students on the tyne: the colonial students' club in newcastle
"Africa to Tyneside" exhibit at the Hatton Gallery (1943)
Essay by Vanessa Mongey
"Do you beat the tom-tom drum in your bush?” The question shocked Nigeria-born Victor Oyenuga. He did not know how to react to his classmate’s question as they both sat in a lecture room in King’s College (now Newcastle University). A PhD student in nutritional biochemistry on a full scholarship, Victor realised that the Africa he knew and loved had little to do with the Africa his white English classmates imagined.
Students in the Toon
Starting in the 1940s, several students from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Gold Coast (today’s Ghana), and Gambia came to Newcastle. They met at the Colonial Students’ Club, 40 Leazes Terrace, where they revised for their exams, went skating in the nearby park, and planned anti-racist activities. A residence of nine beds and a few meeting rooms, the Club had opened in December 1944.
Many of these students followed the lead of Robert Wellesley Cole who left Freetown, Sierra Leone, in 1928 to study medicine in Newcastle. After a junior appointment at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, he set up a general practice on West Road in Denton Park. He called his practice Mount Oriel after the mountain overlooking his hometown of Freetown. He obtained a doctorate and was elected a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in 1943.
At the beginning of World War II, Wellesley Cole volunteered but was not enlisted. He redirected his energy to the cause of West Africans both locally and nationally. As a member of the Colonial Office Advisor Committee, he promoted economic and medical development in the colonies. He was also a member of the Advisory Committee of the Colonial Bureau of the Fabian Society (the Fabian Society is the oldest socialist organisation in Britain; the Colonial Bureau acted as a clearing house for information on colonial affairs. Learn more.)
Wellesley Cole remained committed to Newcastle. He was active in a number of pan-African organizations including the West African Students Union and the League of Coloured Peoples. He founded the Society for the Cultural Advancement of Africa in Newcastle and explained in a letter to the League of Colored People’s president, Harold Moody, that his aim was “to bind the students here, Africa, West Indian, and America negro, in a self-conscious and race-conscious unit.”
Africa to Tyneside
The Society scheduled talks in the West Indies House, Newcastle, and in the Colonial House, North Shields. Learn more here and here. In June 1943, the Society supported an exhibition of African arts and crafts at the Hatton Galley. The “Africa to Tyneside” exhibition included other events including the visit of Fela Sowande, a musician and composer from Lagos, Nigeria, now considered the father of modern Nigerian Art Music (Learn more).
Sowande had come to London to study music. During the war, he briefly joined the Royal Air Force before being appointed musical adviser to the Colonial Film Unit of the British Ministry of Information. He created music for educational films designed for Africa and the BBC Africa Service.
Music and entertainment were ways to combat racial stereotypes and bring people together. Sowande was just one of the many Caribbean and African musicians who came to Tyne & Wear and performed classical music, jazz, and West African songs. A musician from the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana) performed songs in English, Creole, and Ga in 1944: some were love songs but many were patriotic tunes celebrating soldiers and their sacrifices.
Attempts to dispel stereotypes around Africa and Africans started before Wellesley Cole founded the Society for the Cultural Advancement of Africa. Several students had protested the so-called native African village at the North-East Coast Exhibition in 1929.
The West African Students’ Union “strongly object[ed] as educated Africans to making a show of native life in such a way as to draw attention to the more backward side of African life … this is likely to arouse feelings of racial prejudice leading to antagonism between the back and white races.” Wãsu (1933). They also worried about the well-being of African performers being exhibited in public. The organisers discarded these concerns and the “African Village” was a major attraction of the exhibition. Learn more.
Students remained at the forefront of the fight against stereotypes. Victor Oyenuga founded the African Friendship Society in the Colonial Students’ Club in 1945. The society had fifteen members. The other founder, the Ghanaian Ned Obassey, explained that the focus was “the need for portraying cultural Africa to England for the benefit of both. The duty should be taken up by the Africans.”
Convinced that ignorance was at the root of prejudice, the African Friendship Society put together a list of talks on Africa and race-related issues in Britain. Several schools and youth groups, including the Sunderland International Friendship League, invited speakers from the Society. The leftist political sympathies of many of the members attracted suspicion and the students were wary of the Colonial Office monitoring their activities.
Oyenuga paused his anti-racist campaign when he married another Nigerian, Sabina Babafunke Onabajo, in 1950. At the time, she was training in nursing and midwifery at Princess Mary Maternity Hospital in Newcastle. The couple was popular and crowds filled every seat of St John the Baptist Church. The Newcastle Chroniclepublished an article on “Nigerian romance becomes city wedding.” The couple left Newcastle and returned to Nigeria in 1951.
The fight for racial and gender equality
Women played an important role in the anti-racist and pan-African activism of the era and connected it to the struggles of women across Britain’s colonial empire. Robert Wellesley Cole’s younger sister, Irene, was about thirty when she arrived in Newcastle to study medicine. She was the only African woman in the university and was one of three women in a class of sixty. She qualified in 1944 and became Sierra Leone’s first female doctor.
Gender and racial discrimination thwarted her ambition of becoming a surgeon like her brother: surgery on men was not allowed for women and her female superiors were often rude with her. She eventually opted for gynaecology as her specialisation, convinced that she would make a difference in women’s lives.
Irene not only founded the Society for the Cultural Advancement of Africa with her brother, but also founded women-only groups like the West African Women’s Association. She did this while managing her brother’s practice in Denton when he visited Sierra Leone for a mission with the Colonial Office in 1945 and 1946. Irene also published pieces on the need to expand women’s educational opportunities and to secure self-government in West Africa. For her, achieving gender, racial, and political equality was part of the same struggle.
While in Newcastle, Irene was close to other female students. Two other siblings, Albert and Folake Odulate, were part of the same student activist circles. Albert was studying medicine while Folake studied English, Latin, mathematics, education, and eventually law. Both returned to Nigeria but Albert was killed in in a road accident. Folake married a doctor she had met in Newcastle, Dr Toriola Solanke, and established the first law firm by a Nigerian woman in 1966. Learn more.
Irene’s wedding with the Nigerian lawyer Samuel Ighodaro drew large crowds in Newcastle in 1947. A few years later, the couple moved to Benin City, Nigeria, where Irene continued her career as a physician and a social reformer. Learn more. Her brother Robert followed in her footsteps. The opposition of doctors and administrators prevented him from obtaining a residency appointment in Newcastle. He would later recall that, “I felt I was blocked because they were jealous, because I was beating them and they hated the idea of a black chap doing that.” In 1950, he relocated to Nottingham with his second wife, Amy Hotobah-During, a nurse from Sierra Leone who had trained in Sunderland.
The government of a newly independent Nigeria invited him as a senior surgical specialist and the couple moved there in 1962. The same year, the British government passed the restrictive Commonwealth Immigration Act. Learn more. Although Robert had lived in Britain for thirty-three years, he was denied a British passport when he returned in 1974 after retiring from medical practice. He eventually obtained British nationality and settled in a London suburb where he wrote his life story and an history of Krio people.