Face to face with the past

21st October 2005 at 01:00
Jerome Monahan on the contribution of Black and Asian people in the two world wars

At Delville Wood in Normandy, there is a monument to South Africa's war dead. It is an impressive building in a poignant spot. It is sited where that nation's troops experienced their worst losses on the Western Front during an attack in July 1916 as a part of the Somme offensive. Inside there are a number of dramatic bronzes including one commemorating an incident in February 1917 involving the sinking of the troopship SS Mendi - an event that takes on particular significance during this October's Black History Month.

On board were 823 members of the 5th Battalion South African Native Labour Corps (SANLC). Though heading for dock work in Le Havre, many of the men were educated and some were illustrious - the group included several Pandoland tribal chiefs. At 4.55am on February 21, the Mendi collided with the much larger 11,00 ton liner SS Darro about 11 miles south of the Isle of Wight and sank in about 25 minutes - 616 of the SANLC drowned in the Channel's freezing waters. It seems highly unlikely that warmly clad men would have chosen this moment to change into tribal costume and perform a "dance of death", yet this is precisely how they are depicted in the Delville bronze.

It is a representation with fascinating connotations, serving then contemporary South African preconceptions and native African nationalistic myth-making. It remains controversial to this day, with some historians doubting whether there was a dance of death. The SS Mendi disaster and the censorship of its reporting would make a satisfying subject for a historical investigation.

There are many websites where students could begin their search, including rapidttp.commilhistvol101gs.html and www.navy.mil.zanewnavymendi_historymendi_hist.htm It is also a reason to make the Delville Wood monument a key stopping point on any First World War battlefield tour, a chance to reflect on the function of war memorials and the larger political purposes they can serve.

For Andrew Robertshaw, head of education at the National Army Museum, the role of the Labour Corps is a rich, though neglected seam of history, not necessarily Black, that students might enjoy investigating. The site www.westernfront.co.ukthegreatwararticlesindividualsforgottenhands.htm

has a description of the tough work regime Chinese coolies faced and the military discipline they were subject to.

At Henry Compton School in Fulham, west London, advanced skills teacher Dan Lyden is ambivalent about Black History Month. "There is a huge amount of flexibility across the whole history syllabus for teachers to bring in this perspective throughout the year," he says, while conceding the value of the month as a consciousness-raiser.

He has created a web quest off his school's history site for any school to use. It sets key stage 34 students the task of creating a booklet for primary pupils exploring the roles of Black and Asian soldiers in the First World War www.comptonhistory.comww1webquest.htm.

"Such quests are a means of encouraging students to conduct proper research while online and not just getting by with undigested cut and paste exercises," says Dan.

Among the quest destinations are some acknowledging the role of Black soldiers www.mgtrust.orgcar1.htm and others that look at individuals, such as the article about 105-year-old Eugent Clarke, the oldest known First World War veteran in Jamaica www.jdfmil.orgex_servicevet_extra.htm

At the Imperial War Museum, head of education Helena Stride is also no fan of tokenism and feels the twin resource packs the museum has produced on Black and Asian people's contribution to both world wars deserve a core role in class: "What should be avoided at all costs is their having a 'cultural slot' at the end of a topic. What needs to be got across is a clear idea of the Empire and what that meant to people in the West Indies and Africa who regarded England as the mother country, a hard concept for young people to grasp."

Another theme teachers might pursue, suggests Helena, is getting young people to ask their grandparents about their wartime experiences. For Black and Asian people living in British cities the privations of the war had to be endured by them just as much as by white civilians, and in places as far flung as the West Indies and Africa people were contributing all they could to the war effort.

"We have some important material on this theme in some of the photograph albums on show in our Children's War exhibition," she says.

"The Second World War pack contains leaflets showing such things as a mobile canteen bought by the people of Ghana and a tank emblazoned with Jamaica, in recognition of the sums donated from there to enable its construction."

National Archives has a helpful site which asks students to work with original materials to assess the role of Second World War British propaganda in enlisting the support of West Africans - www.learningcurve.gov.uksnapshotssnapshot43snapshot43.htm

Another source is the Spartacus site, where editor John Simkin has resources about Walter Tull www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.ukFWWtull.htm and features about US Black soldiers in the First World War (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.ukFWWafro.htm and www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk2WWcrime.htm).

Meanwhile, in occupied Europe the worst kind of crimes were afoot and the Black History Month website contains an article for broadening students'

grasp of the Nazis' racial policies:


The Imperial War Museum also has a resource that explores the Black and Asian contribution to the Second World War. The Together site is an exhibition of documents and archive images covering the war in the air, on sea and land and the contribution of Black and asian women to the war effort www.iwm.org.ukuploadpackage11togetherindex.htm

* Other useful resources Ministry of Defence, We Were There exhibition www.mod.ukwewerethere

Migration histories


Black pilots in RAF www.black-history-month.co.ukarticlesalfordgardnerstale.html

The Imperial War Museum's First and Second World War Black History resources cost pound;30 each. The Empire Needs Men! Is the First World War pack containing original film footage, facsimile posters, documents and 50 images. Together! Is the equivalent pack for the Second World War.

Tel: 01223 499345


* Imperial War Museum North, Manchester - the War In the North exhibition runs until January 8 north.iwm.org.ukservershownav.00c003

* The Imperial War Museum, London, is screening the new drama documentary Mary Seacole: The Real Angel of the Crimea on October 25, with a talk by Professor Elizabeth Anionwu, head of the Mary Seacole Centre for Nursing Practice


* National Archive conference From Alien to Citizen, October 27. Speakers include Don Flynn from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Also at the National Archive on November 8, 7-8pm: "Britain's forgotten black mariners", presented by writer and historian SI Martin.

Tel: 020 8392 5202

Email: events@nationalarchives.gov.uk

* Paul Stephenson played a key role in the 1963 Bristol bus boycott in which African-Caribbean people challenged Bristol Omnibus Company's refusal to employ black drivers and conductors. On October 27, 7pm, he will describe what it is like to make history, at Bristol's City Record Office, Bristol Record Office, B Bond Warehouse, Smeaton Road, Bristol BS1 6XN.

Tel: 0117 922 4224 Email: bro@bristol-city.gov.uk


For all Black History month events, visit www.black-history-month.co.ukevents.htmlNoNooct2005wk4

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