This week on the blog, we are looking at a case study for co-operative movement interactions with the concept of Empire during the early half of the twentieth century, and how that is reflected generally in our archival collections today. In the lead up to and beyond Black History Month we are re-assessing our collections, their content and how they chart the involvement of black people within the co-operative movement. 

We are using an article that we hold in our collection from the Co-operative News as a case study. It dates from August 18th 1934 and details a trip by a royal chief named Sir Ofori Atta from Gold Coast (previously called Guinea and now part of modern day Ghana in West Africa) to the Co-operative Wholesale Society premises at Leman Street, London. At this time; Gold Coast had been under British colonial rule from 1821 and would be until independence in 1957. The region where Atta hailed from was called Akyem Abuakwa and he was the Paramount Chief of those lands. As such, his visit to Leman Street was heralded with much fanfare, as the workers and member would expect from a royal visit. 

The Chief was welcomed by a delegation of senior managers of the C.W.S, with news photographers and the film department recording the occasion for an extensive readership. This is how we come to have a record of his visit today. The photograph shows the formal clothing worn by the VIP visitor, which is described in the text as black and gold. It contrasts with the more austere 1930s business suits worn by the welcoming committee as well as the fashionably dressed younger African men in the visiting party. 

Sir Ofori Atta attended a luncheon given in his honour with C.W.S. staff where the chairman of the society board, Joseph Bradshaw, gave a lengthy speech detailed in the news article. It makes reference to the shared “bond” between the C.W.S. and the Gold Coast that is provided by the British Empire and trading network. This bond was undoubtedly good for business for the society as it provided supply of coffee, cocoa and other exotic or luxury goods. 

Atta gave a speech in return; although this is not replicated to the extent that Bradshaw’s was, given the visit was the subject of the article. He is described as a “man of middle-age - who speaks English perfectly” and who “replied to the chairman’s welcome in a happy little speech”. The tone of this could be argued to be rather patronising and given the inequity of the experience of colonial rule, implies that the audience might be surprised that a person of education and an elevated social status in an African country would speak English well or be able to command an audience. Understanding the nature of the language used goes some way to explaining the depth of unconscious bias at play in all levels of society today and while it makes for uncomfortable reading, is a vital reminder of the ways in which the stories and experiences of black people have been marginalised.

Despite the foundations under which the Co-op News was established based on the values and principles of co-operation; it was not immune to the imperialistic language commonplace in the British press at that time. 

From the summary of Sir Ofori Atta's speech, the emphasis is placed on the message of co-operation as a means of developing greater trade links between “the Mother Country and the little colony on the West Coast”. Here; Britain is recognised to be an imperial, colonial power but the suggestion is made that increased co-operation may be one way to interact with that power on a more equitable level in the future. In fact, Atta specifically states that he hopes in the near future that his fellow citizens will be able to use co-operation as a means to conduct the trade in farmed products like coffee, chocolate and oil themselves and for their own direct benefit. As the status and form of the Empire was challenged in the later 20th Century, co-operation would be increasingly seen as a vehicle for development and a beacon of fairness in trade relationships between Britain and newly independent nations.

Despite the inherent bias; the article as a historical source offers a snapshot of co-operation in the time of colonialism and the conflict in ethics it presented at the time of writing, as well as for modern co-operators seeking to deconstruct some of the accepted narratives in the stories we tell of our shared histories. We intend to continue to examine our collections to look for the untold stories and viewpoints relating to our records and historical objects in order to challenge our perceptions of the stories they tell.

The photograph names : Sir Ofori Atta and 'members of his retinue' who are not named, alongside Joseph Bradshaw, G.W Brooks and F.G Emery (Head of West African depots for the English and Scottish Co-operative Wholesale Society).