International African Opinion.
Chris Braithwaite/Jones has been described by his comrades as a man who had the ability to speak to the workers in their own language, honing in on the points that mattered, precisely because he was one of the workers. It is worth noting, however, that he was equally at home amongst dignitaries, including His Imperial Majesty, Haile Selassie I... In 1936, when Selassie sought refuge in Britain, Chris Braithwaite formed part of the Welcoming Committee, and his eldest daughter, Pamela, was chosen to present flowers to the Emperor.
Whilst the list of comrades and associates Chris Braithwaite interacted with certainly does reads like a who’s who of Pan Africanist legends, when the historical context is considered, it is not difficult to understand why my grandfather and his comrades were so proactive. When I consider this hyperactivity, which, more often than not, took place under the watchful eye of Special Branch, I am both saddened and angered by the relegation of the work of Chris Braithwaite and his comrades to the subcategory of Black British history, instead of Great British history, as if there are two ‘separate, but equal’ histories. We need to say this out loud, more often, until it is corrected. Perhaps then, when people ask me where I’m really from, I can confidently say that I, too, am British; just like my grandfather, Chris Braithwaite, aka Jones.
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