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Monday, May 23, 2022

Remembering the Mangrove Nine


The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, south-west London, held a very successful free workshop on the Mangrove Nine on 28th January. More than 30 participants were able to examine fascinating original documents including rare British Black Power newsletters and flyers, police files and photographs, and witness statements used in the famous court case 45 years ago. TNA staff set the scene with a short talk, supplemented by a clip from a powerful contemporary film about the case directed by Franco Rosso and produced by John Le Rose.

There can be few restaurants that have had as much attention from the police as Frank Crichlow’s Mangrove in All Saints Road, Notting Hill. In 1969 and 1970 it was raided a dozen times in a few months as part of an escalating campaign against its West Indian clientele. Police claimed – in the glaring absence of evidence – that the Mangrove’s habitués were drug dealers, prostitutes and ponces.

The raids seemed designed to provoke the Black community into retaliation. That came on 9th August 1970, when activists organised a march visiting each of the area’s three police stations to protest at constant harassment and oppressive policing. Banners read “All power to the people”, “Fire this time” and “Black power is going to get your mama”, and a pig’s head was held aloft. Despite the provocative slogans, the march was orderly and peaceful.

The 150 marchers had reached Portnall Road when the storm broke. Police alleged that the protesters started the violence, but witnesses disagreed. All along, the police had been photographing those they suspected of being ringleaders, on the grounds that the pre-march literature “expressed violent sentiments”.

Heavily outnumbered by 700 police, many of the marchers were arrested, and seven men and two women (Barbara Beese and Althea Jones-Lecointe) found themselves on trial at the Old Bailey the following year. Most were defended by a young human rights lawyer, Ian McDonald, but Jones-Lecointe and Darcus Howe opted to defend themselves, which gave them more freedom to expose police practices by ‘speaking truth to power’.

By the end of the hearing, which was one of the longest in English legal history up to that time, the Metropolitan Police had been put on trial as much as defendants. Policemen were found to be signalling to witnesses in court, made unsubstantiated allegations and exaggerated their injuries. The jury found all nine defendants not guilty of the most serious charge of riot. The judge’s relatively even-handed summing up infuriated prosecutors and police, one noting that his remarks “will be used as a stick to beat the police with for years”.

The context of the case was government paranoia over the Black Panthers and other Black power organisations, student riots in Paris, violent Civil Rights protests in the USA and disturbances in the Caribbean. Underlying it all, though, was a deeper anxiety and uncertainty about Britain’s place in a post-colonial world and perplexity about the new multiracial and multicultural society that was taking shape in the UK’s cities.

In a nice reversal of fortunes, the policemen involved are either forgotten or reviled, whereas a number of the defendants achieved distinction in their fields. Howe became a well-known writer and broadcaster, Beese is a top educationalist and Jones-Lecointe works in Trinidad as a senior haematologist. The police photographs (including of the pig’s head) are now a valuable record of an iconic event in British Black history.

Any SN readers interested in getting hands on with history should go to discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk and start exploring the catalogue. For more on the Mangrove Nine, we recommend MEPO 21/31 and HO 325/143!