Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939–1945

Marika Sherwood applauds a welcome survey of the role of Black Britons during the Second World War

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Reviewed by: Marika Sherwood
Author: Stephen Bourne
Publisher: The History Press
Price (RRP): £12.99

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Mother Country will upset those who believe that ‘they’ came with the Windrush. ‘They’ didn’t of course – people of African origins/descent have lived in Britain since Roman times. Bourne has done an invaluable service with this wide-ranging book, which is illuminated with biographies, many of them original interviews.

Bourne reveals how Black men in Britain did their bit for many Home Front services. Many had to struggle against racism, both in the military and in the factories. Women struggling to join the war service also faced discrimination, as did at least some of the evacuee Black children.

There are chapters on Black entertainers during the war, both Britons and African-Americans. The BBC provided programmes such as Calling the West Indies, presented by West Indians, which was used to “relay news of the war and to boost morale”. Films were also made, some by the Colonial Film Unit, for the same purpose.

Bourne then looks at the home front in the colonies, at attitudes to the mother country, and donations to the war effort, and gives a glimpse of the raw materials exported to Britain.

So: a wonderful introduction to many facets of this history. There are not enough explorations of the Black communities in Liverpool, Cardiff and South Shields, or really even in London’s East End. Nor do we learn of the huge contribution to the merchant marine by colonials, on much lower wages than their White counterparts.

But these are quibbles – Bourne admits his book is not “intended to be definitive”. What he has done is open a door. What other historians now have to do is explore and expand the many issues raised by him.

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Marika Sherwood is the author of Origins of Pan-Africanism (Routledge, 2010)