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‘This memorial is long overdue’

COMMEMORATION: War veteran Sam King, centre, unveiled the memorial in Windrush Square with Professor Gus John, left, and Lambeth mayor Adedamola Aminu

AS THE nation stood still on November 11 to remember its fallen soldiers, crowds gathered in Brixton for a particularly poignant ceremony – the unveiling of what supporters called a long overdue statue in honour of the brave black men and women who fought for Britain.

The memorial honours unsung heroes from both Africa and the Caribbean and was commissioned to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the First World War as part of the six-month Heritage Lottery project From Sea to Land and Sky.

“This memorial will correct [an] omission and give justice and dignity to the tens of thousands of African and Caribbean servicemen and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for the mother country,” said Jak Beula, chief executive of Nubian Jak Community Trust, who organised the permanent tribute.
It was supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the West Indian Association of Service Personnel (WASP).

An inscription on the obelisk reads: “In memory of the men and women of African decent who served Great Britain in military campaigns during World War I and World War II. Remembering the forgotten.”

Names of the African and Caribbean regiments that contributed to the war effort, such as the West India Regiment, will also be engraved.

The moving ceremony brought together dignitaries representing the Caribbean and Africa. Professor Gus John, who officiated, opened proceedings with a libation – the ritual pouring of white rum – and paid homage to the memory of those who had passed.

“The purpose of this memorial is not to glorify war, war is inglorious whether you are victor or vanquished,” he said.

The respected academic and historian said the fact that the two-and-a-half ton sculpture was 100 years in the making was evidence that it was grossly overdue.

His comments were echoed by Jamaican High Commissioner, Aloun Ndombet-Assamba.

She said: “This year, as the one hundredth anniversary of the start of the First World War is observed, it is fair to say that the role played by the Caribbean, Africa, India and other parts of Asia is still not widely known by many in Britain.”

She added: “The Caribbean and Africa were profoundly affected by the war as manpower, materials, and funds were sent by them to aid the war effort to protect Britain and Europe. Although troops from the Caribbean and Africa played a critical role in the war, they were never properly compensated or recognised and their work and sacrifices are still treated as a footnote.”

Jamaican-born Sam King MBE, a Second World War veteran who was one of the original passengers to arrive in Britain on the Windrush, was befittingly given the honour of unveiling the monument of remembrance in Windrush Square.

Vince McBeam, chair of WASP, said: “Stand tall our brave heroes as this befitting monument is unveiled in recognition of your contributions and ultimate sacrifices and that you gave your yesterdays for our today’s democracy and world peace.”

One vocal guest said: “Why should we have just one memorial? Be fair, be equal and be honourable to what we have done.”

Another person present, Beulah Coombs, revealed how her search for an unnamed uncle who fought in WW1 took her to the grave of a soldier buried in Belgium, named Private Robert Adolphus Smith. “It was overwhelming when we found out and when we saw the picture of his gravestone,” she said.

She believes the memorial is particularly important for younger people. “They’re made to feel like they don’t belong here, as if we’re freeloading, but our forefathers invested [in Britain] not only through slavery but also through the war effort.”

Pupils from Richard Atkins School gave an articulate and heart-warming salute to historical figure Walter Tull, who broke a British army colour bar to become a respected officer as he served during the First World War. He recently became the first black army officer to be immortlised on a £5 coin.

The monument is temporarily located on the immediate grounds of the Black Cultural Archives. It will be moved to the public area of Windrush Square next year.

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