Four West African colonies contributed a large share of the African students studying in Britain during the period that Hakim Adi ably studies. From Nigeria, the Gold Coast (Ghana), Sierra Leone, and the Gambia, they were hardly typical. Generally their families were affluent and well-connected, and often Anglican and Anglophile. Many paid their own way and thus had considerable independence. The Colonial Office saw their stay as an opportunity to proselytize for the empire. Unfortunately, the racism and discrimination that abounded produced an opposite effect, and they went home radicalized and anticolonial.
British social and residential facilities were often closed to blacks: the London University Graduates’ Club in 1914 refused to admit Africans. Partly in self-defense, a number of organizations were started by the African students, and Adi provides what will likely be the guide to these groups for some time to come. The African Students’ Union, the African Progress Union, the Society of Peoples of African Origin, and numerous others are given their due. In 1925, the West African Students’ Union (WASU) emerged out of this confusion, and it became the most powerful and lasting of the West African organizations in London as well as an incubator for future West African leaders.
A main aim was a hostel or club, not surprising considering the reception the students often received when in search of accommodation. Britain between the world wars was not a welcoming place for people of color. David Lloyd George referred to “niggers” in a speech, and the singer Paul Robeson was turned away from hotels. The Colonial Office, increasingly worried that the students were being alienated, gave its support to a hostel to be known as Aggrey House, which opened in 1933. In the meantime, WASU had opened its own hostel, partly with contributions from West Africa. The Colonial Office was accused of finally providing a hostel not out of compassion but out of a desire to control the students.
The hostel issue became the focal point for rising nationalist sentiment. Despite its government sponsorship, Aggrey House became a popular meeting place for Africans coming to Britain, while the WASU hostel struggled to stay open. In 1940, however, the expulsion of a resident for immorality resulted in a series of disputes that closed Aggrey and left the field to WASU. Having the only hostel immeasurably strengthened WASU efforts to act as a pressure group on the British government, which it certainly did, becoming widely recognized as a spokesman for West Africa.
After World War II, the number of West African students in Britain increased dramatically, so that by 1948 there were more than one thousand. Adi explores the relationship between Labour government and the students and documents the former’s generally unimaginative response to the growing call for independence. He makes a good case that a preoccupation with the Cold War was a factor in British intransigence toward African demands.
In the 1950s, the West African governments began establishing their own student centers in London. The number of different student organizations increased, and WASU lost its role as principal spokesman. Racism continued to be a major problem, with an increase in physical attacks on blacks.
WASU was a political educator and ecumenical in its membership, offering Fabians, pan-Africanists, and trades unionists as well as the uncommitted a place to argue long into the night. Adi has produced a well-documented study based on extensive use of archival sources in the Public Record Office. As he points out, this book is not a general social history of West African students in Britain, but it is a major contribution toward such a history.
By Hakim Adi