George Padmore, father of the African revolution

Sun, 27 Aug 2017 Source: Cameron Duodu

The father of African emancipation: 23 September 2009 marked exactly 50 years since the death of the man who quietly worked behind the scenes for the total liberation of Africa: Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse, otherwise known as George Padmore. Here, Cameron Duodu, who knew him, pays tribute to the man widely known in his day as "The father of African emancipation".

GEORGE PADMORE BID A PERSONAL goodbye to me before he died. Of course, at the time, I didn't realise that he had done this. I was strolling around the arrival and departure hall of Accra's airport, having seen off someone, when I ran into him. I greeted him warmly, for he was one of the nicest men I had ever met. It was he who arranged for me to visit the Soviet Union for the first time in 1958. If I had known then that this was something of a difficult decision for him to make--having been expelled by the Soviets from the Comintern and subsequently, their country, in the 1930s--I would have appreciated his action all the more. But I was a junior journalist, as green as they come, and though I knew he had written a very controversial book called Pan-Africanism or Communism, I didn't give his personal role in my trip a second thought.

It happened like this: shortly after our independence celebrations in March 1957, the Prime Minister, Dr Kwame Nkrumah, announced that he had appointed Padmore as his "Advisor on African Affairs." So Padmore and his wife Dorothy moved to Accra. They were housed in a very beautiful bungalow in what was once the "European Ridge" area of Accra. I knew one of their neighbours very well. He was Wilfred Benson, then the UN representative in Accra. Walking around the gardens of those great bungalows was a great pleasure--the "garden-boys" in the neighbourhood competed with one another about who could grow the nicest roses and other flowers.

Because Ghana's foreign ministry was in its infancy, many of the more "difficult" questions of foreign policy were passed on to Padmore to handle, although he was supposed to be strictly advising the Prime Minister only on "African affairs." Hence it was that when the society to which I belonged, the Ghana Society of Writers, was invited to send three delegates to a conference of Afro-Asian Writers in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in September/October 1958, and I was chosen, alongside Mrs Effuse Sutherland and Cecile MacHardy (our secretary) to go, Padmore asked to see me.

I had no idea, then, what "vetting" was, but obviously that was what Padmore wanted to do. Personally. The government of Ghana was not going to send a 21-year-old writer who had barely cut his political teeth, into the arms of Soviet Communism, without taking a good look at him. Funny, since we were supposed to be a "non-aligned nation" that practised ", positive neutrality", whatever that was!

For me, none of it mattered. I was so excited at the idea of going to Russia, a country I had heard about so much from news broadcasts and foreign newspapers. So off I trotted to see George Padmore.

I found him extremely affable and one of the politest people I had ever met. He asked his wife to bring us tea on his veranda, where some easy chairs had been placed. In order to put me at ease, he called out to a young man of about my own age, who was in his living room: "Francis, come and talk to Cameron."

I said to myself, "I didn't know Padmore had a son!"

This was because Francis was of a lighter complexion than I was, and I assumed that he was the product of the union between Padmore and Dorothy (who was white). He bore a remarkable resemblance, though, to our prime minister, and for a second, the thought flitted through my mind that it was perhaps Nkrumah who had impregnated Dorothy and produced Francis! I let the thought die very fast--it was not safe to speculate on the relationships between those set above us, I told myself. I discovered many years later that Francis was, in fact, Nkrumah's son! But the prime minister was so busy-- or secretive--that he had more or less asked Padmore to take the young man over.

So the four of us, Padmore and his wife, Francis and I, sat on the veranda, sipped very nice tea, and talked. Padmore was so smooth that I can't recall him asking me any specific questions that I had to think twice about before answering. We just sat and chatted like old friends casually exchanging ideas about word affairs.

I think – or imagine-- that he asked me what I thought of Ghana's foreign policy, which I, of course, knew by heart, as a reporter in the newsroom of Radio Ghana. Other than that, I don't remember anything: it was all so--what word can describe it best? Perhaps I had better coin one- -undisconcerting comes to mind--as far as I was concerned. I recall, even less, the part Dr Francis Nkrumah played in the conversation. He must have just been completing his medical studies at the time. In retrospect, I am sure Padmore thought Francis would be able to give him a young person's perspective of my character, in particular, whether I was a truthful person or not. (Francis was, I thought, slightly younger than me). Padmore had enough experience to realise that it takes a young man to be able to read the mind of another young man! As the French would have put it, Padmore was: tres tres formidable!)

I spent about 30 minutes with them. I think I must have made a good impression on Padmore, for as the conversation drew to a close, he asked me whether there was anything I needed for my trip to Russia. Naive as I was, I told him the truth: "Well, Sir," I blurted out, "I--I haven't g-g-got a s-s-s-suitcase!"

Without laughing, or showing any sign that this was a rather curious thing to tell the second most powerful person in Ghana after the prime minister, Padmore told his wife, "Dorothy, please bring Cameron that revolution suitcase."

My mind was blown! So Padmore had a special "revolution suitcase"? And he was going to let me have it? My mind was in a whirl.

I knew that Padmore had, for several years, been regarded as a very dangerous man by more than one government. The British government, for one, had banned his book, Africa, Britain's Third Empire, from the Gold Coast because they thought it was full of revolutionary ideas which, if allowed to get into the heads of the Gold Coast people, would cause them to rise up and throw out the British. Or whatever. So, obviously, he must have travelled around the world in disguise, in his work of promoting revolution. And he had had a special "revolution suitcase" made for him. And he was going to let me have it?

I felt so flattered that when Mrs Padmore brought it, I didn't take too close a look at it. I just wanted to take it away before Padmore changed his mind. So I hastily thanked him and took it to my scooter--only to discover that the scooter couldn't accommodate it! I was wondering what to do when Padmore called out to his driver. "Put the suitcase in the car and follow Mr. Duodu to his house," Padmore told the driver. I thanked him even more and I left, followed by Padmore's nice car, with the suitcase as its only passenger!

I am ashamed--or delighted--to say that I did notreturn the suitcase, when I came back from Russia! There was no way he was going to get back a suitcase of such historical importance. In my mind's eye, I could see Padmore lugging it around all sorts of dangerous places, as the Deuxieme Bureau in France and the KGB passed each whilst flowing him, only to be upstaged by the British MI6 when he changed territories, and, of course, the CIA. How often had well-briefed customs officers inspected that suitcase, looking for a false bottom or other secret compartments?

I tried to make up for not returning the suitcase by turning up at the "Office of the Advisor to the Prime Minister on African Affairs" [later the Bureau of African Affairs], a wooden structure that stood on stilts and was sited close to the main ministries, and even closer to the Accra Racecourse, to bring Padmore snippets of African news from Radio Ghana's monitoring section, that I thought might interest him. I usually gave them to his secretary, a guy called Barden, upon whom I knew Padmore relied heavily. A K Barden in fact became Director of the Bureau of African Affairs after Padmore's death – and nearly derailed Nkrumah's plans with his ebullient personality and shallow intellect. (That judgement may sound a bit harsh but what is one to make of a man who prevented Nkrumah from seeing Nelson Mandela when Mandela came to Accra secretly – and at great risk to himself – at the head of an ANC delegation in 1962??

Years later, I had a good laugh at myself when I accidentally discovered, in a shop that dealt in suitcases, that the suitcase Padmore had given to me was not a "revolution" suitcase at all, but a Revelation suitcase! I had been fooled by Padmore's rather nasal accent--and my own fertile imagination--into turning "revelation"to "revolution", thus transforming a commonly available suitcase into a special one which any British 007 might have liked to lay his hands upon. Not that that notion was far wrong. Any suitcase containing documents that had been put into it by George Padmore would have attracted the notice of any spook in the world who knew his onions.

Padmore had a cloak-and-dagger background all right. To begin with, his real name wasn't George Padmore at all. It was Malcolm Ivan Meredith Nurse! He was born at Tunapuna/Arouca, in Trinidad in 1902. His grandfather, an Asante warrior who had been captured in Asante and taken into slavery in Barbados, went to live in Trinidad after being freed.

Padmore's father was an agronomist and entomologist who had read very widely. It is thought that had he not been black, in a Trinidad where racial prejudice was hardly hidden, he would have risen very high in the department of agriculture, where he worked.

The Trinidadian author, C. L. R. James (author of The Black Jacobinsand Beyond A Boundary) who grew up with Padmore in Trinidad (he was Padmore's senior by one year) recalls that one of the most remarkable things about the elder Mr Nurse was that he had so many books that it looked as if the books were piled from the floor to the ceiling.

Probably as a result of his prodigious reading, Mr Nurse abandoned Christianity and embraced Islam. This was a very unusual step for anyone to take in Trinidad and demanded a degree of courage, since it was bound to occasion a certain amount of disapproval, if not ostracism, in the social circles of the person who had abandoned the faith of his group, Christianity.

Obviously young George Padmore made good use of some of the books in his house, for throughout his life, he exhibited such knowledge about Africa and its history as few "native-born" Africans could equal. He was also very principled and would defend his reasoned position to the hilt, irrespective of whom he offended by doing so.

As an adult, he became obsessed with Africa's total emancipation and unification--a rather unusual preoccupation for a Caribbean intellectual. C. L. R. James, who observed Padmore closely in the latter part of his life, said: "George Padmore, in my view, is one of the greatest politicians of the 20th century. He earned for himself the title of 'Father of African emancipation.'"

Padmore was educated at St Mary's College, graduating in 1918. In 1921, he became a reporter on the Trinidad Guardian newspaper. But he quarrelled with the editor after only one year, and managed, in 1924, to leave for the United States to study medicine at Fisk University. But once he was in the US, he shifted to law. He didn't pay too much attention to his studies, but instead, quickly gained a reputation as a powerful public speaker. His political work made him uncomfortable at Fisk and he left for Howard University.

But at Howard, too, he ran into trouble. One day, the British ambassador was invited to the university, and while he was being escorted in a solemn procession to the hall where he was to address the students, Padmore picketed the procession by scattering leaflets criticising Britain's brutal rule in Africa. A meeting was called by the faculty to expel him, but his "name" could not be found on the register! He had somehow bamboozled the authorities by deftly deploying different nomenclatures.

In the meantime, he had joined a black socialist workers' group and had become a serious political activist. In 1929, he dropped out of university altogether and was sent to the Soviet Union as the representative of the black workers of the USA. There, he was put in charge of mobilising black workers worldwide. He was also the Comintern member who dealt with matters affecting colonial peoples.

The Russians accorded Padmore the spectacular honour of electing him as a member of the Moscow Soviet--alongside the party leader himself, Josef Stalin. But as fascism rose in Europe in the 1930s, the Soviets' decided that Western imperialism was no longer a threat to them, and laid down a "line" which obliged Padmore to tone down, if not cease, his agitation against British, French and Portuguese colonialism in Africa.

Padmore refused to accept the new Soviet "line", and was expelled from the Soviet Union for his pains. In those days, serious disapproval from the Communist Party bosses – especially in respect of an offence that merited expulsion from the Soviet Union – could mean certain death for anyone who was within the borders of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. Even if one was able to escape, one might be chased abroad and assassinated. This was precisely what had happened to Leon Trotsky, who after being expelled from the Soviet Communist Party, was followed by Soviet agents to Mexico, where he had sought refuge, and assassinated in 1940. The murderers used an ice-pick to do the job.

Padmore's expulsion occurred in 1934. He managed to reach Denmark safely, but was soon deported from there to Hamburg, Germany. The Soviets tried to smear him by spreading rumours that he was “a fascist agent”, or had “embezzled money meant for the struggle in the African colonies”, or both! But he successfully resisted all intrigues directed at his person, as well as the campaign of calumny, and managed to keep his reputation intact until he reached Paris, from where he made his way to London.

His main achievement in London was to be co-founder of The International African Service Bureau (IASB) a pan-African organisation. His co-founders were the West Indians, C. L. R. James, Amy Ashwood Garvey, T. Ras Makonnen and the Kenyan nationalist Jomo Kenyatta, as well as a Sierra Leonean labour activist and journalist, I. T. A. Wallace-Johnson.

The bureau succeeded the International African Friends of Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and was used to convey issues relating to Africa and the African diaspora to the British public. Similar in design and organization to the West African Youth League, the IASB also sought to inform the public about the grievances faced by those in colonial Africa. It created a list of “desired reforms and freedoms” that would help the colonies. The bureau also hoped to encourage new African trade unions to affiliate themselves with the British labour movement. The IASB published a journal, International African Opinion, which was edited by C. L. R. James.

Padmore received a great deal of attention in London and published pamphlets and newsletters on African issues, as well as books. He soon became a sought-after speaker on colonial and black issues in London. This is how C. L. R. James re-encountered Padmore in London:

"One day, I heard that the great George Padmore, the great Communist, was coming to speak in Gray's Inn Road, [London]. I had heard a lot about George Padmore, the great man from Moscow who was organising black people all over the world, so I said I would go ... I went to the meeting and there were about 50 or 60 people, half of them white, and suddenly, after five minutes, there walked in the great George Padmore. Who was he but my friend Malcolm Nurse?"

The reunion was marked by "uproarious laughter" by the two friends, which amused the onlookers. George later told James about his adventures with the Soviet KGB, and afterwards, they began to work closely together, organising meetings to protest against the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and going on to publish several anti-colonial newspapers.

Padmore best achievement in Britain was to organise the Fifth Pan-African Congress at Manchester in 1945, which is seen by some historians as the single most important conference on Africa's future ever to be held. For from it, politicians like Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta and Hastings Banda went home to their various countries and challenged colonial rule head-on.

Nkrumah was the keenest collaborator with Padmore at the secretariat of the Congress, and the two men became soul-mates after the Congress. When Nkrumah was invited in 1947 by the leaders of the United Gold Coast Convention (UGCC) to come back home from London and become the organisation's secretary, Padmore advised him to accept the post, and they mapped out the strategy by which Nkrumah could outflank the "bourgeois" leadership of the UGCC and capture the Gold Coast liberation movement once he was actually in the country. This happened in 1949, when Nkrumah and the UGCC parted ways and he formed his Convention People's Party (CPP), with which he won the first general election to be held under universal adult suffrage, in the Gold Coast, in February 1951. Nkrumah became the "Leader of Government Business". Two years later, he invited Padmore to come and write a book on his new government's achievements, correctly presuming that although the British had banned one of Padmore's books from the Gold Coast, they wouldn't precipitate a confrontation with Nkrumah's government by vetoing an invitation extended to Padmore by the Leader of Government Business of the Gold Coast.

Padmore duly arrived, travelled widely around the country, and produced an authoritative book entitled The Gold Coast Revolution. He kept in close touch with Nkrumah, who consulted him not only on the constitutional processes leading to independence, but on political affairs generally. As soon as Ghana gained its independence in 1957, Nkrumah extended a hand to Padmore to come to Ghana and formally assume the role of "Advisor to the Prime Minister on African Affairs".

As I indicated at the beginning of this article, although Ghana had a foreign minister, a great deal of matters affecting Ghana's relations with foreign countries were referred to Padmore to handle. He helped Nkrumah to maintain his independence from the Eastern bloc, and is credited with the statement, no doubt apocryphal, and allegedly made in relation to the need to stay neutral in Cold War matters: "If 600 million Chinese [the population of China in the 1950s] piss, Ghana would be drowned!" How prophetic that has turned out to be, in the light of the involvement of hordes of Chinese nationals in the illegal mining or “galamsey” business that s destroying Ghana's rivers and streams.

Ghana had its most successful period of promoting African unity and African liberation when Padmore was advisor to Nkrumah. The two men called two successful conferences-- the Conference of Independent African States (April 1958) and the All-African People's Conference (December 1958) within nine months of each other. In 1958, Ghana and Guinea decided on a Ghana-Guinea Union. The Union was soon joined by Mali.

I can disclose that Padmore arranged for [pounds sterling]20,000 to be sent from Ghana to defend Dr Hastings Banda in Malawi when Banda was falsely accused of organising an insurrection against the white settlers of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. Money was also sent, through Brazzaville and Paris, to lawyers in Belgium acting in the interest of Congolese nationalists such as Patrice Lumumba and Joseph Kasavubu. Lines of communication were also opened between Ghana and every liberation movement or trade union fighting for freedom in Africa. These advances in the African liberation struggle were cruelly undermined when Padmore died unexpectedly from a long-term liver ailment in September 1959.

As I have written earlier, he bade me a personal farewell on the day of his last trip out of Ghana. After I had greeted him, I expected him to throw a few pleasantries my way. Instead, he said, rather seriously, nodding his head: "Cameron, I know you boys will do it."

I was amazed and was about to ask him, "Do what, Sir?" But they had called his flight and he waved to me and went through the immigration area into his plane.

It was when I heard that he had died in London about a week or so afterwards--on 23 September 1959--that I realised that he had known that he was going to London to die and wouldn't be coming back to Ghana alive.

But it wasn't till 10 May 1994, when Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa, thus completing the circle of the movement for the independence of Africa, that I fully understood that Padmore had actually foreseen the "total liberation of the African continent" that Nkrumah had talked about on 6 March 1957, the day Ghana attained its own independence.

It had happened; Padmore had helped Nkrumah to give meaning to the need to link up Ghana's independence with the "total liberation of the whole African continent". For the South Africans, like most African liberation movements, had received assistance, of one type or another, from Ghana.

Yes! George Padmore! What a Great African Prophet! May he rest in peace.

Columnist: Cameron Duodu