205 : Sol Plaatje in Britain, 1914 – 1923

Sol Plaatje is well known to those interested in the history of southern Africa. His diary of his time as an interpreter for the British in Mafeking 1899-1900, his account of the impact of anti-African legislation from 1913 (Native Life in South Africa, 1916), and novel Mhudi might be outweighed by his crucial role in the founding and development of the African National Congress – Plaatje was the congress’s first secretary, and accordingly met and influenced political figures in southern Africa, Britain, and the U.S.A. His life also involved many months in Britain, which have been documented by biographer Brian Willan (Sol Plaatje: South African Nationalist, 1876-1932 [1984] published in London, Johannesburg and California; and in 2018 a revised and expanded Sol Plaatje: a Life of Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, 1876-1932 was published).

This page is to draw attention to Plaatje’s contacts in Britain.

His first period in Britain was 1914-1917 when he was one of five delegates of the South African Native National Congress, who initially expected assistance from the venerable liberal group the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society. They sought to give the black opinion on white rule in South Africa,  meeting the Colonial Secretary in June 1914. The outbreak of the First World War led delegates to return to Africa. Plaatje had found sympathy and an audience among members of the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon/Brotherhood movement group (largely nonconformist, their Sunday gatherings were to be a regular outlet for Plaatje’s speeches) notably William Cross of Hanwell near Ealing in west London; and wrote articles for the London weekly the African World, and moved among white South Africans in Britain. He completed the manuscript of Native Life and is known to have received the opinions of Jamaican doctor and author Theophilus Scholes, who lived in London and was often at the reading room of the British Museum (see this website’s page 204). He also had a collection of Tswana proverbs published in London in 1916 (Sechuana Proverbs with Literal Translations and their European Equivalents). Plaatje left England in January 1917 having addressed 305 meetings (half for the Brotherhood movement).

In 1919 another Congress delegation, now led by Plaatje, was in Britain. They influenced prime minister Lloyd George, attending that House of Commons meeting with veteran black residents of London (including John Barbour-James and John Eldred Taylor: and the visiting editor of the Lagos Weekly Record). Plaatje spent December 1919 in Scotland and met radical socialists. Respite was found at the Amersham, Buckinghamshire home of the Colenso family (liberal whites with strong South African connections – they had welcomed the newly-widowed Jessie Coleridge-Taylor to Elangeni in 1912) and he then toured Brotherhood movement meetings. He met other African delegations, American visitors and the London leadership of the African Progress Union, notably Dr John Alcindor. In the late summer of 1920 he left for America and returned in September 1922, having met many influential people in African American society.

This third spell in Britain was largely spent seeking funds for an African-language Brotherhood hymn book. He aided the Swazi delegation (which met King George V) with its Oxford-educated interpreter Pixley Seme (see page 204). He worked for an African American theatrical entrepreneur in a live presentation during the film The Cradle of the World. Plaatje was not the first nor the last African person in Britain to obtain work in the entertainment industry. Plaatje went to the London offices of the Zonophone recording company and made six recordings, issued on three double-sided 78 rpm discs in late 1923. Without noting it, the second of the discs included Plaatje singing ‘Nkosi Sikelele Afrika’, which was the ANC anthem and its first ever recording. Plaatje left for Cape Town on 26 October 1923.

The antagonism directed at Plaatje and his colleagues by the Anti-Slavery Society, the support of the Brotherhood Movement, and the (temporary) sympathy of prime minister Lloyd George were unexpected. The financial support from white South African sympathisers which included payment of his boat tickets and some relaxing time at Elangeni were not unexpected. The impact of Plaatje on Brotherhood members and also black associates of the African Progress Union is difficult to assess: Alcindor mentioned him in a letter, and John Barbour-James’s daughter Amy recalled his name some sixty years later.

Rather like the anti-slavery groups of Victorian Britain, the Brotherhood/PSA’s local activities may reveal more about the black presence in Britain. The Epsom Brotherhood (Surrey, now suburban south west London) had 5,000 members and its own hall which they gave to the borough when they ended their society. It was the Epsom Brotherhood which sponsored the coach trips of ‘London coloured children’ to the countryside around 1938, which they organised with the Jamaica-born London doctor Harold Moody.

Willan’s 2018 380pp biography is available for under £25.


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