World war ii commemoration in london: remembering soldiers from colonies

A separate ceremony in multicultural Brixton, south London, commemorates the African and Caribbean dead.

November 11, 2018 at the new war memorial in Brixton Photo by Daniel Zylbersztajn.

The ceremony begins with drums. Professor Gus John from Grenada does not mince words. "The soldiers from the Caribbean and Africa in the two world wars lived in territories occupied by Britain and had previously experienced slavery," he declaims. "Yet these people conspired to volunteer to fight for Britain."

In Windrush Square in Brixton, London’s most Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, several hundred people stand this Sunday to commemorate the more than two million African and Caribbean soldiers who served the British Empire in World War I.

All over the UK there are commemorative ceremonies into the evening on this November 11, 100 years after the end of the First World War. This one is similar to the others – and somehow quite different.

At the Cenotaph, the memorial to the dead soldiers in the central street of Whitehall in London’s government district, all the major British politicians and even German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier take part in the traditional wreath-laying ceremony led by the royal family – the traditional "Remembrance Sunday." In multicultural Brixton, it is only the second time that this day has been celebrated.

"Monuments like this should be everywhere".

The memorial to the black soldiers was unveiled only after a long campaign by the black history group Nubian Jak in June 2017 and is the first of its kind in the whole of Europe.

"Monuments like this should really be everywhere, in Birmingham, Manchester and in Whitehall, and not just in Brixton, because we are part of Britain everywhere," says primary school teacher Jenny Nembhard, who has come here for public commemoration. But to her, the triangular artwork with a black volcanic-ite obelisk lacks a larger dimension.

Alwin Chayquene, World War II veteran.

"But the monument also means to me that our achievements are finally being recognized"

Trinidad-born Alwin Chayquene, 92 and a World War II veteran, lays a wreath and explains himself in fluent German – he was stationed in Hamburg for years.

In his opinion, the memorial is in exactly the right place, here at Windrush Square, because many of the descendants of the Caribbean and African soldiers of the world wars live here. "But the memorial also means to me that our achievements are finally being recognized," he says.

Youth social worker Criss Jones, 56, agrees. The Army veteran, whose father came to Britain from Jamaica and also served in the British Army, sees the commemoration as a sign of belonging. "Especially for my young people, it’s important," he explains. "Because they mistakenly believe that black people haven’t done anything." The memorial and the stories now proved otherwise.

The question of belonging

They were denied their equality, says Professor Gus John, indeed it took 99 years for this monument to be erected in their memory. The question of belonging and not belonging to Britain is still central to the country’s African and Caribbean communities, he says.

This concerns the questions raised by Brexit, as well as the "Windrush scandal," in which some long-time immigrants from the Caribbean colonial era suddenly found themselves without residence permits due to a lack of papers.

A Nigerian Yoruba ceremony commemorates those who died in the struggle for liberation from the British. This struggle and the struggle for the liberation of Europe are connected. Finally, soil from the French battlefields on the Somme will be laid in the beds in front of the memorial.

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