restricted access Black internationalism, anti-fascism and the makings of solidarity
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Black internationalism, anti-fascism and the makings of solidarity

Global capital has never gone unchallenged - as history shows.

At the port of North Shields in August 1935 Sierra Leonean crew members of the SS Holmea, a steamer belonging to the United Africa Company, made a protest against the Italian threat to invade Ethiopia. Before the ship could set out for Sierra Leone they made their captain sign a resolution denouncing Mussolini's invasion preparations.1 In July 1935 representatives of the crew had spoken at a London meeting organised by the International African Friends of Abyssinia, when they had registered their concern about the 'war threat of fascists and Imperialists against coloured people in Africa', and had pledged to stop the ship from sailing in the event of the vessel being loaded with munitions.2

The actions of these seafarers were reported in both the Sierra Leone Weekly and the Negro Worker, which was the paper of the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, and a key mouthpiece of Communist anti-colonial organising. This coverage attests to the transnational impact and circulation of such action. It gives a powerful sense of the ability of actors such as Sierra Leonean sailors, though working under harsh, exploitative labour conditions, to create political impact and presence. [End Page 94] The refusal of maritime workers to load Italian goods or to crew ships bound for Italy created political agency. Such acts exerted pressure on the flow of trade and goods on which Italy depended, and created vibrant solidarities 'from below'.

This essay considers the importance of such forms of solidarity and internationalism forged 'from below', and examines the challenges to existing histories and geographies of the left that are posed by a recognition of such forms of solidarity and internationalism. It also includes a consideration of the ways in which such forms of anti-fascist and anti-colonial organising shaped the experiences and political outlooks of the African American International Brigade volunteers on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. In conclusion it offers some reflections on the possibilities opened up by internationalist solidarities in the current conjuncture.

Making solidarity and internationalism from below

The actions of the seafarers aboard the SS Holmea were not isolated; they were part of significant international resistance to Mussolini. Seafarers and dockworkers across African diasporas were integral to such action. Protest was registered by the Sailor's Union in Freetown, for example, and this was part of a major wave of opposition across West Africa that included agitation by associations of market women in Ibadan and Lagos. In Cape Town workers linked to the Hands off Abyssinia campaign refused to offload supplies for Italian ships. In Trinidad longshoremen took similar action. In Britain Harry O'Connell, a seafarer from colonial Guyana, was arrested in Cardiff for threatening to lead a protest march on the city's Italian Consulate.

Such actions drew on maritime workers' often precarious but also pivotal position in relation to imperial trading networks, and they could have transformative effects and consequences. Dudley Mahon, an activist with the Negro Welfare Cultural and Social Association, argued that the 'Abyssinian War awakened the consciousness of the Trinidad working class'.3 Chris Braithewaite, a Barbadian anti-colonial militant and organiser of the Colonial Seamen's Association, argued that it was 'up to us ... as coloured seamen, to enlighten our fellow colonial workers during our travels that we underdogs have nothing to gain by fighting in the interests of the imperialist robbers'.4 This was a task that 'we must not shirk'.

Braithewaite's account of the possibilities afforded by maritime labour for [End Page 95] anti-colonial organising and agitation positions internationalism as being forged by marginal or 'subaltern' groups. This is significant, given that such actors have frequently been positioned as lacking the capacity to construct transnational solidarities, and that accounts of internationalism have tended to focus on relatively elite leadership figures. Engaging with the role of activists like Braithewaite challenges such understandings and allows a sense of the political agency that was shaped by workers and activists. Internationalism here becomes part of situated relations, rather than being configured as a process abstracted...