The African and Caribbean War Memorial, An Unique Site of Memory in Europe

Author: AS Schoepfel

Interview with Jak Beula, the founder of the African and Caribbean War Memorial in Europe, 07/11/2018

Brixton, Windrush Square

I was walking around Brixton. Suddenly, I noticed a memorial I had never seen in Europe. It was a memorial dedicated to the soldiers of Africa and the Caribbean who had fought during the First and Second World Wars. This memorial was not only unique to Europe but was also significant for the recognition of people from the former British colonies. By chance, there was an important-looking person being photographed in front of the memorial. It happened to be Jak Beula, the founder of the memorial. I invited him for an interview which was kindly accepted. 

Ann-Sophie Schoepfel: How would you introduce the monument you’ve created?

Jak Beula: This memorial known as the African and Caribbean War Memorial (AC Memorial) is the vision of the Nubian Jak Community Trust, of which I am the founder. Built in memory of the two million Africans and Caribbean soldiers that served in both the World Wars, this memorial in Windrush Square, London, is unique not only to Great Britain but to Europe as well. Unfortunately, before this memorial was built, there existed no monuments that commemorated and emphasized their sacrifices. 

Why did the British government not acknowledge these people’s contribution earlier?

Here there are monuments to dogs but no monument to remember these two million peoples. Maybe the British government has forgotten their heroic sacrifice. But, I suspect, racism has played a major part in this omission.

What did inspire your decision to create this monument?

My grand uncle served in World War I. But that is not the reason why I created the monument. It is a matter of dignity. When a particular racial group having made an enormous contribution, is not being acknowledged, something is not right. And that was our team’s biggest motivation to create this monument. The monument was inspired by the fact that many World War One veterans, now in their eighties and nineties, had no place to remember their fallen comrades. So I was inspired to create and design the monument. With the help of my team, it was installed. I carried out all the groundwork including the design, research, and funding of the monument, which was then provided to the planning commission for construction of the only Black war memorial in Europe.

How did you design the monument? 

The memorial has been designed using one tall obelisk. The obelisks are used as a male symbol. I also emphasized the female reference through use of a triangle. The memorial is male and female symbolizing unity and infinity, which is beautiful. The design incorporates an African element as well; the obelisks may be associated with Ancient Egypt. However, the pyramids originated in Uganda, and not in Egypt. The very first pyramids were built in Uganda, and from there the concept slowly spread further north and beyond.

Initially in 2014, when I got first involved, the thought was to pay tribute to the African Caribbean soldiers only. But when I went on the Square, I realized that this project has to be done properly. I had to include the soldiers of Africa and the Caribbean, to provide an accurate element acknowledging the impact of these people in history. I wanted to create a lasting legacy for my children as well as those who were from that region, regardless of color. We have a lot of Indian, Chinese, and Caucasian folk in the Caribbean.

Did the British government support your initiative?

To be fair, the government, through the Home Office, and via the sub-department called Department of Communities of Local Government (DCOG) did contribute to this cause. They gave me 80000 GBP (which is a drop in the ocean) after meeting them twice. Fortunately, we received a further contribution of 50000 GBP from the Council Member which helped create this splendid piece of architecture. It is worth noting that many memorials have been built with a spending of over half a million GBP. It’s amazing to witness what the Black community has achieved with just a little bit of money.

What is the impact of the monument on a local level?

This monument is here in Brixton. After World War II, Brixton became the first centralized point for the Caribbean. It is also known as the heart of Black London and Black Europe. People can come here, remember and share war lives. Something about this place is very spiritual. A lot of schools visit the monument. A lot of veterans’ groups visit here too. People come from all over the world. One must remember that this is the only World Wars’ memorial that remembers the Black soldiers. 

Who benefited more from construction of the memorial?

The construction of the memorial did benefit the British government: When Theresa May was faced with the Windrush debacle, she publicly capitalised on the existence of the war memorial in Brixton. But the biggest beneficiaries are the war veterans who now have a common gathering point and the Black community who now have a place where they can learn more about their contribution to the World Wars’ history.

Does this memorial represent a symbol of political change in Great Britain?

No, I do not think so. The reason being that although the memorial was unveiled just a year back on 22nd June (which is Windrush Day) in Windrush Square, we have still witnessed a scandal this year (2018) where persons of the Windrush generation had to defend being a part of this country. Ironically, even after creation of the memorial they were being denied their rights as citizens. This unfortunately shows that the memorial has not changed the attitude of the British government. What it has changed though is people’s awareness, and perhaps encouraged them to research more, and comprehend the seminal role the African and Caribbean people have played in the World Wars.

Do you think that change is possible?

To be honest, things are slowly changing. A new mind set is necessary, which I think, the current administration does not have. I would hope that this memorial is the first of many more. It’s important as a recognition for the whole country.

Simone Reynold, a member of Jak Beula’s team: As a footnote, we intend to create a virtual museum online. It’s important to raise awareness of such issues and create a positive impact within the school education system. The work we are doing is so important.

To know more about the memorial:

Generating New Insights into the Study of Collective Memory

Author: Lina Klymenko

In November 2018, I participated in the workshop “Contested Memories in the City: Monuments, Archives, Traces” organized by Sarah Dornhof (Center “Cultural Foundations of Integration”) and Ulrike Capdepón and Piotr Kisiel (Balzan Price research group led by Aleida and Jan Assmann) at the University of Konstanz.

The workshop gathered scholars and artists who work on collective memory in an urban setting. It combined keynote speeches by leading scholars in the field of Memory Studies, presentations of other scholars, and talks given by artists involved in public art projects. In their key notes, Chiara De Cesari elaborated on the uses of European heritage by far right political parties and Teresa Pinheiro talked on the persistence of imperial memories in Portugal. In her speech at the end of the workshop, Aleida Assmann shared her reflections on the changing shapes of public monuments across Europe. The artists Randa Maroufi, Manaf Halbouni and Mohamed Fariji offered their perspectives on public art projects in Spain, Germany and Morocco, respectively.

In line with the title of the workshop, we discussed the concepts of ‘memory’, ‘contestation’, and ‘urban space’ in various cultural settings in Europe, North Africa and Southeast Asia. Our discussions centred on the diverse forms and functions of memory sites such as monuments, museums, street names and historical buildings. Scholars discussed the formation of historical memories of French rule in North Africa, British rule in Southeast Asia, Ottoman Turkey, the Franco dictatorship in Spain, and the Communist regime in Poland and Ukraine. Other scholars analysed the formation of collective memories in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lebanon and in post-socialist Poland and Eastern Germany.

We engaged in discussions on how the collective memory of certain historical events has been negotiated, for example in transnational communities (presentations by Susanne Mersmann and Nadia Sabria), as well as between neighbourhood communities in London (Astrid Swenson and Ann-Sophie Schoepfel); city communities in Lodz and Chemnitz (Piotr Kisiel); central and local governments in Poltava (Lina Klymenko); political parties in Madrid (Ulrike Capdepón); groups of architects in Sarajevo and Beirut (Gruia Badescu); the victimizer and the victimized in Yerevan and Istanbul (Suzan Meryem Rosita); and the colonizer and the colonized in Luanda (Nadine Siegert), Yangon (Felix Girke), and in cities in Algeria (Dónal Hassett).

We discussed how the formation of collective memory relates to broader questions of identity, political regime, transitional justice and international relations. In this regard, one of the most inspiring presentations was Ulrike Capdepón’s talk on the current change of street names in Madrid in the context of Spain’s coming to terms with the Franco dictatorship. It triggered an intense debate on working through the past in post-dictatorial countries, spurring questions such as: What are the strategies of coming to terms with a dictatorial past?; How is this process embedded in a specific cultural context?; What does the change of street names mean for the general public and the political elites of a country?; and How does the change of street names work as a transitional justice mechanism?       

Ultimately, the workshop offered a great opportunity to present research to a broader audience, to develop research cooperation, and to prepare a joint publication!