O’Connell, Harry

Harry E O’Connell 

The Guyanese ship’s carpenter who organised the black seafarers of Cardiff and Liverpool in the 1930s, reputedly up to 10,000 of them, migrated to Britain in 1910. He founded the Cardiff Coloured Association after racist riots had taken place in the city in 1919.  As white servicemen returned from the world war, jobs taken by a diaspora from the Empire were forcibly given to them. Over 500 Yemenis were deported in 1921 and barred from sailing shipsbut many remained, some having intermarried. 

An ‘Adenese’ body was formed in Cardiff 1924 for Yemeni seafarers and with O’Connell’s renamed West Indian Association, by the early 1939s were allied to the Seamen’s Minority Movement (SMM) established in 1929, led by Chris Jones (aka Braithwaite), who came from Barbados, and Jim Headley, from Trinidad, both from London. 

O’Connell was the most prominent organiser of Cardiff’s multiethnic seafaring community in between the wars and was 1920s and was particularly influential in struggles against the racist and colour bar policies adopted by the National Union of Seamen.  Out of 690 unemployed seafarers in Cardiff in 936, 599 were ‘coloured’. 

As a committed Communist, O’Connell could draw on the networks of the Comintern-affiliated International of Seamen and Harbour Workers (ISH), the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (ITUCNW), and the Negro Welfare Association. He was particularly associated after Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia with organising an international maritime boycott of the fascist state.

Richard Krebs, a German Communist ‘expert’ on maritime matters (who later defected and was revealed as a double agent) tried enforcing the Comintern line on organising a red sailors’ union on the British CP. But he found that, although his ability to intimidate SMM organiser, Fred Thompson (see separate entry), had some success, O’Connell insisted he could not serve two masters, black seamen and Moscow. Though many black maritime activists now became Africanists, O’Connell appears to have stayed with the British CP. 

In 1941, the superintendent at Cardiff Docks informed Harry O’Connell that he could no longer serve on board any ship, whether British or foreign and this would seem to have brought about enforced retirement. It is believed that O’Connell had been in contact with Surat Alley in organising colonial seafarers. 

O’Connell seems to have become increasingly involved in community affairs as issue of ‘mixed race’ parentage become politicised. He is said to have stood as a Communist in the Adamstown ward in 1950.

Sources: Belonging in Europe – The African Diaspora and Work, edited by Caroline Bressey, Hakim Adi; Hansard, 23 January 1941 Volume 368; International Communism and Transnational Solidarity: Radical Networks, Mass Movements and Global Politics, 1919–1939, Brill; David Featherstone, 

Solidarity: Hidden Histories and Geographies of Internationalism; Humayun Ansari, The Infidel Within: Muslims in Britain 

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply