T. Ras Makonnen

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T. Ras Makonnen (c. 7 October 1909 - 18 December 1983, Nairobi) was a Guyanese-born, Pan-African financier and activist.


Makonnen was born George Thomas N. Griffiths in Buxton, Guyana. His paternal grandfather was reputedly born in Tigre, Ethiopia, and taken to British Guiana by a Scottish miner.[1] Makonnen completed his secondary school in Guyana, before leaving in 1927 to study mineralogy in Texas, A part-time involvement with the YMCA in Beaumont, Texas soon became a full-time post, which included establishing services for the Black population of the town, including services to businessmen – and even a brass band for the 60,000 Black workers of the Magnolia Petroleum Company. This resulted in speaking engagements around the USA and attendance at YMCA international conferences. At one of these Griffith met Max Yergan, who had been a YMCA ‘missionary’ in South Africa; this was probably Griffith’s introduction to Africa. From Texas in 1932 Griffith went north, to Cornell University, where he briefly studied agriculture and worked in the library. Cornell’s student body included a number of Ethiopians, with whom he discussed the looming Ethiopian crisis. It was at this time that Griffith changed his name to Makonnen. His holidays were spent in Harlem, New York City, where he participated in the agitation against high rents. He and his West Indian and African friends (including Nnamdi Azikiwe) formed the Libyan Institute, where the members ‘read learned papers on aspects of Africa’. (Pan-Africanism from Within, p.93) He also listened on the street corners and at other meetings to Black socialists and communists, including GEORGE PADMORE, ‘but never became a party man; [though] I borrowed a lot from them’ (p.103). He also lent his energies to the Brookwood Labour College, working on ‘a primer on American history and a dictionary of terms essential to the workers’ movement’ (p.105). Makonnen’s reading, to judge by his memoirs, was broad; it is known, for example, that he and Kenyatta visited Jamaican-born Theophilus Scholes to thank him for the great stimulus they had derived from reading his books, which were critical studies of British imperialism and racism. Cornell University in 1933.[2] During the Second Italo-Abyssinian War in 1935, he changed his name to emphasize his African roots. His children are: T'Shai R. Makonnen, Desta Makonnen, Lorenzo Makonnen and Sheba Makonnen.

Move to America[edit]

In 1927, Makonnen went to Beaumont, Texas where he wanted to study mineralogy. Shortly after his arrival in Texas he was drawn into YMCA activities through which he developed his solidarity with the African cause and laid the foundation for his repute as a gifted speaker. Makonnen was actively engaged in the raging debates of those days on the comparative merits of the views of DuBois and Marcus Garvey. Makonnen's collaboration with George Padmore, then Malcolm Nurse; a nephew of Sylvester Williams, also dates from this period. In 1933, Makonnen moved to Cornell University where he continued his activities as a champion of the cause of Black people. He learnt from men like the economist, Scott-Nearing and the anthropologist Franz Boas. His brief flirtation with the radical American left during this period, drew in his own words, jocular remarks from the Nigerian Azikiwe and the Ugandan Kalibala, who were also in America around that time. A good number of his generation got their early political education from associations on the left of the political spectrum. [2]

Move to Europe[edit]

In 1935 Makonnen moved to Europe. It was during a brief visit in London, enroute to Denmark where he met and shared a platform with CLR James and Jomo Kenyatta at a meeting in Trafalgar Square on the Ethiopian crisis organised by the International African Friends of Ethiopia (IAFE). It was around this time that Mussolini unravelled his designs on Ethiopia that the young Griffiths changed his name to Makonnen, when he was part of a delegation, that included Jomo Kenyatta and ITA Wallace Johnson; to welcome Haile Selassie to the City of Bath. Together with people like Makonnen Desta, Peter Mbiyu Koinange, Workineh Martin and others, Makonnen worked to publicise the Ethiopian crisis. Makonnen went to the Royal Agricultural College in Copenhagen, Denmark, After about 18 months he was deported from Denmark for suggesting that the mustard sold by Denmark to Italy was being used in the manufacture of the mustard gas being used in Abyssinia. Italian invasion of Ethiopia.[1] On the boat he met Paul Robeson, who had then left America and was establishing a name for himself at the Unity Theater in London. Makonnen subsequently settled in London in 1937. He became an active member of the International African Service Bureau that had formed under George Padmore's leadership. Writing about Makonnen's role in the Bureau, historian Carol Polsgrove presents him as the group's business manager, selling its journal, Pan Africa, at political meetings and handling the bills.[3] Makonnen was not only an activist, he was also entrepreneurial. Makonnen visited Russia, perhaps in the company of Jomo Kenyatta – but never espoused communism. Not that he wanted to prevent ‘Africans from reading literature on Marxism. On the contrary.’ But he did not want them to join the British Communist Party, whose leader, he claimed, ‘was not in politics to break up the British Empire any more than Churchill’ (p.159). He advised that if you were interested in communism, fine; but work out for yourself how to apply its principles, don’t let someone else dictate to you.

In London Makonnen became a founder member of the first attempt to form a Pan-African Federation in mid-1936, which brought together representatives from North, South, East and West Africa, and the Caribbean. The Federation’s secretary was ‘Tomasa Rwaki Griffith’, who signed himself ‘Tomasa R. Makonnen’ in a letter (September 1936) to Tufuhin G.E. Moore of the Gold Coast, who was in London protesting against low cocoa prices.

Makonnen naturally also became involved with IAFA, which was chaired by C.L.R. JAMES; one of its leading members was Jomo Kenyatta. After the Italian conquest of Abyssinia, IAFA transformed itself into the International African Service Bureau (IASB), under the chairmanship of Padmore, with Makonnen as ‘executive and publicity secretary’. Makonnen drafted the constitution. The IASB stood for ‘the progress and social advancement of Africans at home and abroad; full economic, political and racial equality; and for self-determination’. The Bureau aimed to ‘co-ordinate and centralize’ Black organisations around the world and link them ‘in closer fraternal relations’ with one another, and with ‘sympathetic’ White organisations. Membership of the IASB was restricted to Blacks, but Whites could become associate members.

The office of the IASB, which was administered and funded through the efforts of Makonnen, was a ‘regular mecca for all revolutionaries from all the colonies and a rendezvous for the Left’; it also provided a place to stay for colonials. ‘[Makonnen] did a colossal job’, C.L.R. James wrote, ‘he cooked, and cleaned the place himself … [And] he was no mean agitator himself’.

The IASB was in touch with colonial organisations such as the Gold Coast Aborigines Rights Protection Society, which solicited its support for its 1935 petition regarding monopolistic control of cocoa exports. It organised various protest meetings in Trafalgar Square and sent speakers, including Makonnen, as far afield as Belfast and Scotland. On the Sunday platforms at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park Makonnen and other IASB speakers drew a crowd by using Prince Monolulu as the first speaker. Monolulu, who earned an occasionally lucrative living as a race-course tipster, had a ‘kind of Rasputin tone [and] traded in subtle vulgarity of a high order’. (Né Peter McKay, Monolulu was probably born in the Caribbean; he was one of the funders of the IASB.) Makonnen himself is described by NKRUMAH as a ‘gifted speaker’. There, and at left-wing and other meetings, Makonnen assiduously sold the IASB’s newspaper.

After the outbreak of the Second World War Makonnen moved to Manchester, where he studied history at Manchester University.[1] True to his entrepreneurial spirit, he opened four restaurants, the profits from which went towards his political work. The most significant of these efforts was the Fifth Pan African Congress and the allied Pan Africa publication. His fraternity with Kwame Nkrumah Ghana, Peter Abrahams South Africa, Fadipe Nigeria and DuBois also developed during this period[2] He continued to be active in the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and, along with George Padmore and the Gold Coast's Kwame Nkrumah, helped organize the fifth Pan-African Congress in 1945. He also hosted visitors from Africa and opened a bookstore and a mail-order book service. In 1947 he started a new publication, Pan-Africa, which he hoped would be "a reflection of the everyday life and deeds of the African people". He distributed it across Africa and the Americas, but it was hard to collect fees, and in some places bookstores and subscribers were nervous about being seen with what was then, under colonial rule, a hard hitting publication that challenged the imposed authority of colonialism. The periodical ceased publication the year after it began.[4] During the post war years, Makonnen worked with members of the Somali Youth League in Britain to improve Somali-Ethiopia relations. Makonnen was one of the last people to see Kenyatta before he left Britain to return to Kenya. Indeed, after Kenyatta's departure from Britain and years later when his arrest was imminent, Makonnen was questioned by the British MI-5 about his contacts with Kenyatta. Makonnen's political contacts and activities also included work with the Sudanese Umma and particular with men like Abdalla Khalil Bey and Mohammed Majoub

In July 1937 the Bureau had begun to publish a duplicated paper, Africa and the World, whose 14 August 1937 (and apparently final) issue noted that Makonnen had been among the speakers at a Trafalgar Square meeting regarding the situation in the West Indies, where there was widespread agitation for civil and trade union rights. He also spoke to peace groups, on socialist/labour platforms, and to the Left Book Club. By 1938 seemingly enough money had been raised not only to publish a printed monthly paper, International African Opinion (IAO) but also a number of pamphlets which were sold in Britain and sent surreptitiously overseas to colleagues in the West Indies and East and West Africa. In its February–March 1939 issue the IAO published an article by Makonnen entilted ‘A plea for Negro self-government’, which analysed the economic motives for the subjection and exploitation of Black peoples everywhere and advised ‘African peoples of the West to aim in political philosophy and corres-ponding action at the establishment of the complete economic, social and political control of their own destinies’. The IAO was soon banned in East Africa and probably elsewhere in the British colonies.

Clearly Makonnen’s contribution as treasurer must have been immense – according to C.L.R. James, he did all the organising for the IASB, acted as a publicity agent – and provided the finance.

The life of IAO was as brief as that of its predecessor: the final issue was published in February–March 1939. However, the IASB did not cease publishing: the treasurer raised enough money to continue publishing pamphlets, whose authors included Kenyatta and ERIC WILLIAMS. Makonnen served as an advisory editor.

Probably in 1938 Makonnen moved to Manchester, where he opened a number of restaurants and an exclusive nightclub, all of which did exceptionally well, especially after the arrival of US, especially African American, troops in the area during the Second World War. Among his 62 employees was Jomo Kenyatta. He also opened a bookshop, which catered to the students at the nearby Manchester University, and eventually owned a number of houses which he let to Black people.

Makonnen also furthered his interests in the cooperative movement by studying at the Co-operative College in 1939–40 and lecturing on the movement to local organisations. For a while he was also a student at Manchester University taking a course in British history; a fellow student believed he was an ‘Ethiopian noble exile

… he was an older man, kept very much to himself … He did not continue with the course’. Makonnen also became an active member of the local Labour Party and was even invited to speak at the prestigious County Forum, where his talk on ‘The Myth of Empire’ must have evoked some criticism. At about this time he formed the African Co-operative League with Sierra Leonean Laminah Sankoh, which he wanted to link ‘with our traditional African form of co-operation’, in the hope of replacing purely exploitative, capitalist enterprise among Africans.

The Pan-African Federation (PAF) was re-formed in Manchester in 1944 under the presidency of Dr Peter Milliard, a politically active physician of British Guianese origins; Makonnen was the secretary. The PAF organised a Pan-African Congress, convened in Manchester in July 1945, with delegates and representatives from the Black world. The principal political organiser of the Congress was George Padmore, assisted by the recently arrived Francis (Kwame) Nkrumah. In order to maintain continuity with previous Congresses, W.E.B. DU BOIS , who had called four of them, was invited to chair the Manchester Congress. ‘One important thing that came out of the Congress’, Makonnen believed, was ‘that the struggle was not to be found in Europe for the majority of us. The old idea that you could do more work for liberation outside Africa was being laid aside’. (Pan-Africanism from Within, p.168) Both Nkrumah and Kenyatta were soon to return to Africa. At the Congress Makonnen had spoken about Ethiopia, attacking British policies which he claimed were aimed at dismembering Ethiopia in order to both enlarge the British empire and restore some sovereignty there to Italy to enable Italy to repay a British loan.

In mid-1946 Makonnen began to advertise the ‘Panaf Service’ as ‘importers and exporters, publishers, booksellers, printers, and manufacturers’ representatives’, based at his premises at 58 Oxford Road, Manchester, which was also the PAF’s home. Profits from these new activities went to finance the PAF, which maintained old contacts and made new ones with political groups and activists in Africa and the Caribbean whose concerns were publicised and whose delegations to Britain were helped when possible. The PAF attempted to break down ‘clannish’ and tribal divisions both in Britain and Africa, which Makonnen felt were ‘obstacles to pan-Africanism’ (ibid., p.190). It also organised many political meetings, for example criticising the British government’s non-cooperation with the UN’s attempts to introduce democracy to the colonies, supporting the 1945 strike in Nigeria and celebrating the centenary of Liberian independence. The PAF set up an Asiatic-African United Front Committee to foster cooperation between all ‘subject peoples’ and attempted to set up a Pan-African Committee in Paris.

The PAF Secretary, after holding a meeting on the issue and consulting widely (for example with Kobina Sekyi of the Aborigines’ Rights Protection Society in the Gold Coast, with whom Makonnen and the PAF had a long relationship), sent a memorandum to the United Nations about the appointment of Barbadian Grantley Adams to the Trusteeship Council. Adams had recently publicly defended British imperialism. Makonnen questioned the UN about the appointment, as ‘colonial people’ had not been consulted about it; and Adams had not consulted them about the stance he should take on issues affecting them.

The PAF also got involved in the ever-increasing racial incidents in the UK. For example, it – or Makonnen – stood bail for Black seamen accused of mutiny in Plymouth. As the PAF had little faith in White British barristers, in 1946 it raised the funds to bring the eminent Jamaican Norman Manley to Britain to defend a Jamaican airman accused of murder. (The man was acquitted.) In 1948 it demanded a government investigation of the racial riots which had taken place in Liverpool. Makonnen himself corresponded with the city’s mayor and obtained an interview with the chief constable. Always using his profits to help his fellow Blacks, Makonnen gave £5,000 to the founding of a home for the abandoned children fathered by Black servicemen with White women who did not want to keep their ‘coloured’ babies.

Makonnen maintained his involvement with Ethiopia which had begun with the campaigns against the1935 invasion. He had helped to organise the exiled Emperor Menelik’s retinue. Post-war, he raised funds for the Princess Tsehai Memorial Hospital. In 1946 the PAF questioned the British government over the unkept promises which had been made to Ethiopia, and Makonnen supported the pro-Ethiopia campaigns organised by Sylvia Pankhurst, for example for the restoration of Eritrea and Somalia to Ethiopia. At this 19 June meeting he argued that the problems of Africa were ‘attributable to Europe’s master-race principle’.

In 1947 Makonnen began to publish a journal, Pan-Africa, a ‘monthly journal of African life, history and thought’. He was its publisher and managing editor; the editor was Dinah Stock; Padmore, Kenyatta and Nkrumah were among the associate and contributing editors. The journal sought and attracted articles from and readership in the colonised world as well as the USA. By October 1947 the Belgian Government banned the journal from the ‘Belgian’ Congo; within another few months it was banned by the East African colonial governments as seditious. This loss of readership resulted in the journal’s demise in early 1948. Though no copies have remained, it appears that the journal also published news-releases (which reached, for example, the Gold Coast) and a copy of the petition to the United Nations, ‘Statement on the Denial of Human Rights to Minorities in the Case of Citizens of Negro Descent in the USA’. The journal, also funded by Makonnen, was – naturally – based at 58 Oxford Road.

Having ‘no ties with Guyana’, and as ‘all my travelling … was to get knowledge to prepare me for working in the West Indies or Africa’,

Move to Africa[edit]

In 1957 Makonnen emigrated to Ghana. As he had been very critical of Nkrumah in 1948, because of Nkrumah’s pro-communist associates in London, this move either indicated a change of perception, or hopes induced by Padmore’s presence there. Makonnen joined Kwame Nkrumah and George Padmore there and helped to found the Organization of African Unity. Initially in Ghana, he worked with Padmore as an Adviser on African Affairs, subsequently moving to the newly established African Affairs Center as Director. It was in this capacity that he came into contact with Nkomo, Lumumba, Kaunda, Roberto, Banda and other leaders of African opinion. He was arrested following a coup in Ghana in 1966 and spent time in prison before his release was secured by Jomo Kenyatta, who had been an IASB colleague in Britain. Makonnen then worked for the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and became a citizen of Kenya in 1969. In Kenya Makonnen offered counsel and comfort to the South African community exiled there and forged friendships with men like Raboroko a founding member of PAC and members of the ANC[2] Kenneth King, a professor at the University of Nairobi, interviewed Makonnen over nine months and organized the content of the interviews into a book that described Makonnen's political life, Pan-Africanism from Within (1973).[5]

In his final years Makonnen became increasingly perturbed with the general results of independence, especially African Unity which remained elusive. Too often he felt that excessive materialism, pomp and circumstance had become overriding preoccupations of independent Africa. Makonnen died in Nairobi in 1983. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=T._Ras_Makonnen&action=edit&section=4


  • Makonnen, Ras; King, Kenneth (1973). Pan-Africanism from Within. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-572018-1. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  • Polsgrove, Carol. Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009.
  • Hakim Addi and Marika Sherwood ' 'Pan African History" "


  1. ^ a b c Amon Saba Sakaana, "Makonnen, Ras", in David Dabydeen, John Gilmore, Cecily Jones (eds), The Oxford Companion to Black British History, Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 283.
  2. ^ a b c d "Ras Makonnen: True Pan-Africanist. An Appreciation: The Weekly Review (Nairobi), January 6, 1984", in Prah, K. K. (1998). Beyond the Color Line: Pan-Africanist disputations : selected sketches, letters, papers, and reviews. Africa World Press. ISBN 978-0-86543-630-5. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  3. ^ Carol Polsgrove, Ending British Rule in Africa: Writers in a Common Cause (2009), pp. 26, 35-36.
  4. ^ Polsgrove, Ending British Rule, pp. 80, 87-89.
  5. ^ Polsgrove, Ending British Rule, pp. 166-167.