Nine Months of War - George Padmore
War Commentary, Vol. 1, n. 8–9, June-July 1940
The following was transcribed and submitted to marxists.org for inclusion in its Padmore archive but since it hasn’t been uploaded for some reason I thought I’d share it here. I think it was the only article by Padmore published in War Commentary, the paper published during World War Two by the Freedom Press group. Rather than being a strictly anarchist publication, War Commentary relied on the contributions of a talented, heterodox milieu of anti-war socialists. Many of its articles were highly-detailed and well-researched, but Padmore’s early contribution nevertheless stands out as an informative and wide-ranging account of wartime repression in British colonies.
Nine months of war! And what are its effects upon the colonial peoples?
In spite of the ruthless censorship of news from the colonies and the hush-hush policy of the Colonial Office illustrated in its suppression of the West Indies Royal Commission Report, news of repression and terrorism throughout the Colonial Empire is gradually coming to light.
Here are some indisputable facts, which we challenge the Secretary of State for Colonies to deny.
Fascism Invades Sierra Leone
The Emergency Powers Act, passed immediately after the declaration of war by the National Government, with the approval of the Labour Party, ostensibly against Nazi activities in Britain, is now being used by Colonial authorities to tighten the yoke of Imperialism around the necks of the natives.
Thanks to these Defence Regulations, all Colonial Governors have been invested with absolutely dictatorial powers over the lives of more than 60,000,000 people. They can order the arrest and imprisonment without trial of any native whom they consider “undesirable.” All fundamental safeguards of the subject, such as habeas corpus, have been abolished “for the duration.”
On the very day that the Prime Minister declared the 400,000,000 natives of India and the Colonial Empire belligerents without their consent, Sir Douglas Jardine, Governor of Sierra Leone, West Africa, ordered the arrest and detention in a concentration camp of the well-known African trade union leader, Wallace Johnson.
Colonial Secretary Defends Governor’s Action
When questioned in Parliament about the Governor’s high-handed action, Mr. MacDonald, Colonial Secretary, cynically remarked that “I see no ground to question the Governor’s decision.” To which Mr Paling, Labour MP, riposted that Johnson’s crime was that “he had been agitating for better conditions among the people, miners in particular who are working in the mines (iron ore) for as little as 6d per day.”
Since then Johnson has been removed from the internment camp and sent to prison for one year on the charge of having written an article months before the outbreak of war in which he criticised the administration of a British official.
He received trial on this occasion. A farce as complete as anything that has ever been played out in a court of justice. Johnson was permitted to see his lawyer only the day before he was taken from the concentration camp to the court. Defence Counsel demanded trial by jury. The judge refused and personally selected three Assessors — two white men and an African Government official — to help him try the defendant. Counsel objected to this procedure, pointing out that the judge himself was associated with the case at an earlier date and that one of the three Assessors was a Frenchman — M. Marterey — who had only very recently become a naturalised British subject and was not well acquainted with English language. The other European Assessor — Mr. Gibson — was the manager of the firm of Paterson, Zachanis and Co. Ltd., a member of the “Commercial Pool”, whose operations have been criticised by Johnson, as inimical to the interests of the native workers and peasants. Mr Mammoth, the third Assessor, was a Civil Servant, and not eligible to adjudicate in a case in which another government officer was involved.
The judge overruled all legitimate objections raised by Johnson’s counsel, whom he ordered to sit down. Counsel there and then retired from the case and walked out of court, accompanied by other African barristers as a gesture of protest against such Star Chamber procedure. After serving his term of one year, Johnson, if he is still alive, will be taken back to the camp. For he is now in the prison hospital dangerously ill with dysentery contracted during his internment.
The whole purpose behind the persecution of militants like Johnson is to intimidate those who have the courage to take the initiative in organising the downtrodden native masses. The imperialists hope that by arresting and imprisoning such native leaders they will sow terrorism among the workers and thereby frustrate the development of trade unionism in the colonies. For despite the recent legislation legalising trade unionism in the colonies, we must have no illusions. Employers — and even many officials — are hostile to the principle of collective bargaining. Mr. P de V. Allen, the Principal Labour Officer in Kenya, told the Commission of Inquiry into labour disturbances in that colony in 1932 that he does not favour trade unions for Africans. Instead he proposed the formation of a “Committee of Native workers, with a white chairman.”
This from the lips of a labour official who is supposed to be the “trustee and protector” of defenceless natives against vested interest is very revealing. It is obvious that the Africans will have many Tolpuddle martyrs before they achieve their victory.
Repression in the West Indies
The well-known West Indian trade unionist, Uriah Butler, whose activities served to bring so forcefully before the British public the wretched conditions of the West Indian workers, has been arrested for opposing the war. Butler has been exiled to Nelson Island, a penal settlement off the mainland of Trinidad.
All political and labour activities have been greatly circumscribed. Public meetings and demonstrations are forbidden. Not more than ten workers can assemble. All opposition to the war is considered “seditious” and punished accordingly. The latest news is that two trade union officials, Alley Denawa and Quintin O’Connor, were arrested and fined £3 or 21 days’ imprisonment for addressing a meeting of electrical workers demanding higher pay to meet the increased cost of living. Both men were also placed under a bond of £10 each to refrain from further labour activities. The judge threatened to send them to jail without the option of a fine next time!
In Jamaica the situation has become so intolerable that even newspapers are not allowed to refer to political events in India. Nor are they permitted to publish news dealing with strikes and other forms of industrial unrest in other parts of the world. Information about wage increases granted to British workers to meet the rising cost of living is strictly forbidden. It is feared that such news might incite the Negroes to similar demands on the Government and private employers. The Governor has also forbidden meetings of the Ethiopian Society, a body working on behalf of Abyssinian refugees, and the restoration of Abyssinia’s freedom.
Such is the restriction of the Colonial Press, that in Dominica, a native editor has been forbidden by the Local Authorities to print Ministry of Information “hand-outs” passed by the British Censor!
The Food Problem
Everywhere the cost of living has gone up enormously. In some islands more than 150%! To appreciate what this means two factors must be kept in mind: (1) The overwhelming majority of West Indians are landless and therefore unable to provide their own food. (2) Wages are very low. The average wage of plantation labourers — for most of the people work on the land — is about 1/6d per day. Artisan and skilled workers receive between 2/- and 4/- per day. In Trinidad — the only island with an oil industry — there are a few skilled mechanics receiving £3 per week, but they are few and far between.
On the other hand, the price of manufactured goods and staple foods are as high as in Britain. Paradoxical as it may seem, these tropical colonies, although chiefly agricultural, import most of their food. The people live on tinned goods!
Here are some statistics to show the rise in prices in Trinidad. Beef has increased from an average of 9d per lb. to 10 and a half d — 27%; condensed milk, 3 and a half d per small tin to 7d — 100%; butter from 1/6d to 2/- per lb. — 30%; potatoes from 2d to 2 and a half d per lb. — 25%; corn from 2d to 2 and a half d per lb. — 25%; and split peas, used largely among the very poor as a substitute for meat have increased from 2d to 6d per lb., that is, 200%.
Recently the death was reported of several natives who had died from arsenic poisoning caused by inferior grade sugar imported into Trinidad from Demerara!
In Bermuda prices are even higher. According to the Government Food Supply Control Board, the minimum prices are: chilled beef, 1/3d per lb; butter 2/- per lb; coffee 1/6d per lb; flour 2 and a half d lb; condensed milk 7d per tin; potatoes 3 and a half d per lb; rice 3d per lb; sugar 3 and a half d per lb, and tea 2/9d lb.
Is it any wonder that colonial government reports assert that the overwhelming majority of natives are suffering from malnutrition. Only the workers and God know how these workers even manage to exist!
In contrast, there are others who are doing well enough out of the war. They are the sugar kings and oil barons — the merchant princes who have a monopoly over imported food and are well represented on committees presumably controlling the retail prices of foodstuffs. There is control, of course. Not, however, upon the European wholesale dealers, but of the small shopkeepers, largely East Indians and Chinese.
Just a brief glance at the 1939 profits of some British companies with West Indian interests tells the story. Tate and Lyle (sugar refiners), £1,319,788 — dividend 13 and a half %; Trinidad Leaseholds (oil), £580,464–15%; Apex Trinidad Oilfields, Ltd., £175,858–30%; and Trinidad Petroleum Development, Ltd., £181,074–15% dividend.
Monopolies Squeeze African Farmers
The war has given a knockout blow to the native cocoa farmers of West Africa. During the last war natives received as much as £60 a ton for their crops, but this time it is the European trading monopolies who are skimming the cream.
Shortly after the outbreak of war the Imperial Government bought up the entire cocoa crop for 1939–40 at the price of £16/16- per ton at Accra, which is below the cost of production. In 1913 cocoa was fetching about £40 a ton in Accra, and by 1919 had risen to £120 per ton.
The cocoa is marketed by a special board set up in conjunction with the Ministry of Food, under the Chairmanship of Mr John Cadbury, a Director of Cadbury Brothers, Ltd., the biggest cocoa and chocolate manufacturers in Britain. In this way the chocolate manufacturers obtain their cocoa supplies for very little above the fixed price the producers receive from the Government. After satisfying the Home country’s needs, the special Marketing Board sells the remainder of the African crop in neutral markets — in particular, the United States — at the most competitive price. With the proceeds the British Government is able to acquire the dollars necessary for financing its purchases of aeroplanes and other war materials.
The situation, however, has been so exploited in the interests of the British buyers that the biggest American combine ($3 million) Rockwood and Co., are threatening to seek their cocoa supplies elsewhere. The whole business is a complete swindle. The fixed price control of the Government ties down the native, provides fat profits for the British chocolate manufacturers, and is helping to pay for the war — of course, at the expense of the native.
A very similar situation obtains in respect of other raw materials. The fixed price paid natives for palm oil is £7 per ton as compared with £13/8/4 in 1937. This commodity, used for manufacturing margarine is under the control of Mr H. Davis, Oil and Fat Controller in the Ministry of Food. Mr Davis was formerly a director of Lever Bros. and Unilever, which through their subsidiary, United Africa Company, dominate the trade and commerce of West Africa. Incidentally, Mr Knight of the United Africa Company, is Director of Oils and Fats, while Mr J. P. van der Bergh, of Van Den Bergh and Jurgens, another subsidiary, is a Director of Margarine in the Ministry of Food, and Mr C. L. Salter, another representative of the last Company, is Director of Imported Oils and Fats.
The low prices paid the natives for their crops means decreased purchasing power, which in turn means decrease in revenue. And since the colonial governments depend to a large extent upon customs duties to finance their administrations, any fall in this respect immediately has an adverse effect upon social services.
Several Governors have already introduced new taxation measures. For example, the export duty on cocoa has been raised by the Gold Coast Government by 18/8 to 42/- per ton, which inflicts additional hardship on the native farmers.
In Nigeria a new Income Bill was passed in March 1940, making Africans with £500 income liable to a tax of £7/6/8 while Europeans with a similar income are liable for only £2/10/0.
In E. and S. Africa the conditions of the natives are even worse than those in West Africa. The majority of the blacks in these parts of the continent are landless proletarians working for wages on plantations and in mines. Wages are shamefully low and direct taxation inordinately high. The average income of a Kenyan native is about £3 per annum, of which he pays an average of 12/- poll tax. In the South African Union poll tax is £1.
The ruthless exploitation of cheap labour is reaping tremendous profits for the mining companies. In 1929 the Rand Mines Ltd. declared a net profit of £1,042,200 and 160% dividend. Randfontein Estates Gold Mining Co. Ltd., £1,319,913 profit; while the West Rand Consolidated Mines, Ltd., announced a net profit of £1,443,030.
The chief cause of discontent among the natives is low wages and high taxation.
British Troops Kill African Strikers
This cause operated behind the recent strike of native workers in the copper mines of Northern Rhodesia, during the course of which 19 Africans were killed and about 90 wounded.
This massacre of defenceless natives has blown sky-high all the official propaganda about happy, prosperous Africans subscribing to buy warships and aeroplanes “to fight Hitler”. The Negroes asked for bread, but their masters gave them hot lead!
Official apologists will doubtless soon be describing the strike as the work of Nazi agents. For whenever colonial peoples revolt against the intolerable conditions imposed upon them by their so-called democratic, peace-loving British “trustees”, the blame is never placed where it should be, but is attributed to the machinations of the wicked dictator enemy of the moment.
Drastic official censorship has almost completely repressed the news of this strike, but truth like murder will out, with due embarrassment to those who pose as lily white upholders of the rights of the backward peoples of the world.
Copper is an essential raw product for war materials, and in consequence of the demand the mining companies of Northern Rhodesia have been speeding up production. Output and profits have risen vastly, but the wages of the native miners have remained stationary. On the other hand, taxation and the cost of living have increased.
Thus on March 16th miners employed at the Mufulira concessions demanded 25% wage increase with a further 5% to meet the cost of living rise. The strike committee also demanded a reduction in overtime, adequate housing for all employees, an eight-hour bank-to-bank shift and establishment of the closed-shop principle. In addition the natives wanted an investigation into silicosis, a disease common among the Africans in the Copper Belt.
The local management refused to negotiate with the workers’ representatives on the grounds that “it was inopportune for the natives to make demands upon the company at a time when they had to strain every nerve to furnish the Imperial Government with copper for war purposes.”
The Company officials endeavoured to carry on operations with blackleg labour and clashes occurred between the workers and the strike-breakers. Police reinforcements were brought to the mines and tear-gas bombs were turned on the strikers. This intimidation failed in its desired effect, and the aid of the Southern Rhodesian Prime Minister was sought. European troops were rushed from Bulawayo to Nkana, the scene of the strike, where shooting took place. Martial law was proclaimed, and the strikers were driven back to work at the point of bayonets.
This is the second time within five years that native miners in Northern Rhodesia have been killed by British troops in the struggle for improved conditions.
The British South Africa company, founded by Cecil Rhodes, and used as the chief instrument of his imperialist policies, had a monopoly of the mineral rights in Northern Rhodesia, one of the greatest copper producing countries in the world. The minerals are exploited by Anglo-American financial interests, and in return for the right to mine copper, the three operating companies — the Roan Antelope, the Rhokana and the Mufulira — pay the directors of the South Africa Company about £500,000 annually. Thus, without lifting a finger, the shareholders of the Rhodes concern get a substantial rake-off every year.
This illustrates vividly the parasitic character of imperialism. Completely divorced from active production, all that British rentiers associated with the South Africa Company have to do is clip their coupons.
The profits the mining companies are making are colossal. In 1937 the Roan Antelope made £2,078,207 and paid 80% dividend and a bonus of 20%; the Rhokana Corporation, of which Sir Aukland Geddes is Chairman, made £2,319,883 in profits and paid a dividend of 62 and a half percent. The smallest company, the Mufulira, in the same year netted £775,401 and paid a dividend of 150%.
The total value of copper for 1938 was £8,201,000 distributed as follows:
Dividends — £3,100,000.
Wages paid to 1,800 white employees — £1,250,000.
Income Tax paid in Northern Rhodesia, £600,000.
Paid to the British Treasury as ordinary company tax (the companies are registered in London) and National Defence Contribution — £600,000.
Balance assigned to other costs, including royalties — £2,160,000.
Production for 1939 was valued at £11,511,376 of which blister copper accounted for £7,977,565, electrolytic copper for £1,000,466,806 and cobalt alloy for £1,482,149.
Gold figures speak for themselves, and it is pretty evident where the wealth of the colonies goes. Certainly not in the pockets of the people whose lands have been wrested from them, and whose labour is incidental in realising the wealth monopolised by a few capitalists who hold the destinies of the black and white workers in their hands.