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Britain’s Black International Brigadier

To mark Black History Month, we remember the life of Charlie Hutchison – Britain's only black international brigadier to Spain, a lifelong anti-fascist and one of the soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen in 1945.

In 1978, the civil rights veteran James Yates reflected on what led him to travel thousands of miles from the United States to fight for the Spanish Republic. Writing of the atmosphere of the thirties – of “mass unemployment, great demonstrations, strikes, intense organisation” – he wrote of how his generation of African Americans were

generally made aware that the problems of America were only a reflection of the bigger world around us. Ethiopia, Spain, the rise of fascism and racism in Italy and Germany: it was indeed no accident that between eighty and a hundred Blacks were among the first volunteers who went to Spain.

This sentiment was common. For Vaughn Love in Harlem, fascism was “the enemy of all black aspirations,” and his motivation to join the International Brigades was to “get to the front and kill these fascists.” Their commitment made history; James Peck and Paul Williams, who joined the Republic’s air force, became some of the first black combat pilots, and the black Texan communist Oliver Law led white American soldiers into combat long before the American military was desegregated.

Writing four decades ago, Yates criticised mainstream historians for allowing such rich history to remain a “closed book” to most Americans. This wall of silence has been lifted in recent years, and a stream of memoirs, academic studies and films have drawn deserved attention to the African American contribution to anti-fascism. But the commitment of Britain’s only black member of the International Brigades, Charlie Hutchison, is still far too little known.

Radical Roots

Born in 1918 in Witney, Oxfordshire, Charlie was one of five children of a Ghanaian father and a white English mother. His father, from a prominent family in what was then the Gold Coast, would travel back and forth to Africa on a regular basis. After he eventually stopped returning to England, huge stress was placed on the family. This led Charlie and one of his sisters to be placed in care by his mother in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage in Harpenden, Hertfordshire.

Charlie and his sister left the National Children’s Home in their mid-teens to reunite with their mother, who was then living in the London working-class district of Fulham. After getting a job as a lorry driver, it seems that Charlie became interested in the major social questions of his time, joining the ranks of the Young Communist League (YCL) in the early 1930s. This was a period of great purpose for young communists. While workers revolted in places like the Asturias region of Spain and resisted an incipient fascist movement in Paris, the Left had been crushed by the far-right in its heartlands of Vienna and Berlin, and it seemed an open question whether fascism would do the same elsewhere.

Volatile scenes were found in Charlie’s local area. In 1934, a British Union of Fascists (BUF) rally in Olympia – only around the corner from Fulham – was the site of vicious attacks on communists heckling and booing Oswald Mosley. The behaviour of fascist stewards provoked national outrage, leading to condemnation even from right-wing Tory MPs – and from the Daily Mail, who had printed “Hurrah for the Blackshirts!” in their pages only months previously.

It also launched a city-wide sense of advance for young radicals. Alongside resisting evictions, aiding the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, and building solidarity for striking workers, the mission of anti-fascism – of “drowning the Blackshirts in a sea of working class activity,” to quote a Daily Worker headline – was one of the key tasks of a YCL member in the London of the time. Having become the chair of Fulham YCL, Charlie was deeply involved with this activity and part of the human wave which stopped the Blackshirts at Cable Street in October 1936.

The War in Spain

In July of that year, war erupted in Spain. For millions across the world, the struggle of the Spanish people – who were defending their democratic government against a military uprising backed by Hitler and Mussolini – was personally felt.

As that feeling motivated young black Americans like Vaughn Love and James Yates, it also stirred young black Britons like Charlie Hutchison, who understood that fascism was not a theoretical abstraction but an existential threat. Later in life, he sharply summarised his political motivations for volunteering: “I am half black. I grew up in the National Children’s Home and Orphanage. Fascism meant hunger and war.”

Charlie Hutchison’s entry form into the Spanish Communist Party as an international brigadier. (Credit: Richard Baxell)

As his Special Branch file recorded, the 18-year-old Charlie arrived in Spain at some time in late November or early December 1936, and became a machine gunner. As one of the first English-speaking volunteers, he was surrounded with colourful personalities who had also decided to take a stand.

A fellow machine gunner was Walter Greenhalgh, a veteran of the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of April 1932. There was his fellow Londoners Nat Cohen, Sam Masters and Alec Sheller, the Yorkshire Marxist intellectual Ralph Fox, the young Cambridge poet John Cornford – a great-grandson of Charles Darwin – and Esmond Romilly, the nephew of Winston Churchill.

Charlie Hutchison was young, but he was not the only teenager: the 17-year-olds Ronnie Burgess – the son of feminist author Charlotte Haldane – and Tommy Woods – from a respected Dublin Republican family – had also volunteered.

In the intense fighting of that period, it was a matter of weeks before Charlie was wounded resisting the fascist advance at Lopera, where his comrades Cornford, Fox and Wood were killed. In Bill Alexander’s history of the International Brigades, the author mentions Charlie’s “joy” at stopping off in Madrid while returning from Lopera, where his happiness at “sleeping indoors on a bed in a Madrid hotel was not lessened by the sounds of shells hitting the walls.”

An Enduring Struggle

As he recuperated, the authorities became aware of Charlie’s age and informed him they would be repatriating him when he had recovered. However, he vehemently resisted this, and was instead sent to do transportation and servicing work behind the front lines.

While Charlie clearly wanted to remain fighting for the Republic, his home situation was sadly worsening. His stepfather had been hospitalised with serious health problems, and his mother had written to the Republican government imploring them to send him home.

British volunteers in the International Brigade to Spain. (Credit: Marx Memorial Library)

Documents unearthed by the historian Richard Baxell suggests there was a great deal of sympathy in the Republican ranks for Charlie. After being described by seniors as “good [and] for his age quite developed,” as well as being a “hard and capable worker,” the senior International Brigade leader and legendary Italian anti-fascist Luigi Longo personally appealed to President Juan Negrin to intervene in the case.

However, at this point, the Spanish Republic was crumbling. The Western democracies’ refusal to aid democratic Spain choked the country of arms and supplies, and the enthusiasm of anti-fascists alone could not resist the might of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, who had shamelessly mobilised entire armies for Franco.

In this stressful scenario, the files uncovered by Baxell suggest that not only did Charlie’s appeals fall by the wayside, but that he himself got lost by the authorities. Despite being known to senior Republican officials, he wasn’t repatriated with his fellow International Brigadiers as they were sent to the French border in early December 1938, only finding himself demobilised as late as the week before Christmas.

Upon his return to London, Charlie threw himself into Spanish solidarity work before witnessing the Republic’s tragic collapse in April 1939. However, it would only be months before he would once again be fighting the Nazis in the British Army.

After being one of the soldiers rescued by tugboats at Dunkirk in June 1940, he served in various theatres of the Second World War. In a day he described as the worst day of his life, he was one of the soldiers who liberated Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 – where he witnessed the end conclusion of the ideology he had dedicated his entire adult life to fighting.

Anti-Fascist Legacy

At the age of 27, Charlie had been fighting fascism for nearly an entire decade. After marrying Patricia Holloway, a fellow communist, after the war, he resumed work as a truck driver. He maintained active in his union, the Transport and General Workers Union (TGWU, now Unite), the Communist Party, and to causes such as nuclear disarmament and anti-Apartheid. He passed away in Bournemouth in 1993, aged 74.

Despite being one of the youngest and earliest British International Brigadiers – and the only known Black British one – Charlie Hutchison’s life doesn’t feature much in the folk history of the British Left. His experiences are referenced in a few books about the International Brigades, and two recent biographies have been sketched by Baxell and in Red Lives: Communists and the Struggle for Socialism, a brand new collection of communist biographies published to mark the centenary of the Communist Party’s foundation.

A landmark initiative to publicly honour Charlie’s unique life was held in October last year, when the Marx Memorial Library and Newham Sixth Form College held an event in honour of him. Carina Ancell and Alan Kunna from the college gave talks on their research into his Ghanaian family, while their students presented poetry, essays and even painted portraits of Charlie.

As the teenagers discussed to a packed room what it meant to learn about this hidden history of a black radical as students in one of Britain’s most diverse boroughs, at least 16 members of Charlie’s family sat in the room. Towards the close of the event, John, one of his sons, stood to speak.

In a deeply moving speech, he described his father’s “voracious” taste for reading, and remembered his bookshelves filled with “Marx, Salinger, Steinbeck and Hugo.” He remembered how unusual it was that his dad – outwardly an ordinary, unassuming working man – entertained famous friends like Jack Jones, his comrade from the International Brigade and the TGWU, and was in regular contact with people from all over the world.

John remembered his father’s love for others, which motivated him to fight for a better world for most of the twentieth century. He summarised the life of Charlie Hutchison – who deserves his place alongside William Cuffay, Claudia Jones and Len Johnson as a pioneering black figure in this country’s working-class movement – as being driven by one clear belief: “My father believed in the family of man.”