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They changed our world

01 October, 2019 — By Angela Cobbinah

Ottobah Cugoano

THE author of one of the first of the 18th-century slave narratives, Ottobah Cugoano was kidnapped from present-day Ghana as a child and shipped to Grenada before being brought to England in 1772. He was given his freedom and sent to school where he learned to read and write. Aged 16, he was baptised John Stuart at St James’ Piccadilly and became a servant of the artist Richard Cosway at his home at Schomberg House, 80-82 Pall Mall.

Thrust into high society just as the anti-slavery movement was beginning to make its voice heard, he was soon campaigning with leading abolitionists like Granville Sharp, Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho. His book Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species was published in 1787, a powerful condemnation of slavery and colonial conquest. After 1791 he appeared to vanish from view and nothing more was heard of him.

William Cuffay

Born in 1788, tailor William Cuffay was the son of a naval cook and former slave. He moved from Chatham to London to become one of the leaders of the Chartist Movement, which demanded constitutional and social reform to improve conditions for the working classes. After settling in Soho, he became a familiar figure in the coffee houses and pubs of Covent Garden and Clerkenwell, where the Chartists would meet to discuss strategy. He was elected their Westminster delegate in 1841 and a year later became president of the London Chartists.

In 1848, he was arrested at the Orange Tree pub in Red Lion Square, Holborn, and accused of planning to set London ablaze by starting fires in Seven Dials, Marylebone and Paddington. Convicted of treason, he was sentenced to be transported to Tasmania for 21 years. Although later cleared of all charges, he remained in Tasmania, working as a tailor while maintaining his involvement in politics. He died in poverty in July 1870, aged 82.

Henry Sylvester Williams

The first black person to be elected to Westminster council, Henry Sylvester Williams was born in Trinidad in 1869. After working as a teacher he came to London in 1896 to study law and became increasingly preoccupied with African issues. In 1900 he organised the first Pan-African Conference at Westminster Town Hall, a three-day event which attracted delegates from all over the world, including William Dubois from America.

Having qualified as a barrister at Gray’s Inn, he practiced in Cape Town for two years before returning to London and becoming elected Labour councillor for Church Street Ward in Marylebone in 1906.

His home at 50 Hamilton Gardens, St John’s Wood, saw an almost endless procession of guests and visitors ranging from South African royalty to destitute Jamaican seamen. He also lived at 38 Church Street, where a memorial plaque was unveiled in 2007. After falling ill, he returned to Trinidad and died there in 1911 aged 42.

Kwame Nkrumah

Ghana’s founding father Kwame Nkrumah moved to London from America in 1945, registering for a PhD degree in anthropology at LSE and for another in philosophy at University College.

At first, he found it hard to find accommodation, recalling in his autobiography that “countless doors were slammed” in his face because of his colour. But in June 1945 he moved into a room at 60 Burghley Road in Kentish Town, where he fondly recalled his landlady, Florence Manley, looking upon him as a member of the family and opening up her home to his friends. It was a “productive time”, he wrote, when he regularly worked until “three or four in the morning”.

However, his studies were eclipsed by his political activities and he became one of the organisers of the Pan African Congress held later that year in Manchester. He was also vice-president of the West African Student Union, which had its headquarters in nearby Camden Square, while his friend and fellow pan-Africanist George Padmore lived a bus ride away in Cranleigh Street, Somers Town. A memorial plaque on the Burghley Road house indicates that Nkrumah lived there until November 1947, when he returned to Ghana to lead the independence movement.

Claudia Jones

Born in Trinidad in 1915, Claudia Jones moved to the US as a child and became a leading member of the Communist Party, admired for her brilliant organising skills and oratory.

After being imprisoned for sedition, she was deported to Britain in 1955 during the McCarthy witch hunts and quickly became involved in the civil rights struggle here, launching the campaign newspaper The West Indian Gazette in 1958.

In 1959 she organised a carnival at St Pancras Town Hall as a community response to the Notting Hill riots. It is widely regarded as the inspiration behind the Notting Hill Carnival.

Jones lived at 58 Lisburne Road in Gospel Oak, from where she would catch the 24 bus en route for Brixton where her newspaper offices were based. In 1964 she was discovered dead at the flat, after suffering a heart attack at the age of 49.

In accordance with her wishes, Jones was buried in Highgate Cemetery next to Karl Marx’s tomb. For more than 20 years her grave lay unmarked until Camden Council youth worker Winston Pinder organised a fundraising campaign for a stone to be erected in 1984.


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