So off we went to the National Archive in Kew; a gloriously sunny but frosty Friday morning in December. 10 heads are better than one. The first time in an archive for most of us – nearly all undergraduates – under the firm and enthusiastic guidance of Simon from Eastside Community Heritage. But ten miners will always produce more gems than one!
It’s many years since I had to work independently in an archive for something other than a piece of journalism and I was reminded of the thrill of discovery I first experienced many years ago whilst doing my own undergraduate dissertation (1983).
Looking for a particular reference – in my case CAB 65/28/10 – can be daunting working out the mechanics of the new digital databases. Then the 40-minute wait to receive the document in person or if you are lucky viewing it online.
I always remember the smell of the original documents a sort of musty remnant from the past. But then there is the script and the attention to detail in the minutes of the meetings that were held in the distant yonder. I often wondered if the people who wrote them in some colonial outpost in Barbados or India – or wherever else in an Empire on which the sun never set – realised they would be revealing their thoughts and feelings to be judged by future generations.
Back to CAB 65/28/10. Almost certainly these people in this meeting did have an eye on posterity. It was a meeting of the War Cabinet in October 1942 in the Prime Minister’s rooms in the House of Commons. Amongst the men present (it was only men in those days) were Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, Oliver Littleton and Ernest Bevin; giants from a previous age whose reputations were still being forged. A gathering of powerful men at the heart of an Empire on which the sun had truly not set in a century, to consider issues of great importance during the long bitter fight against Nazism.
On this day though they are to consider a memo – remember this is a meeting of the most powerful people in the land – from the Secretary of State for War on how army personnel should be educated about what attitudes to adopt towards “coloured” troops serving in the US Army when they come into contact with the English.
By our standards this seems absurd. But then we are eavesdropping on a conversation in another time where segregation was rife in the US and the British were still ambivalent towards their “coloured” imperial subjects. Such another world is being revealed, the sources of residual modern tensions.
But even then the world was not straightforwardly black and white. In a discussion of the “Notes on Relations with Coloured Troops” it was obvious that the Secretary of State for the Colonies was less than happy at the guidance being proposed for the officers of Southern Command.
Whilst they did not want to tread on the toes of their segregationist cousins in America and the way they handled their troops, Stafford Cripps advised “the Americans should recognise that we had a different problem as regards our coloured people and that a modus vivid between the two point of view should be found.” In short the US Army should not be stopped from segregating their own troops but “they must not expect authorities, civil or military, to assist them in enforcing a policy of segregation.” So black American soldiers were allowed to fraternise with white women in England (although we know from the record that this was often frowned upon).
But there is more profound argument in this room and in those times. One Minister Clement Attlee expresses his deep unease at the proposal that “it was deeply desirable for the people of this country (that they) should avoid becoming too friendly with coloured American troops”.
Although formally expressed you can see Attlee’s discomfort with this kind of racism. He himself doesn’t use the word but said “he thought this involved some departure from the attitude hitherto adopted towards coloured British subjects who came to this country and that there is a risk of creating an atmosphere which would give offence to the coloured people now in this country and lead to them becoming a focus of discontent when they returned to their homes in the Colonies”. Wow!
The rumblings and rioting of the freedom fighters, Independistas and anti-colonial agitators was clearly leaving its mark. A creeping anxiety in Old England, that Empire was negotiated and not to be taken for granted. Lets not forget it all began to unravel with 6 years as India gained independence and the Imperial pack of cards collapsed. The “natives” were revolting against the Mother Country and were making their impact in the highest offices of state.
Of course this would have been well hidden and disguised at the time.
But CAB 65/28/10 reveals how much can be learned from such a small conversation more than seventy years ago in a small room overlooking the River Thames. A window on our past that reveals the connection between those from the Commonwealth who made their presence felt both then and now.
There is more to come but this was an epic start in CAB 65/28/10. Mine was just one head. There are others to share their interpretation of this Friday gander through the National archives. What we can learn from our combined historical endeavours we will share with others.
Professor Kurt Barling December 14th 2014