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The First Pan-African Conference

28th October 2020

This October, Fletchers Solicitors is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting influential Black people who have helped shape the world we live in today. We’ve assigned a cross-departmental team across all specialisms at Fletchers, so that we can do our own research and continually educate ourselves on Black history.

The final blog in this series is a piece researched and written by Nermeen Salahuddin, Assistant Litigation Executive.

Address to the Nations of the World

On 23rd – 25th July 1900, London held the first ever Pan-African Conference, which was organised by a barrister named Henry Sylvester Williams, of Trinidadian descent. It took place in Westminster Town Hall, now Caxton Hall. The conference was attended by a total of 37 delegates and approximately 10 other participants and observers from Africa, the West Indies, the US and UK.

The conference was also attended by the infamous W. E. B. Du Bois, who took the lead role; drafting the letter “Address to the Nations of the World”. The main purpose of the letter was to appeal to the European leaders to fight against racism, to grant colonies in Africa and the West Indies the right to self-government and to demand political and other rights for African Americans.

Leading up to this event, Williams was one of the founding members of the African Association. The association’s main focus was to help facilitate the European partition of Africa that followed the 1884-1885 Congress of Berlin. The formation of the association marked an early stage in the development of the anti-colonialist movement.

It was established to encourage the unity of Africans and people of African descent, particularly in territories of the British empire; concerning itself with injustices in Britain’s African and Caribbean colonies.

A Moment in History

The opening speaker, Bishop Alexander Walters, noted the conference’s historical importance, as it was the first time in history that ‘black people had gathered from all parts of the globe to discuss and improve the condition of their race, to assert their rights and organize so that they might take an equal place among nations.’

Over the three days, speakers addressed a variety of aspects of racial discrimination. These talks included discussions of systematic racism within the colonies and the modern-day plight of racial minorities. The conference culminated the various topics and implemented the unanimously adopted “Address to the Nations of the World ”.

Addressing Racial Discrimination

The address was sent to various Heads of State where people of African descent were living and suffering oppression. It emphasised the importance of the European Nations and United States to “acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent” and to respect the integrity and independence of “the free Negro States of Abyssinia, Liberia, Haiti, etc.”

The momentum of the movement allowed the delegates to petition Queen Victoria through the British government to look into the treatment of Africans in South Africa and Rhodesia; including specified acts of injustice including:

  1. The degrading and illegal compound system of labour in vogue in Kimberley and Rhodesia.
  2. The so-called indenture, i.e. legalized bondage of African men, women and children to white colonists.
  3. The system of compulsory labour in public works.
  4. The “pass” or docket system used for people of colour.
  5. Local by-laws tending to segregate and degrade Africans such as the curfew; the denial to Africans of the use of footpaths; and the use of separate public conveyances.
  6. Difficulties in acquiring real property.
  7. Difficulties in obtaining the franchise.

A Series of Gatherings

Following the success of the first conference branches of the Pan-African Association in Jamaica, Trinidad and the USA, under the Pan-African Congress banner, a series of gatherings subsequently took place; including Manchester in 1945, to address the issues facing Africa as a result of European colonization.

The conference laid the groundwork and encouraged the development of the Pan-African Congress. This congress gained a reputation of peacemakers in the decolonisation of Africa and the West Indies, and was instrumental in the Pan-African cause.

On 25th July 2000, a centenary commemorative event was held in London. This was attended by descendants of some of the delegates at the original conference, as well as descendants of delegates at the 1945 5th Pan-African Congress in Manchester.

Further reading:

• “Conditions Favouring a High Standard of African Humanity” (C. W. French of St. Kitts)
• “The Preservation of Racial Equality” (Anna H. Jones, from Kansas City, Missouri)
• “The Necessary Concord to be Established between Native Races and European Colonists” (Benito Sylvain, Haitian aide-de-camp to the Ethiopian emperor)
• “The Negro Problem in America” (Anna J. Cooper, from Washington)
• “The Progress of our People” (John E. Quinlan of St. Lucia)
• “Africa, the Sphinx of History, in the Light of Unsolved Problems” (D. E. Tobias from the USA).
• “Organized Plunder and Human Progress Have Made Our Race Their Battlefield” (George James Christian from the UK)

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26th October 2020

This October, Fletchers Solicitors is celebrating Black History Month by highlighting influential Black people who have helped shape the world we live in today. We’ve assigned a cross-departmental team across…

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