‘My great fear is that we are suffering from amnesia. I wrote to recover the memory of the human rainbow, which is in danger of being mutilated… We are much more than we are told. We are much more beautiful.’
Eduardo Galeano, 2013
February 2023: ‘A magisterial survey’ of the British Empire by Oxford ethics professor Nigel Biggar is lauded in the right-wing press. In Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning, Biggar seeks to defend the Empire from its most egregious accusations – greed, racism, land theft, genocide and economic exploitation. Cover blurbs from supporters hail the study as: ‘A timely riposte to the ethically flawed and unhistorical campaign by Black Lives Matter [which] conflate[s] benevolent empire with slavery and, worse still, Nazism’ and ‘Any objective reader not blinded by woke prejudice will recognise that this [is] one of the great debates of our times: whether we should be ashamed by our forefathers.’
The study has riven academia and ignited the ever-glowing embers of the so-called culture wars. Our history has become ever more politicised, with the biggest casualty of such debates the public’s understanding of it.
The 2015 campaign Rhodes Must Fall, to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oxford High Street, which gained impetus again in 2020 following George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, receives special attention from Biggar. Rhodes was a ‘moral mixture’, Biggar states, and not a racist, decrying the ‘shouty zealotry of small group of students’ and their academic supporters, and using selective facts to prop up his argument. The case of Rhodes Must Fall – that his policies of racial segregation led in later years to apartheid; that he promoted slavery in his diamond mines; that he stole African lands in nefarious ways – can all be explained within the context of time and place, explains Biggar. The anti-colonialists have distorted history for their own ends, he argues: their retrospective morality is essentially as flawed as a rough diamond’s surface, applying today’s ethics and morals to our ancestors’ deeds will of course cast them in a fractured light.
The truth is that there were plenty of people in the past calling out the abhorrent nature of Empire – it’s just that their voices have long been erased. From London to Oxford, to Liverpool and Glasgow, men of Empire are consecrated in marble, brass and stone, while those that challenged imperial largesse have no such commemoration, they are forgotten by history’s ebb.
No sculpted busts, bronze statues, street names or libraries, for example, exist in the UK’s major cities to celebrate Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards, a black newspaper editor who lived 140 years ago, and enthralled Victorian England, packing out halls and theatres with his lectures on racial justice and Empire. Born one generation removed from slavery on the island of Dominica, Edwards was brave enough to denounce the British Empire when it was at the zenith of its powers. Pre-empting Rhodes Must Fall by more than a century, he was a fierce critic of the legacy of the slave trade and imperialism, challenging Cecil Rhodes and the British South African Company following its murderous campaign in Matabeleland (now Zimbabwe). Edwards even had the intellectual courage to repudiate Charles Darwin.
At the height of his fame, Edwards was the editor of two anti-racist journals, Lux and Fraternity, a biographer and the author of a number of penny pamphlets.
In 1893, he toured the UK with the great American journalist and activist Ida B. Wells to educate the British public about the horrors of lynching and segregation in post-abolition America. The newspapers of the day were extravagant in their praise of Edwards’s rhetorical alchemy, with the words ‘eloquent’, ‘assured’ and ‘witty’ peppering reviews.1 Those that saw the couple tour declaimed them to be ‘the greatest public speakers… ever heard’ but shockingly few are aware of Edwards’s tragic story.
August 1884. The Balloon Society of Great Britain meeting at the Royal Aquarium. Despite the name, this popular scientific, literary and art society did not just cater to fans of inflatables. The lecturer who was about to take the stage in one of the gallery halls that summer evening was palpably nervous. He was to face an audience of upper- to middle-class gentlemen. Among them baronets and colonels who had crossed the channel in silken balloons and wicker gondolas. Some were sitting in their military uniforms, veterans of the Crimean War, Opium Wars and Afghan campaigns, the gleam from their brass buttons and polished medals sending haphazard beams across the stage. Others were in the evening dress of the time, top hats and frock coats like the lecturer, their boutonnieres boasting a seasonal spray. Truly magnificent men in their flying machines.
The Royal Aquarium was a grand, hubristic Victorian project styled on the Crystal Palace of 1851. It boasted a main atrium 400ft long and 160ft wide, covered with a barrel-shaped roof of glass and iron that gave the impression of an ever-changing sky. Palm trees, shrubs and fountains furnished the entire length of the tiled promenade floor, while exotic vines entwined the ivory balconies. To give a sense of scale, statues of Neptune and his sea-horse and a 12-foot Britannica overlooked the space, while thirteen glass aquariums for marine and freshwater sea creatures lined either side of the main hall. Charles Dickens was said to have described the ‘beggarly’ contents as ‘a standing joke’. An attempt seven years earlier to transport a whale from Labrador, Canada, to display in one of the tanks ended in tragedy for the chosen cetacean. To be in the presence of this rumoured magnificent orator, the audience that night would have traversed this majestic promenade to reach the lecture theatre, and the hall buzzed with audible but restrained anticipation.
The speaker, Samuel Jules Celestine Edwards, was aware that the subjects he would broach that night would be controversial for his listeners. But he had faced much worse audiences. Two years earlier, as a 24-year-old Methodist missionary in south London, he had been assaulted with a hail of chewed tobacco by a rough music hall crowd. Seven years at sea as a child sailor and then as a young man, narrowly avoiding a series of life-and-death situations, had equipped him with a character of steel.
To polite applause, he challenged the notion that ‘[The formerly enslaved] are lazy and would rather be slaves than free men’. Citing his own family as an example, particularly his grandfather who had toiled and bought the liberty of his own children, he stated: ‘I believe the Negro is capable of higher and nobler things than you give them credit for, and when trained for as many years as you have been will make a nobler race and a better people than the present generation.’
Edwards cleared his throat and then spoke about Jamaica’s Morant Bay rebellion of 1865 and what he described as the despicable actions of ‘that monster Governor Eyre’. Chairs began to creak, as the gentlemen shifted uncomfortably in their seats. A voice of dissent and then another. ‘Shame!’ Edwards persisted, despite the heckling growing ever louder in an attempt to drown out his words.
Edwards knew that bringing up Morant Bay would make this particular audience that August evening uncomfortable, but he continued to set out what he termed ‘hard truths’.
The protest on that island, which took place on 11 October, involved a march on the courthouse by 500 islanders led by preacher Paul Bogle, angered by post-slavery land inequality and widespread poverty. It had escalated into violence, with the militia protecting the courthouse firing into the crowd. The enraged protesters retaliated, murdering the chief magistrate and 15 others before setting fire to the court building.
In scenes reminiscent of the dark days of slavery, the insurrection led to martial law and a violent suppression of the islanders by the governor John Eyre. Up to 439 people were massacred, another 600 were flogged, and vast swathes of the islanders’ property was wantonly destroyed. George William Gordon, a mixed-race member of the Jamaican Assembly and critic of Eyre, was hanged, along with Bogle, after being falsely accused of organising the insurrection. The British government, aware of the gravity of the crisis and the mounting concern of the public – there had been widespread press attention condemning Eyre’s actions – suspended Eyre and appointed a Royal Commission of Inquiry.
However, news of the Jamaican government’s response split the Victorian intelligentsia. A group of anti-slavery philanthropists and political radicals, consisting of John Stuart Mill, John Bright and Thomas Huxley formed the Jamaica Committee, and was supported by Charles Darwin. They initiated their own legal proceedings against Eyre for the murder of Gordon after the commission report was found wanting. Mimicking the ‘culture wars’ of today, the Eyre Defence and Aid Committee sprung up to support Eyre, led by the essayist Thomas Carlyle, with peers, admirals and generals among its number, many of them in Edwards’s audience that August night. Eyre was removed as governor in 1866, but ultimately the committee’s legal proceedings failed. That was not the end of it: six years later, when the government proposed to pay Eyre’s legal expenses, the warring factions rose again.
Eyre’s defence was that he was trying to prevent ‘a second Haiti’. This was not an uncommon refrain in the Caribbean at this time, referring to the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue that resulted in the free nation of Haiti almost 60 years earlier, in 1804 – and some 30 years before the end of enslavement in Jamaica.
As well as pointing out to his listeners that there was scant regard for legal process when Gordon was essentially kidnapped from Kingston to Morant Bay (where martial law had been imposed), and tried and executed before a makeshift court martial, Edwards was able to show that such fear of black revolt was unfounded. He ended his lecture with: ‘You call it preventing “a mutiny” … but I say that is false.’2
In his speech, Edwards linked the poverty and land inequality that existed on the island with the devastating effects slavery had wrought on the island’s people, society and economy, the psychological and physical stain of which would ripple through the generations. The echo of his words would resonate more than a century later when, in 2015, the Caribbean nations established a Caricom Reparations Commission demanding reparatory justice from colonial nations.
His audience may have been initially hard to turn, but Edwards’s speech that night was in the end widely applauded. His friend R. V. Allen would later comment: ‘The way in which he would take up the threads of an opponent’s argument, and unravel, disentangle and expose them caused him often to be greeted with a wild and frantic cheer of triumph and delight.’3
In later years, the narrative of Eyre as an icon of Empire, a man who had taken the necessary measures to preserve the colonial project in Jamaica, would prevail, thanks to the auspices of a new Conservative government, which awarded Eyre a pension in 1873. Likewise, the colonial abuses of power that had taken place at Morant Bay would be all but wiped from the British national psyche, along with the memory of a courageous black man who had taken Eyre’s supporters to task.
In the hostile world of late Victorian Britain, Edwards’s fame was no blip. His speeches at The Forum in East London’s Victoria Park (an earlier version of Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner) were a community draw. Along with writers and intellectuals such as George Bernard Shaw, William Morris and Annie Besant, Edwards would revel in taking the platform at the weekends for the Primitive Methodists and later the Christian Evidence Society (CES), established in 1870 by the Church of England to combat secularism among the working classes, where he would regale his audience with tales of his seafaring days, Christian values, temperance (his years as a sailor had acquainted him with the devastating effects of alcohol) and the pernicious nature of the British Empire.
Orators like Edwards were the entertainers of the day, and it was from their speeches that Victorian audiences would get their news, history, theatre and even comedy. Edwards’s skills were such that he was credited with converting the hardened criminal and pickpocket Joseph Wailey, ‘who could have given a few hints to Fagin’4, from a life of crime to one of Christianity, and he attracted the attention of the Bishop of Bedford who employed him on a good salary of £80 a year as Christian Evidence Missioner for London’s East End in 1885.
While his star was ascendent, thousands of people clamoured to hear him speak across the country. ‘While conferences are discussing how to get people to church,’ marvelled one of his auditors in Bristol, ‘Mr Edwards is filling a hall with 1,000 people five nights in the week and a much larger one three times on a Sunday.’5
In August 1892, following a hectic national lecture tour and a break from his medical studies (he had earned a diploma of associate in theology at King College London in 1887, but switched to medicine at the London Hospital two years later after ‘refusing the gown’), Edwards launched Lux, a 16-page weekly for the CES, as there was clearly a hunger for a Christian newspaper in provincial towns.
A few weeks after the paper’s launch, Edwards clearly established his position on Empire, stating in his leader column, Englishmen ‘boast about the Empire over which the sun never sets … How many have been murdered, robbed, and enslaved to acquire dominion?’6
This was a strong and controversial position for a Victorian editor to take, emphasising that the acquisition of lands and the subjugation of peoples was in no way a moral or Christian endeavour – despite Biggar’s claim it was benevolent or ‘morally admirable’ more than a century and a half later.7 And his stance was popular among his Christian readers – in September, he was claiming a weekly circulation of 15,000 which he hoped to boost to 100,000 by Christmas.
Edwards was in many ways ahead of his time. In a December 1892 article in Lux entitled ‘The Negro Race’, he took the scientific racists to task by correctly identifying that the discovery of increasing numbers of hominin fossils implied all humans had a common origin, with equal capacity for intelligence, civilisation and humility. At the time, spurious ideas about craniology reflecting intelligence and even moral capacity promulgated by scientific racists like James Hunt, the president of the Anthropological Society of London, were gaining traction and being used to justify a new era of colonialism and Europe’s Scramble for Africa.
The following year, in February 1893, he used the pages of Lux to shine a light on British government policy in the Niger Delta in the 1880s, illustrating the opaque links between British military foreign interventions and capitalism. He used the consular returns to show how the colonies in Western Africa were forced to take gin, rum, gunpowder, guns and lead when their own natural resources such as palm oil were plundered. In April that year, Edwards kept up the pressure, turning his focus to Uganda and comparing the uproar over the Local Option Bill, which curtailed liquor sales, to the lack of outcry over overseas policy in Uganda. He stated: ‘Hundreds of members of Parliament are raising their voices against the supposed “confiscation” of the vested interests of the brewers and distillers, but not one of them has spoken a word against the unrighteous confiscation of the property of a people who have neither voice nor strength to resist the tyranny of British “forward policy”… To colonise we must kill and lay waste the natives before we can ever hope to settle down in peace among them.’8
Edwards was steadfastly disturbed by the colonialist incursions taking place in Africa and he needed allies in his quest for change at the highest levels. He was an admirer of and subscriber to Anti-Caste magazine – a slim but mighty four-page journal founded in March 1888 in Street, Somerset, by Catherine Impey, a Quaker editor. The magazine took its name from India’s discriminatory caste system, but Impey’s focus was wide, condemning all forms of racial discrimination, the masthead advocating ‘the brotherhood of mankind irrespective of colour or descent’.
Impey was privy, through her Quaker connections, to a number of trans-Atlantic and international anti-racism networks. She had travelled to the US several times and had seen the unjust nature of post-slavery societies first hand, and had written to the great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in February 1883, explaining that during her first visit she had been ‘awakened’ to the ‘colour question’ and wanted to be of more use to black Americans. Note the language used, nearly a century than a half before the word ‘woke’ is used as a divisive term in the ‘culture wars’, a brave female editor is using it to outline the need for a society that ‘must take the front in the cause of human equality’. Douglass supported the paper, commenting that Impey was more needed in America than in England.9/sup> He wrote to her: ‘Anything you can do to expose this foul spirit and enlighten the moral sentiment of your countrymen on this subject excites our gratitude and increases our hope for a better future.’10
Douglass became a life subscriber to Anti-Caste, as did Thomas Fortune, editor of the New York Age, and the activist Harriette Colenso, while the paper counted among its supporters Dadabhai Naoroji and Alfred Webb. The Indian and Irish activists were friends (Indian nationalists were often sympathetic to Irish Home Rule) and would later both become MPs for boroughs in London. Other political groups were also being formed, such as the Indian and Political General Agency in London to raise Indian grievances in parliament, following India’s Great Famine of 1876–78.
In the late nineteenth century, these early national and international progressive political networks were aligning to combat racial prejudice and the unjust policies at the heart of the imperial project. At the centre were Edwards and Impey, who amplified the voices of the oppressed through their journalism.
This substantial record of historical activism has been eroded over time, even though a mere acknowledgement of the existence of this movement will do much to reframe today’s debate concerning the rights and wrongs of the British Empire. This record is especially necessary when the current Home Secretary Suella Braverman censures, with typical bombast, ‘this apology and shame… the collective guilt that started under Tony Blair’ – allowing any critique of Empire to be framed as modernist and therefore not worthy of credible historical attention. The truth is that there was no consensus at the time about the imperial project: a substantial section of the Victorian intelligentsia and a good proportion of the general public were increasingly uncomfortable with colonialist incursions, typified by the uproar over the 1882 bombardment of Alexandria and the actions of the British South African Company.
Furthermore, it is simply incredible that these progressive voices from the past have been erased, considering the international impact that they had at the time. Appalled by the Jim Crow laws and lynching, Impey wanted to raise awareness in the UK of these horrific crimes in order to put pressure on the US government to halt this abhorrent practice. In January 1893, she made the courageous decision as a British female editor to publish a powerful and affecting front cover of a ‘A lynching scene in Alabama’, a gruesome souvenir postcard sent by attendees of a lynching to boast that they were there. She qualified the picture with ‘Many hundreds of similar lawless scenes (AND WORSE) are enacted every year in the southern states of America-and NO ONE IS PUNISHED. How long will the callous nation look on!’
A year before the historic lynching cover, Impey had met with young journalist and fellow activist Ida B. Wells on a return visit to the US. Wells’s best friend Tommie Moss, the owner of a grocery store, had been lynched along with his fellow business partners in Memphis a few years earlier for no other reason than a disagreement with some white men. Impey was determined to bring Wells over to the UK, as here was an articulate young woman who had personally been affected by lynch law and segregation, and could convey its horrors to British audiences. She enlisted the help of the Scottish novelist and essayist Isabella Fyvie Mayo, who published under the pen name Edward Garrett. Mayo lent her not inconsiderable weight and celebrity to the cause, utilising her networks in Scotland and beyond to help raise funds for Wells’s passage and six-week tour of the UK in April 1893.
Edwards joined Wells for the English leg of her tour, which included Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Darlington, Sunderland, Birmingham, Sheffield and Portsmouth. When they spoke at the Friends’ Meeting House in Newcastle in May, so many people arrived that the audience was divided into two halls, and Wells and Edwards tag-teamed across.
However, this significant moment, when hands joined again across the Atlantic in the quest for racial justice, barely features in the nation’s archives and has been expunged from collective consciousness. No complete run of Anti-Caste exists in the UK and Ida B. Wells’s autobiography Crusade for Justice (1970), where she devotes several chapters to her UK tours, has only been acquired by the London Library recently – on my request. This archival absence is worrying, allowing the ensuing vacuum to be exploited by more palatable and often misleading narratives about our past.
During Wells’s UK tour, a number of resolutions were made by English audiences to put pressure on the US government to halt the heinous practice of lynching. Wells later wrote: ‘From the Bishop of Manchester, the Society of Friends, Unitarian, Methodists and Congregationalists, American lynching has received not only strong words of condemnation but earnest resolutions have been passed in the spirit of Christian love, calling upon people of the United States to remove the blot upon their good name and put a stop to “our national crime”.’11
Later that month, Wells travelled to London and Westminster. One of the leading women’s journals of the time the Ladies Pictorial ran a prominent piece, stating ‘She [Wells] maintains British opinion and protest will have great force… she is delighted with the reception hereto accorded her, and feels greatly encouraged.’12
Wells and Edwards’s talks made a deep impression, with UK audiences and press reception hugely sympathetic. The tour had galvanised a sense of hope, that racial prejudice, wherever it existed, could be challenged in all its forms. It had also heralded a revival of a trans-Atlantic movement to promote racial justice, the likes of which had not been seen since before abolition. A new anti-racism movement was proposed, eventually named the Society for the Recognition of the Brotherhood of Man (SRBM), whose signatories included Webb, Naoroji, Douglass, Fortune, Ellen Richardson, who had helped raise money to purchase Douglass’s freedom, as well as William Edward Axon, a senior editor at the Manchester Guardian, and many high-profile British Quakers.
In Edwards, Impey saw someone with a charisma and reach who could take the society’s ideals, ‘freedom, equal opportunity and brotherly consideration’ forward. In June 1893, she proposed a new monthly paper, called Fraternity; Edwards was to be its editor.
Fraternity had a larger international scope than Impey’s Anti-Caste. Edwards used its pages to express his proto-Pan Africanist views, linking the anti-imperialist struggle of all colonised peoples across the Americas, Caribbean, Africa and Asia, thus providing a unique global snapshot of the actions of the British Empire in its colonies at the pinnacle of its powers, as well as the perception of it by its colonial subjects.
To those that lived under Empire’s thumb, Edwards’s reporting would show it was far from ‘benevolent’. His writing holds resonance in the present, as similar rhetoric on the imperial mission as ‘virtuous’ and ‘civilising’ is parroted by Biggar more than a century later.13
And yet, Fraternity’s archive is not available in the present. No archive in the UK holds a complete run, including the British Library (with a few battered microfiche copies a poor substitute). The fact that this newspaper, a substantial record of a nineteenth-century black activist’s writings and thoughts on Empire, were not considered worthy of preservation brings a lump to my throat. It is an indication of the lack of value placed on the stories of people of colour in the twentieth century and beyond.
Across his writing and lecturing, Edwards clearly illustrated that the inherent nature of Empire, its structures, its system of governing, fostered ‘a feeling of superiority existing in the mind of the English race over his darker brethren’. In a series of articles, entitled ‘The Angel of History’, he attempted to analyse the legacy of slavery, race, empire on British culture, identifying race antipathy with ‘Anglo-Saxonism’. Biggar bemoans the ‘lack of historical scrupulousness’14 from today’s anti-colonialists but he only has to look to the past, to facts clearly illustrated in Edwards’s articles, to be aware of the woeful absence of morals evident in the British Empire.
In July 1893, Fraternity reported under the headline ‘British Misrule in Bahamas’ of ‘whites wantonly clubbing and kicking innocent men women and children’ on the capital Nassau’s streets. The report continued: ‘While England busies herself with the woes of Armenians, Egyptians and others, she will do well to overhaul the doings of her colonial constabularies, judges and governors.’ A shocking story of the whipping and torture of some of Johannesburg’s black residents by British settlers appeared in the paper in April 1894. Their crime had been to use the footpath rather than the gutter. In order to instil ‘the difference between the races into the mind of “the black”’, the unfortunate victims were not just flogged but had ‘their flesh wounds salted’ until they quivered in pain. Edwards states that there was no trial for ‘these offences’. These articles were not unique, Edwards would show that in every corner of the British Empire, blatant instances of racial violence and prejudice were rife.
The actions of Rhodes particularly incensed Edwards, at the beginning of 1894, in a ferocious leader article entitled ‘Murder Will Out’, he could scarcely contain his anger. In it he reports on a public banquet in Cape Town, in honour of Rhodes, the owner of the British South African Company.
Edwards was enraged by this feting of a man who had indulged in a murderous campaign in Matabeleland after tricking the illiterate Zulu king Lobengula into signing over mining rights of his territory. The subsequent war would involve the first ever use of Maxim machine guns, which could fire 500 rounds a minute, by British forces on the Matabeles, and the results were horrific. In one battle 1,600 Matabeles were cut down by just four of these weapons. Edwards stated with vehemence: ‘By a curious coincidence in human nature, some murderers are hanged, others escape being hanged on the ground of provocation; but there are others who kill so many that, either through fear or favour, they are neither hanged nor transported, but are feasted by their compatriots as heroes… Two hundred and fifty guests assembled, not to weep over the thousands of people killed in a war made for the express benefit of dividend-mongers, but to feast Mr Cecil Rhodes and laud him sky-high for the great victory which he had achieved.’15
In his book Biggar defends Rhodes, stating that a heinous quote attributed to him ‘I prefer land to n——s’ is fiction, lifted from a novel by Olive Schreiner Trooper Peter Halket of Mashonaland (1897), and used by Rhodes Must Fall campaigners to twist the argument in their favour.16
The truth is that this quote is fact. Impey, who refers to Rhodes as the ‘cloven hoof’, quotes it in an Anti-Caste editorial in July 1891, six years before the novel was published: ‘[Mr Rhodes] says that he “PREFERS LAND TO N—–S” – by which he explains himself to mean that had he the choice, he would prefer territory “bereft” of its native population to land “swarming” with them…’17
Professor Alan Lester has also identified several other sources where the quote appears at the time, including the Manchester Guardian, the Pall Mall Gazette and the Illustrated London News. In his haste to defend Rhodes, Biggar is culpable of the very historical unscrupulousness with which he damns his critics. The problem is once again archival absence: if care is not taken to preserve original sources of progressive views, to keep them in our domain, the historical truth can be manipulated by those who have secrets they wish to shroud or narratives they wish to promote. These historical silences speak volumes.
The actions of the British South African company divided British opinion, and a good number of the informed population at the time could see Rhodes’s actions as morally indefensible. Agnes S. Pearson’s letter to Fraternity in April 1894 from Edinburgh is typical. She stated: ‘My idea is that it [Matabele war] was brought on by the purpose of plunder… To see the horrible cruelty that has been perpetrated by the consent of the British legislature is something awful … Surely if we so-called Christians can allow these diabolical acts to be done we can hardly look for a blessing to be given to the work that our missionaries are doing. What are we doing but going into another man’s territory and demanding his lands, houses and wealth? Because he is not willing to give up his own, we take it by force; and, more than this, we murder them.’
When not condemning the brutal nature of Empire, Edwards used the pages of Fraternity to maintain the impetus for Impey’s anti-lynching campaign. His publishing company also published United States Atrocities (1892), a collection of Wells’s speeches from her first UK tour with a foreword by Douglass, the book was regularly advertised in Fraternity and Lux, and was a precursor to Wells’s powerful The Red Record, exposing the alarming rates of lynching in the South, published in 1895.
Edwards had been making preparations for Wells’s second tour of the UK, which would be for six months. In Christmas 1893, he caught the flu, an attack that was so severe it left him bed-bound for a month. The following January, he collapsed while giving a lecture in Brighton and again had to be confined to his house. Fraternity reported him suffering from ‘nervous rheumatism’ and an old affliction with his right lung.
By March, he managed to accompany Wells in Liverpool on the first stop of her nationwide tour, but those that witnessed him speak reported on his frail appearance and a truly dreadful cough that wracked his whole body.
Funds were raised by Lux subscribers to send him to Dominica, where it was hoped he would recover, but Edwards never did. He died on 25 July 1894, aged only 36, in his brother Albert’s house in Portsmouth, Dominica.
Before his death, a book was advertised on the front of the July issue of Fraternity, Hard Truth, by the author Theodore Thomas, which the historian Douglas Lorimer has identified as a pseudonym for Edwards.18 The book takes the form of a dialogue between Christ and Lucifer, and in it Lucifer announces a reckoning with the imperial mission: ‘Here’s my truth: Britain is the birth-place of the very essence of the seed of prejudice against the negro race … the uncouth, rough shrub when transplanted from its mother country, grows into a great tree…’19
British protestant missionaries also came in for criticism by the author for aiding and abetting this prejudice, with their ‘civilising missions’ across the Empire, a guise for further land-grabbing and exploitation. In this book, Edwards asks, with remarkable foresight, why did the British government following abolition compensate the slave owners for lost capital with £20m (£17bn in today’s money), why wasn’t this money given to those who had been enslaved? The same question would be asked a century or so later, in 2015, when it was discovered that British taxpayers had finally paid off the debt accrued following these reparations.20
Edwards’s last act, the funding of Wells’s anti-lynching tour, paid dividends with more MPs and signatories, such as Ben Tillett, Eliza Wigham and Sir Edward Russell, the editor of the Daily Post, swelling the ranks of activist Florence Balgarnie’s newly founded anti-lynching committee. In her autobiography, Wells credits the British tour and its reports in Inter Ocean with the decline of lynching in the southern states.
Edwards’s early, tragic death and an extraordinary row between Impey and Mayo over a love letter to one of Mayo’s boarders, stymied any further growth of the fledgling SRBM. A decade of jingoism and colonial wars promoted by a Conservative government followed, and in the succeeding narrative, a historical fairground mirror was employed, magicking the progressive racial politics of Edwards, Impey, Wells and the numerous actors that supported them from view. Their story of erasure illustrates how those who hold political power can skew narratives and promote their version of the past to gain significant political capital. It’s a story with lessons for our present.
In 1984, Peter Fryer’s seminal history Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain, published more than a century after Edwards’s death, accorded him the title of Britain’s first black editor of note. In it Edwards is described as ‘long-forgotten’ and his life is condensed to a mere three pages. Few others have written about Edwards’s life. Undeniably racism played a huge part in eroding the legacy of this distinctive black voice, this critic of Empire.
In October 2020, Edwards was finally awarded a blue plaque at the site of the old Assembly Hall in Fawcett Street, Sunderland. Edwards frequented the city often and on May Day 1894, two months before his death, gave one of his last lectures here. The plaque states: ‘Said to be Britain’s first black newspaper editor. He was a preacher, and tireless antiracist and anti-imperialist activist.’
In one final ignominy, not far from the imperious gaze of the Cecil Rhodes statue at Oriel college, Oxford, there exists the only run of Fraternity in the UK, edited by Celestine Edwards, at the city’s Bodleian Library. One wonders what he would have thought about the paper he worked so hard for, invested so much money in, literally died for, in the shadow of his old adversary. Or perhaps this is an allegory for our wilful amnesia about Britain’s imperial past. We fete those we wish to remember; we bury those we’d rather forget.