Two church events took place in Barbados on Saturday 16th and Sunday 17th November respectively, each in thanksgiving and celebration of a life and in each case, a life lived in Britain.
On Saturday 16 November, at the magnificent St Matthew’s Church, Hothersal Turning, St Michael, Barbados, the funeral and burial service took place of Ralph Adolphus Straker, BSM, OBE, who had arrived in London from Barbados on 31 August 1956 to work on London Transport. Throughout his 57 years in the UK, Ralph Straker struggled against state-sponsored racism and for racial equality and social justice. He died in London on 12 October 2013, aged 76. The service was conducted by the Rt Rev Bishop Wilfred Wood, an anti-racist activist himself and the first African Church of England Bishop in the UK, now retired to his native Barbados.
On Sunday 17 November, at St Mary’s Church, Jubilee Gardens, Bridgetown, Barbados, a Remembrance and Thanksgiving Service for Baroness Margaret Thatcher (pictured right) was held. Jubilee Gardens was established to mark the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. The land on which St Mary’s Church was built served as a burial ground for the non-white residents of the City of Bridgetown during the 45 years between the destruction by hurricane of the first St Michael’s Cathedral in 1780 and the construction of St Mary’s Church beginning in 1825. Officiating at that service, under the auspices of the Prime Minister of Barbados and the British High Commissioner, were the Bishop of Barbados, who delivered the sermon, the Dean of St Michael’s Cathedral and the Rector of St Mary’s.
The letter of invitation to the Remembrance and Thanksgiving Service, sent by Owen O Eversley OBE, founder of the Barbadian Families and Friends Relocation Association (BFFRA), stated:
‘It was Baroness Thatcher’s Conservative Party that from 1955–1965 opened the door for thousands of Barbadians of all ages to migrate to the UK, voluntary (sic) or on a contractual capacity, e.g., nurses, London Transport, British Rail, Lyons, etc. It was also the Conservative Party that lifted the imposed monetary restrictions from £10-£50 back to normal. It also introduced the ‘Right to buy housing’ policy which benefited many Barbadians. It is for those reasons this service was conceptualised’.
The contrast between these two conversations with God could not be more stark. Indeed, given what those of us who spoke at Ralph Straker’s funeral at St Mark’s Church, Dalston, in the borough of Hackney on 9 November had cause to remember, his life was extraordinary not on account of birth or title but because of his relentless struggle against what Margaret Thatcher herself and her Party in government had done and were still doing to African and Asian people ever since Ralph Straker first arrived in the UK.
Ralph Straker worked as a conductor on London transport for 9 years and during that time he was actively involved in community struggles around policing, schooling and education, youth service provision for young people, and housing. He worked as a postman at Mount Pleasant Post Office in central London, later taking a full time post as Deputy Senior Race Relations Officer with Hackney Community Relations Council (CRC) from 1973 to 1987. In 1987, Ralph joined the management staff of Alexandra Palace & Park as a Race Equality Officer after spending 14 years at Hackney CRC. In 1991, Ralph joined Southwark Diocese as Race Relations Adviser to its Bishops, Clergy and church members. He thus deepended his interest in Liberation Theology and helped to inform the Church’s perspective and teachings on Race Relations.
His interest in Black People’s History and Culture led him to become a Founding Member of the Sam Uriah Morris Society, a Museum of Black History based in Hackney. The exhibition of which Ralph was President and main researcher, has one of the largest collections of pictorial and reference material of any voluntary organization. The exhibition is widely used by school children, teachers, students and adults.
Ralph served as a Magistrate since 1982 at the North Westminster Bench, transferring to the Juvenile bench in 1984 and the Family Proceedings Court in 1991. He was also a member of the Board of Visitors of Holloway Prison.
Ralph was one of an impressive body of Barbadian activists and race equality specialists in the UK, including Joseph Hunte, Sam Uriah Morris, Aaron Haynes, Jeff Crawford and Sam Springer, all of whom were part of a black working class movement that challenged racist policies and institutional practices in the organized workers’ movement, in local authorities, in the police, in the Labour and Conservative parties, in the National Health Service, in housing and in service industries.
If I felt that, having regard to Romans 12: 19-21, the government and people of Barbados had their tongues firmly in their cheeks as they remembered Margaret Thatcher, I would be amused. Verse 19 implores us:
Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, saith the Lord.
But to have a service of ‘Thanksgiving’ and to justify doing so by being notoriously selective about the deeds of the Conservative Party and Thatcher’s own record as Prime Minister is bizarre, even by Barbados’ standards of submissiveness, deference and sycophancy in relation to all things British.
Owen Eversley and BFFRA have access to a living repository of the history of ‘race’ and the British state, ‘race’ and the Conservative Party and ‘race’ and 16 years of Thatcherism. Families relocating from Britain, Bishop Wood included, could all spend the rest of their lives running materclasses on the subject. In addition, the Barbados High Commission in London is very knowledgeable about the impact of government policies on the African-Caribbean Diaspora, descendants born in Britain in particular.
Over the years, diplomats from that mission, High Commissioners and their deputies no less, have all taken an active interest in matters of schooling, youth, youth unemployment and youth offending as related to African-Caribbeans, to the extent that the High Commission has organised conferences and seminars with, for and about young people year on year. Over the years I have spoken at many of them.
Whatever the Bishop of Barbados may or may not have said in his sermon, therefore, it is surely a gross distortion of history and an insult to those of us who have laid our lives on the line and endured police brutality, imprisonment and the death of our loved ones in the custody of the state, to have a Caribbean nation give thanks for the Conservative Party and for Margaret Thatcher’s policies as British prime minister, as if they have been nothing but willing hosts, magnanimous, benign and solicitous of our welfare and of our rights.
This distortion of history is self-serving and ostensibly deliberate on Eversley’s part, for I cannot imagine that he and whoever else sponsored this colonial display by Church and State could have been unaware of the following:
- That it was the Conservative Government that passed the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act;
- That the Act was passed not because there was no longer a shortage of labour to rebuild Britain and its infrastructure. The Act did not apply to Irish immigrants or others with white skin who kept arriving in Britain long after the legislation was passed. No, it was because the presence of black ‘immigrants’ was being blamed by the British public for the race riots that had taken place in Notting Hill following the racist murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1958 and in St Ann’s, Nottingham that same year. It was as if the very presence of black people was causing otherwise law abiding white Brits to be racist, murderous and barbaric;
- That once immigration had been thus racialised, all other immigration legislation throughout the 1960s right up to the 1990s was about controlling the number of black people coming to Britain;
- That in the run up to the 1964 General Election, the right wing Conservative candidate, Peter Griffiths (Smethwick, West Midlands) unashamedly campaigned under the slogan:
‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’
- That although Harold Wilson, the newly elected Labour prime minister, called Griffiths a ‘parliamentary leper’ when he won his seat and entered parliament, Wilson himself in 1965 introduced a White Paper that modified a recently rejected Bill by Tory MP, Sir Cyril Osborne, that sought to deny entry to all migrants from the Commonwealth, except for those whose parents and grandparents were born in Britain;
- That the Kenyan Asian crisis of 1967 led to a major national panic about immigration once more, since Kenyan Asians who held British passports were exempt from the provisions of the 1965 Commonwealth Immigrants Act and were entitled to enter Britain. Enoch Powell, Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, (West Midlands) jumped on the anti-immigration bandwagon and led an anti-immigration campaign which struck a chord with huge swathes of the British public. As with Cyril Osborne before, the Wilson government once again went out of its way to prove to the restive British public that it, too, could be tough on immigration, while condemning the inflammatory Enoch Powell. The Labour Government introduced a new Act early in 1968, withdrawing the right to enter Britain from those Kenyan Asians who still held British passports. That Act introduced the ‘patrial’ clause, just as Cyril Osborne had attempted in his Bill in 1965, i.e., allowing in citizens who could provide evidence that their parents and grandparents were born in Britain;
- That Labour sought to justify its robust stance on black immigration by marrying up race relations and immigration and arguing, as did the Conservatives, that improving the former without curtailing the latter was impossible;
- That from then on, an All Party Parliamentary Select Committee on Race Relations & Immigration would report on matters to do with immigration and race, their very first report in 1969 dealing with the issue of the Problems of Coloured School Leavers;
- That the Conservative Party, even as Barbadian children were arriving in Britain, were condemning the language they came with as ‘bad English’ and using that as a reason, among others, for sending disproportionate numbers of them to schools for the educationally sub-normal (ESN);
- That in the ensuing decades, under both Conservative and Labour governments, disproportionality came to be associated with ‘coloured immigrants’ and their children: disproportionality in the number of them sent to ESN schools; disproportionality in the number of them excluded from school; disproportionality in the number of them stopped and searched on the streets; disproportionality in the number of them arrested for ‘suspicion of being about to commit an arrestable offence‘(Sus); disproportionality in the number of them leaving school with the lowest qualifications; disproportionality in the number of them unemployed three years after leaving school; disproportionality in the number of them in young offender institutions and prisons; disproportionality in the number of them being killed while in the custody of the police; disproportionality in the number of them killing one another on the streets;
- That in 1981, on Margaret Thatcher’s watch, Britain saw the worst mass uprisings across the country by black and white working class youths that the UK had ever experienced;
- That her pronouncements following those troubling events were racist and inflammatory;
- That rather than understanding what those events signified about the condition of being young, black and marginalised in the land of your birth and putting policies to tackle the issue, Thatcher presided over draconian prison sentences for those arrested for their part in the uprisings and over the militarisation of the police for dealing with black youths;
- That when in January 1981, 13 young black people lost their lives in a firebombed house in Deptford, South London, Thatcher made no overtures to the families of the deceased, eventually sending condolences through a youth worker and self-styled ‘community leader’ in the area.
Need I say more?
Which part of all this warrants a remembrance and thanksgiving service in Barbados or any other Caribbean country?
If the Conservative Party in the 1950s worked in partnership with the Barbados government to recruit workers from Barbados to rebuild Britain’s transport infrastructure, the National Health Service and the Lyons chain of tea shops, did the Barbadians not work harder than their white British counterparts who had by then vacated those jobs to move to those with better pay and working conditions?
Did they not have to endure the worst forms of racial discrimination and social disadvantage? Is it not the case that although the Barbados government’s Information Booklet for Intending Emigrants to Britain gave them information about how to behave and how to deport themselves in Britain, it told its sponsored emigrants nothing about the racism they would face and how to organise themselves to cope with it?
Why then, does the misguided Mr Eversley present this history as if Barbados as a country should be grateful to the Conservative Party for doing that nation a favour by ‘opening the door’ for thousands of Barbadians to migrate to Britain, never mind the centuries they spent before so-called independence milking Barbados dry?
What a tragedy that for Barbadians, seemingly, ‘Massa day never done’!
Picture (home): “Maggie Thatcher 1977” by rollingstone6 (Flickr – BY-NC-SA 2.0)