On August 4 1914 a black man fired the first shot for the British Army in the First World War. This year the UK’s very first monument for African and Caribbean regiments that fought in British wars will be unveiled in Brixton, London.
“You didn’t know that did you? That a black man fired the first shot for Britain in the First World War,” said Jak Beula, founder of the Nubian Jak Community Trust behind the creation of this monument.
There are contrasting versions of this story but it is widely believed by historians that Alhaji Grunshi, of African heritage, fired the first shot for the British Army in what was then Togoland as the Gold Coast Regiment advanced upon German troops. This nugget of information represents what Jak and the Trust are all about- highlighting the roles that black people have played in British history.
The monument will be unveiled on Windrush Day, June 22 2017, outside the Black Cultural Archives in Windrush Square. Both the day and the square are named after the Empire Windrush ship that brought the first Commonwealth migrants to Britain in 1948. Jak calls it a “sacred space” and believes it is a cultural home to many people. “We wanted to reflect something that was arty and inclusive but also had an African connection because this is Brixton, the heart of the black European community.”
With nearly two million people in the UK defining themselves as having African or Caribbean origins it may come as a little strange to some that there are currently no national memorials reflecting the African and Caribbean contributions to British wars. There are already memorials in the UK for Commonwealth soldiers who have fought under the British flag and specific national memorials for Commonwealth nations, such as The Memorial Gates in Westminster, but none specifically for the African and Caribbean regiments.
Professor Steven Martin, an historian for African contributions to the British Army in both world wars believes the story of Grunshi, and its subsequent contradictions, demonstrate why it has taken so long for a commemorative monument to be erected. “Placing a black presence in the British past requires some mental gymnastics on the part of many, there is a resistance from the community.”
But Jak is very quick to assert one thing: “I’m not preaching. I’m not getting on a pedestal and saying ‘These black soldiers have not been recognised’. That’s not me. All we want is a space for these soldiers to be remembered.”
During a visit to the Black Cultural Archives in February the Prince of Wales was made aware of the monument and in a speech said: “It’s so encouraging that now, at last, you have a centre such as this, which allows you to develop so many opportunities but also to bring the message to so many people in this country and elsewhere about the remarkable contribution made over so long, by people of African and Caribbean descent who have contributed so much to this country.”
These contributions have also been recognised by Lambeth Council and the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG) who have pledged a significant amount of money to help install the monument. The estimated costs have come to £120,000 with the DCLG providing £80,000 and the rest is to be made up between Lambeth Council and the Trust. A spokesman for the DCLG said:
“We are working with the Nubian Jak Community Trust on their proposals for a permanent memorial to the servicemen and women from Africa and the Caribbean who fought for this country.”
The Trust created a musical single entitled ‘I have a song’ to help raise money and awareness for the monument. Jak hopes it will serve as an “artistic connective tool” for the event: “We thought the medium of using music would be a great segue into allowing people to at last begin to be educated and even be involved because music is a reciprocal thing.”
The single was written and performed by two-time Grammy nominated American soul-singer Eric Roberson and Jak believes the song has deep reflective qualities to it. “It’s called ‘I have a song’ because we all have a song.
“There are people who have been to the plains of Belgium, Ypres, they’ve been to Egypt the battle of El Alamein, a turning point in the war. They’ve been to Burma and nobody has a memorial to them. No one has heard their song and they are in the Elysian Fields right now crying out to be heard. They’ve been in purgatory since 1918, there are no memorials and that’s not right.”
Importantly, the Trust understands that for this monument to be truly recognisable as a recompense for the overlooked, it must be inclusive of all. Originally the stone was intended to highlight the contributions of African heritage soldiers but it seemed pertinent to include the historically accurate contributions from those of all colours and make sure they were among the list inscribed on the monument.
“Instead of making it just about African heritage soldiers which it is primarily about, I wanted to be truthful. There were Asian sub-continent indentured labourers living in the West Indies who served in Trinidad. There were white corporal soldiers of European descent, born in Jamaica, who served in the army and it would be wrong to not include that, I don’t want to do what they’ve done to us. Within a mile radius of here [Windrush Square]you probably have more white residents than black and they all said yes to the monument, that’s a beautiful thing,” said Jak.
Dignitaries from Commonwealth nations are expected to attend the ceremony and a proposed concert at Brixton Academy intends to attract performances from some of the UK’s most successful black artists. Jak and the Trust hope the day, the celebration and the monument can serve as a reminder of the roles that the African and Caribbean peoples have had in shaping Britain today.