Last week, during the collaborative writing session, I discussed on of the problems that I’ve encountered in research for my project. I wrote that the approaches to history that have developed in the recent past have been invaluable to the discipline as they allow new perspectives to emerge. In the history of colonialism, the emergence of areas such as subaltern studies has made it possible to uncover hidden narratives through focusing on the stories of those who have been previously marginalised by traditional histories. This is particularly important in transnational history as these overlooked societies come with their own transnational connections that have yet to be adequately explored. However, one issue with the popularity of these approaches in historiography is that, while worthwhile, this focus on history from below can limit the availability of new scholarship on other areas of society.
As my focus is on the figures who would eventually become national liberation leaders in Africa, the type of migration that they were a part of was more elite in nature. The common theme that drew me to the figures I am examining is that they travelled for higher education opportunities. Obviously, this was a privilege not afforded to a large number of people in colonial society in the 1900s, so it would be difficult to argue that these figures were marginalised. This is particularly true as African students were strongly politically active during the periods they spent abroad. Despite my issues, I have recently found a chapter that focuses on the experience of African students in Britain. Though it focuses solely on the activities of West African students, it is still very useful for my purposes as it details the complicated relationships that these students were a part of. It argues that a large factor of political motivation for African students came from their experience of racism and the colour bar in Britain. Students formed associations (most notably the West African Student’s Union which Kwame Nkrumah eventually became president of, and Jomo Kenyatta influenced through his friendship with founder Ladipo Solanke) dedicated to combating some of the inequalities they faced, such as lack of accommodation due to a ‘whites-only’ policy. Their activities were not limited to their experience in Britain, however, as many of these associations had explicitly pan-African agendas in that they wished to promote unity for all Africans. Thus, events in West Africa often sparked a reaction in Britain, leading students to lobby the Colonial Office for change. This had an interesting effect on the Colonial Office as a number of documents show that they acknowledge that the students in Britain would be the future political leaders in Africa, meaning that they were careful not to alienate them. This improved the chances of success for a number of the students’ campaigns as the Colonial Office were concerned that any perceived hostility would result in radicalism amongst the students, which could potentially spread back to the colonies, causing unrest. These concerns were not unfounded as socialism held a particular appeal for many African students, leading to collaboration with communist societies.
This book has been something of a breakthrough as it confirms many of the theories that I started out with relating to things such as the impact of racism, and the links between African student migration and socialism. However, since I started this project, I have had a creeping feeling that it may be too complex for me to adequately handle. The more I read, the more complicated the links I find become, to the point that I feel that I have lost sight of what I am arguing a little. Students in Britain are only one part of the puzzle, and the American connection brings with it new complexities due to the nature of African-American identity and where African migrants fit into this society. Similarly, the pan-African movement in America was particularly strong and Kwame Nkrumah had links with a number of key figures. Right now, I am unsure of how everything fits together, and I feel that I have much more work to do before it all becomes clear.