Jeffrey Green

Jeffrey is a historian
based south of London

016: John Barbour-James (1867-1954) # 1

John Barbour-James ca. 1902

John Barbour-James ca. 1902

John Alexander Barbour James was born in British Guiana (now: Guyana) in June 1867 where he worked as a clerk in the post office, moving to be postmaster at Victoria-Belfield where he established the self-help Victoria Belfield Agricultural Society. Their produce shows were supported by the Governor, the railway, and business interests who recognised the value of improving the diet and farming among the Afro-Guianese. Married to Caroline, with five children, Barbour-James (as he preferred to be called) transferred to the post office of the Gold Coast (now: Ghana) in 1902.

One of many West Indians in middle management in the Gold Coast (others included policemen, railwaymen, teachers, prison and customs officers) due to the limited educational facilities there and the boom in gold then cocoa which attracted educated Africans, Barbour-James became a postal inspector travelling around the colony, visiting the 70+ post offices. Generous leave plus sick leave meant that although paid by the colony from 1902 to 1917, he was absent for over one quarter of that time. His wife and family moved to Acton, west London, where they shared a house with Guiana-born lawyer S. S. A. Cambridge, his English wife Lou, and their three daughters.

Three more children were born, in London: Amy Barbour-James (25 January 1906-4 May 1988), John Victor (1909-1938) and Mabel (died 1919 aged 8). Four of the Guiana-born children (aged 12 to 22) died in 1915, leaving Muriel to care for the family after their mother died in 1917. (Their two graves in Acton cemetery are unmarked.)

John Barbour-James retired aged 50, and from 84 Goldsmith Avenue, Acton, worked at several projects to promote British understanding of black achievements and capacities. He was involved in the African Progress Union of London from 1918, serving on its committee with his friend Robert Broadhurst, as well as the African Patriotic Intelligence Bureau which continued into the late 1930s. When he remarried (his Barbados-born wife Edith Rita Goring had been a maths teacher then head of the government girls’ school at Cape Coast) in Acton in October 1920 guests included African Progress Union chair John Archer, and visiting West Africans including Herbert Macaulay. It was filmed.

He kept the local and black-focussed press informed of his activities, which for example included representing British Guiana at the Walter Raleigh tercentenary memorial service in Westminster (Acton Gazette and Express, 15 November 1918), attending the London Pan-African Congress of 1921 with its new leader, Dr John Alcindor (West Africa 3 September 1921), and his talks included “Trust the black man” and “Colour and Culture” (Acton Gazette and Express 28 March 1919; and 12 August 1921).

His The Agricultural and other Industrial Possibilities of the Gold Coast had been published in London in 1911 (110 pages) but his promised The Burden and Obligations of Empire seems to have remained an idea. He spoke on Guiana to members of the Acton adult school, remarking that black people “were capable of equalling the white races in intellectual achievement and civilisation”. He spoke at Brotherhood meetings, to the Primrose League, the Royal Colonial Society, mixed with members of the Anti-Slavery Society and corrected errors. In 1929 he told the Acton Brotherhood “regarding patriotism, culture, attainments, and other qualifications, there is no difference between you and my kinsmen”, reported under the headline “No Racial Barrier”.

After Dr Alcindor’s death, aged 51, in 1924, the Gold Coast merchant Kwamina Tandoh (from 1919 entitled to be called Chief Amoah II of Cape Coast) headed the African Progress Union. He and Barbour-James sought better incomes for the Gold Coast cocoa producers for the value of cocoa (1923: 197,664 tons worth £2,489,000) had risen in price (1928: 222,077 tons worth £11,230,000). The farmers, some 100,000, with their labourers, sold the beans for cash. The transport to the coast, loading onto ships, and delivery for processing in England, Europe or the U.S.A. required vast capital. Banks would take land and property as security, accepting the beans only at the coast and then advancing 80-90% of the value. But African land laws made such securities unlikely to be of value in the event of calling in the loan. The trade was largely in the hands of import-export merchants, who owned stocks of consumer and agricultural goods, warehouses, shops, vehicles and who knew the producers. They also had contacts in Hamburg, Liverpool, New York originally to source products for sale in Africa, but now well placed to find the best price for cocoa pods.

Tandoh and Winifried (sic) Tete-Ansa were rebuffed by English lenders (Tandoh met with Colonial Bank officers in London, who sympathised and set up in the Gold Coast to compete with the British Bank of West Africa) and from 1925 to 1930 endeavoured to raise loans in the U.S.A.  An earlier shipment had gone wrong, and this Stickler Affair continued to rumble through the  courts of America (9,500 tons had been sold at a loss of £250,000 – the matter was still unresolved in the 1940s despite legal judgements). Tandoh corresponded with Oxford-educated Alain Locke whose The New Negro (1925) had attracted much attention.

Tete-Ansa misrepresented Tandoh, and in July 1927 Barbour-James resigned from the enterprise as a result. Tandoh was often in New York City, where in November 1929 he was found, collapsed in the street. The U.S. authorities expelled him to Cape Coast; Tete-Ansa stole his rings, swords and robes. The expansion of cocoa planting and the depression brought cocoa prices to half that of the pre-1913 period and the market collapsed, almost all the African merchants lost their fortunes, and the trade (much reduced) was run by the import-export houses.

Barbour-James went to Quaker meetings to discuss “sufferings” from a black viewpoint, and seems to have been influential in bringing the Jamaica-born Dr Harold Moody into that circle. In 1931 Moody established the League of Coloured Peoples (Barbour-James had run the Association of Coloured Peoples in the 1920s), and he and his daughter Amy were closely involved. He became Vice President in 1937-1938. He went to the Caribbean with his wife in 1938, was caught there by the war, and died in Georgetown in late 1954.

Muriel worked in Trinidad for London-trained Audrey Jeffers and her Coterie of Social Workers in Port of Spain, Victor, protege of Paul Robeson, died in a fire at a film studio near London in 1938, and Amy continued to sing Spirituals and play Coleridge-Taylor’s music at social gatherings. She stayed with her father and step-mother in Georgetown after the war, returning to Kenton near Harrow and worked for the Crown Agents in Whitehall. There were no children, and as Edith Goring Barbour-James had links to Barbados and the Caymen Islands, the dispute over inheritence was well known in the Caribbean in the 1950s.

John Barbour-James had a huge network of contacts including South Africa and Kenya, Ethiopia and the Gold Coast. His African Patriotic Intelligence Bureau founded 1918 proclaimed on its letterhead: “Objects: To broadcast the appreciation by the African and African-descended peoples, of their contact with Great Britain, and the mutual benefits thereby conferred; to advocate the reasonable claims for opportunity for all men and women”.

He took his papers to the Caribbean and they are untraced. He had lived in the Gold Coast as its economy expanded in the early years of the 20th century, he had left Guiana aged 35 knowing that educated men and women of African descent there included lawyers, teachers and doctors. In England he knew Oxford graduate Edward Nelson, Georgetown’s mayor Alfred Crane in 1923, James Aggrey the educationalist, Governor Gordon Guggisberg, future Colonial Secretary W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore, and Trinidad labour leader Captain Cipriani. He moved carefully in association with leaders of British opinion including the Freemasons, the Conservatives, churches, and the press. This activity has long been linked to Dr Moody, but Barbour-James was active earlier and despite his links with Moody and the LCP, he continued them. He was greatly experienced in black affairs at the heart of empire, and was retired and so had time.

Alcindor, Archer, Barbour-James, Moody, Nelson and Tandoh have entries in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. See also Jeffrey Green “Caribbean Influences in the Gold Coast Administration in the 1900s”, Ghana Studies Bulletin (Birmingham) Vol 2 (December 1984), 10-16; “A Black Community? London, 1919”, Immigrants and Minorities (London) Vol 5 No 1 (March 1986), 105-116; “John Alexander Barbour-James (1867-1954)”, New Community (London) Vol 13 No 2 (Autumn 1986), 250-256, and “West Indian Doctors in London”, Journal of Caribbean History (Barbados) Vol 20 No 1 (June 1986), 49-77.

See also page # 017 for # 2