‘Mak’: Ras T Makonnen, the unrecognized hero of the Pan-African Movement

Plaque commemorating 5th Pan-African Conference

Plaque commemorating 5th Pan-African Congress, on site of the former Chorlton-upon-Medlock town hall. KGGucwa, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jack A. W. Bowman

Note: This article employs both capitalised and non-capitalised uses of the term pan-Africanism. This is done to distinguish between the notion and political thought of ‘pan-Africanism’, and the ‘Pan-African’ movement based in Britain from the 1930s onwards, that utilised this pan-African thought. The two are not interchangeable as they represent two different things. One is a flexible and ever-changing idea interpreted differently by a variety of agents, whilst the other is the movement those agents built whilst grappling with the idea of the former. Writing nuanced and critical histories of the nonlinear and sometimes fragmented Pan-African movement means disposing of the simplified idea of a single unified group. Put simply, the study of the movement (Pan) must be underscored by that of the idea (pan).

In this blog, the term Black is used to mean of African and/or African-Caribbean heritage, rather than the broader usage of the term. This is in line with the Journal of Pan African Studies guidelines, which seeks to use ‘affirmative African centred logic and language of liberation’. 

Alfred Gaisie arrived in Britain from Ghana, then the Gold Coast, in 1938. His father, a worker for Unilever, had made the journey to England for employment reasons but soon after reaching Manchester his poor health further declined and he passed away. Gaisie was left alone in a foreign country, where he was treated as an outsider. As he put it, ‘Discrimination was at a high peak. We could never get a job or accommodation anywhere.’[i] He headed to Manchester’s Pitman College to secure qualifications and learnt the basics of bookkeeping and typing, before applying to tutorial college with the aim of enrolling at Manchester University. Still isolated, knowing no-one, and with little to no money Gaisie struggled to make ends meet. It was while Gaisie was sitting in the college refectory that a man approached him and, after learning of his situation and Gold Coast heritage, invited Gaisie to stay with him and a friend for reduced rent. Gaisie gladly accepted, having enjoyed his first real conversation in Britain, and soon moved into 16 Mayfield Road, Whalley Range. The three men were busy in the day but always met up in the evening and a few months later, when the War started, joined as firewatchers at the University. This entitled them to a free breakfast and dinner and brought Gaisie and his new flatmate closer. Speaking many years later Gaisie warmly reflects on these first meetings with, as he affectionately called him, ‘my father, my uncle Mak’ and credits him as the greatest influence upon his life.[ii]

Soon Mak and Gaisie established a restaurant for the Black population of Manchester, followed by another, and then a nightclub. They built a mini-empire with Mak at the helm and Gaisie running any and all errands, delivering messages to and from London, and various other tasks. One such visit took him to George Padmore’s  flat at 22 Cranleigh Street, London which famously operated as an informal hub for the Pan-African movement. After meeting with Nancy Cunard there, Gaisie returned to Mak in Manchester. Another time, Mak left Gaisie in charge whilst visiting Paris. He recounts how, upon his return, ‘out of the blue, Mak said that “We’re going to have a conference and this conference is going to be called the Pan-African Congress” ’. Gaisie replied ‘Well Mak, I don’t understand your politics, whatever you want us to do we are at your disposal.’[iii] Such was the bond between Gaisie and his ‘father’ Mak.

The man who Gaisie knew as  ‘Mak’ was Ras T. Makonnen, Guyanese Pan-African financier and businessman. Alfred Gaisie was just one of many Black people in whose lives Makonnen played an important part. The support and mentoring that he offered Gaisie illustrate his attitudes, values and influence. He was a man who sought to uplift the whole of the Black population, often at great personal cost and effort. He was equal parts entrepreneur, political activist, and editor, and was at the centre of the Pan-African reinvention from the mid-1930s onwards. However, Makonnen is rarely a figure of historical enquiry and in the surrounding Pan-African historiography he is mentioned infrequently, treated as a small figure in the global movement. This brief biography suggests that he held much influence within the movement and ideology of Pan-Africanism, and understanding his life is an important part of rediscovering and understanding the inner workings of the movement.

The lack of detailed research upon Makonnen is nothing new; indeed, even at his funeral there were few distinguished guests to testify to his importance and legacy. Gaisie, in his eulogy, ruefully remarked, ‘Not one head of state was present and it was this man who has created, given you people the seats you are sitting in and you could only send your representatives into this church.’[iv] His shock and dismay at the lack of recognition of Makonnen and his role in the movement  echoes through the decades and to the present day; as one of the chief architects of the Manchester Congress, Mak remains in relative obscurity.

Map of British Guiana 1908
British Guiana 1908. Great Britain. Ordnance Survey, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Early life

Ras T. Makonnen was born George Thomas Nathaniel Griffith in Buxton, British Guiana, in 1909. The son of a miner and grandson of an Ethiopian who had travelled to Guyana to begin a mining company, he came from a large family of many aunts and uncles. The family, although not well-off, had done well enough in post-slavery Guyana, were of considerable standing locally and took an active and instrumental role in village politics and infrastructure.  This political streak was most prominent in his grandmother who, Makonnen later said, ‘was part of the proud element which had come into its own after slavery.’[v] At the centre of an emerging village culture, she helped form local laws and customs and would ring the town bell to assemble inhabitants for meetings. In one tale he describes how she led a group of women to lie down on the nearby railway line to get the attention of regional government officials. Raised in this large family community with the village matriarch and political activist as his grandmother, Griffith was awake to life outside of Buxton. After secondary education he attended Queen’s College in the capital, Georgetown; this was around the end of World War I and amidst the rising pan-African agenda.

Engaged by W. E. B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington’s famous arguments and against the backdrop of an emerging Garvey movement, Griffith’s attention moved to America. He and his cousin and childhood friend David Talbot had for a while been interested in local politics, but the post-war surge of Black activist movements such as Garveyism developed their political awareness of the struggles beyond the borders of British Guiana. In late 1927 Griffith attained a student visa and travelled to Texas via New Orleans to study mineralogy. Ironically, Griffith’s arrival came just days before Marcus Garvey, the activist whose rhetoric of Black nationalism and unification had captured Makonnen’s attention, was deported back to Jamaica for the final time. Following this, the last of his expulsions from the USA after years of government criticism and censorship, Garvey’s movement began to fade in influence. Whilst studying at college Griffith became involved with the Beaumont YMCA in Texas, possibly upon the recommendation of fellow West Indian associates. He drove local activities among Black colleges and travelled further afield to Chicago and Virginia in the summers. This was Griffith’s first interaction with students from Africa and further developed the political awareness he had when leaving Guyana. Whilst attending an international YMCA conference in Toronto Griffith was offered a scholarship to continue his studies there, and in early 1932 he left Texas for Canada via New York. However, immigration issues stopped him from entering Canada and through YMCA contacts and friends Griffith was granted a place at the Ivy League Cornell University.                    

 While studying agriculture at Cornell from 1932 to late 1934, and so in close proximity to New York City, Griffith became ever more political. He would often visit Harlem and through new Ethiopian student friends he learned of the impending Italian re-invasion of Abyssinia. It was also around this time that he got to know members of the white Left and while engaging with the political culture in Harlem developed his own political understandings further. This time at Cornell can be seen as Griffith’s first proper integration into a wider global political project, as he engaged with new ideas and thinkers, and operated within a community of Black activists. Griffith left for Copenhagen around 1935 to continue his agricultural studies, although often he visited nearby European countries including England and Germany, continuing his interest in the emerging ‘new wave’ of Pan-Africanism. Although accounts vary it seems it was around this time that he changed his name, both reflecting his Ethiopian heritage and linking himself more explicitly to the struggles of Blacks amidst the Abyssinian crisis. In mid-1936 his name appears (as Secretary of an early iteration of the Pan-African Federation, which he likely co-founded) as Tomasa Rwaki Griffith.[vi] In the September of the same year he signed himself as Tomasa R. Makonnen and by 1937 he was appearing as T. R. Makonnen on all correspondence and letterheads.

 His change in name holds more importance than just a passing idea, however, and points to the significant political change Griffith experienced at this time. With T. R. now standing for Tafari Ras, his name became the same as Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, whose full name was Lij Tafari Makonnen.  Lij being a title to indicate a child of noble birth, Makonnen his father’s name, and Tafari his given name. Tafari roughly translates as ‘respected’ or ‘venerated’ one. The ‘Ras’ in Makonnen’s name literally translates as ‘head’ and was historically used to distinguish nobility in Ethiopia. Tafari Ras Makonnen, signed T. R. Makonnen, or commonly said as Ras T. Makonnen in Western form, thus has strong historical links to Ethiopian nobility and tradition. Griffith’s adoption of the name was not just a statement of his heritage, or rather what he wanted portrayed as his heritage, but also an expression of his politics. The Ethiopian royalty stood as an outlier across the African continent and was often heralded by contemporary activists as proof that Blacks were, and had been for centuries, capable of a Western-style regal structure. Makonnen wanted to tap into this history and often argued of the achievements of ancient Egypt as expressive of the wider African continent and mindset. In contrast to Kwame Nkrumah’s later politics, Makonnen sought to ground African history not in tribal outcrops but in the historical achievements of Egypt and Ethiopia. In fact, a comparison between the two men’s names neatly illustrates this point. Nkrumah’s full name was Francis Nwia Kofi Nkrumah. His given name Kwame designates the day on which he was born, a Saturday, with Nkrumah representing that he was the ninth child of his father. Nkrumah kept these names of the Akan tradition, a ‘meta-ethnicity’ of south Ghana, labelling himself as a true son of rural Africa. Makonnen on the other hand sought to express the regal heritage and historic might of Ethiopia, and a monarchy similar to that of the West. Likewise, their politics followed similar suits, Makonnen a champion of Western means in Black hands, Nkrumah an adherent of tribal mentality and the strength of rural Africa.

Makonnen settled in England for good in 1937 and lived in London for two years before moving north to Manchester. During this time in London, he initially shared a flat with George Padmore, Trinidadian author, journalist and Pan-African, before moving into his own place near Paddington Station. While he was living with Padmore, the pair’s political views gradually became more closely aligned, as Padmore began to relinquish previous Communist leanings. Padmore’s recent ejection from the Communist Party probably made an already skeptical Makonnen even more dismissive of political ideologies (and Communism in particular), cementing his belief that any all-encompassing political or social creed was limiting to some degree. Makonnen was part of the founding of the International African Service Bureau (IASB) that was born of the International Friends of Abyssinia (IAFA) group. During these two years Makonnen and Padmore campaigned tirelessly for the Pan-African cause, attending and organising meetings weekly, giving speeches where possible, and writing and editing articles to send to print. Makonnen was more the speaker, often applauded for his Hyde Park soap box performances, whilst Padmore was more at ease with pen in hand. The two made a formidable team and formed a bond that would last to the end of their days.


In 1939 Makonnen, along with Pan-Africanist and fellow Guyanese doctor Peter Milliard, made the move up to Manchester. It was here that Makonnen truly made his mark, and Manchester became the financial basis of much of the Pan-African movement with Makonnen at its centre.  Makonnen himself, in a rare romantic reminiscence, says he saw himself as Engels to Padmore’s Marx, creating funds up in the North of England to support the ideological figurehead of their movement.[vii] Perhaps even more poetically, Manchester was historically a hub of the textile and cotton industry and a former ‘slave-city’ of Britain,  and in an almost ironic twist this previous hub of Black oppression was becoming the centre of the rising tide against the historic injustices. As Makonnen put it, ‘I felt like we were almost mimicking history.’[viii]

 The partial extent of Makonnen’s ‘empire’ in Manchester, reproduced with permission from Marika Sherwood from her book Manchester and the 1945 Pan-African Congress (Savannah Press, 1995)

 Makonnen soon established a presence in Manchester and by the end of 1939 was sharing a flat with Gaisie and another man, possibly the Nigerian Adenyi James, at 16 Mayfield Road. Makonnen soon decided to open a restaurant, due partly to the lack of Black establishments in the area, as well as to his seeing an opportunity with the war coming to sustain himself and those close to him. Gaisie remembers how they found a building on Oxford Street, a ‘shackle’ as he put it, with a broken door and rat-infested interior.[ix] Makonnen himself cleaned, repaired, and decorated the restaurant with furniture from local Hungarians, funds from Gaisie’s few friends in Liverpool, and the help of his flatmates. In total they had a budget of £65. Makonnen lobbied local Labour MP Leslie Lever (future mayor of Manchester) and Gaisie was dispatched to Padmore’s flat in London to see if any spare money could be drummed up. Within a month or so the restaurant was open for business; it featured predominantly Ethiopian as well as other African and English foods. Makonnen was the cook, and Gaisie the waiter, along with some female classmates who cleaned tables part-time. Black soldiers from nearby Warrington, Black people living locally, and Makonnen’s growing circle of friends and acquaintances would often eat at the restaurant which served all three meals throughout the day. Gaisie notes how it was the only restaurant in Manchester serving African cuisine and was such a success that they had to hire other staff to run it: apparently, a Chinese chef and three Greek waiters. Soon they established another restaurant, the Cosmopolitan, near a local cinema and dancehall, the Gaumont. This was just across the street from the Town Hall where the 1945 Congress would be held. Soon this area of Manchester came to life under Makonnen’s influence as his businesses thrived, drawing in both locals and travellers. Nat King Cole and his daughter visited, as well as boxer Joe Louis. It had become the centre of Manchester’s Black social scene. He had also taken over a nearby nightclub, cementing his role as local landlord and entrepreneur. It was also around this time that Makonnen began to think about opening a publishing house and bookshop; the latter, The Economist, was opened first but soon the Pan-African Publishing Co. Ltd.was set up. By the time planning of the Congress came about Manchester had become the obvious location due to Makonnen’s influence.[x]

Pan-African Congress and after

By 1944 talks were underway in planning a Pan-African Congress. Makonnen had built a strong hub of influence in Manchester, building both political and economic foundations, and was in a position to contribute serious funds to the movement. Jomo Kenyatta was now working at one of the restaurants, reportedly happy peeling potatoes in a basement as long as he had a bottle of Burgundy.[xi] Gaisie began writing letters and invitations on Makonnen’s behalf to activists across the world nearly a year before the Congress would be held. In preparation for the conference Makonnen decided a further restaurant needed to be opened (in addition to his successful Seven Stars restaurant) in order to both fund the Congress and cater for the many delegates who would attend. He lobbied Lever, reminding him of the help Makonnen had given him on his route to Parliament, and got permission to use Chorlton Town Hall. Tickets were bought for delegates travelling from abroad and across the country, including Joe Appiah, Kojo Botsio, a Dr. Amatoe, Obafemi Awolowo, and I. T. A. Wallace Johnson, among many others. Makonnen provided the accommodation for many of the delegates, paying for rooms in four local hotels (including the nearby Grosvenor Hotel and the Midland Hotel), and of course all restaurants under his ownership were catering for the sizeable group. As Gaisie puts it, Makonnen ‘was the brain behind the whole thing.’[xii]

At the Congress itself Makonnen played a central role, chairing and contributing to a session entitled ‘Ethiopia and the Black Republics’ held on 17th October, being appointed to the Standing Orders Committee, and acting as Treasurer for the Congress. The last is probably why a detailed financial statement was drafted, and even included in Padmore’s political pamphlet Colonial and Coloured Unity, which appeared as a product of the Congress.[xiii] At the end of the conference it was Makonnen who was chosen to present Du Bois with a silver cigarette box, a token of the new generation’s gratitude for all his previous work. (Of course it too was also itemised by Makonnen, at the cost of £18 (around £780 now). Even at the end of the conference he was still helping who he could, driving Kenyatta to the port to catch the boat back to Mombassa (and this after having paid for a delegation to head back first to assure Kenyatta it was safe for his return). Upon Makonnen’s return to Manchester he was promptly taken in by police and interviewed for hours on end.[xiv] This, just days after the Congress, was unsurprising (due to the constant surveillance of Pan African and Independence activists) but still infuriating to Makonnen.

Soon after the Congress a proper attempt was made to sustain the rising Pan-African momentum, with the founding of the Pan-African Federation, and as part of this a new journal was proposed: Pan-Africa. Makonnen was to be the editor and, tying in with his new bookshop and publishing house, would facilitate its production and distribution. This put Makonnen solely in charge of the official mouthpiece of the energised and increasingly prominent movement. Pan-Africa was published over nearly eighteen months, from January 1947 to April 1948, in a period crucial for the movement. The end of the War, the Independence of India, and increasing independence activism in Kenya, the Gold Coast, and other African nations, put the focus firmly on the Pan-African movement. For many years that followed Makonnen continued to write and speak at events, lobby sympathetic parties, and correspond with Padmore. However, with the movement moving more towards Africa, geographically and ideologically, the British-based wing of Pan-Africanism began to stagnate. Makonnen worked more on local projects, setting up a hostel for Africans with nowhere to stay and a new club for socialising, and sold two of the restaurants rather than continue to occupy himself with running them. By 1956 Makonnen moved to the (then named) Gold Coast to join Padmore as an advisor to Nkrumah. Soon after Ghanaian independence he was given a role in an obscure government department, partially due to Ghanaian distrust of the various outsiders in Nkrumah’s inner circle, but also due to the disagreements Makonnen and Nkrumah had over the future of Pan-Africanism. At the time of Nkrumah’s overthrow in 1966 Makonnen was head of the state bakeries, although he entered even this placeholder role with vigour and his business-savvy mindset, introducing a more cost-effective and nutritious loaf for the population. Due to his proximity to Nkrumah he was imprisoned, but later released due to Kenyatta’s incessant lobbying and bargaining for his freedom.[xv]

Makonnen moved to Kenya in 1967 and gained citizenship in 1969. Given some land by Kenyatta he led a quieter life, sometimes lecturing at local colleges or giving short speeches in memory of past Pan-African events. After several tens of hours of interviews with Pan-African historian Kenneth King, then lecturing at the University of Nairobi, his autobiography was released in 1973. His time in Kenya prompted the reflection for this autobiography, as Makonnen stood as one of the last of the Manchester Pan-Africanists still alive. One of the few to see a fully independent Africa, he worried for its future, and was increasingly critical of projects like the Organisation of African Unity, which he saw as a sharp departure from the Pan-Africanism of the 1930s and 40s. He passed away in December 1983 in Nairobi to little fanfare or praise. Although he wanted his remains interred in Ghana alongside Padmore’s when a cooperative government was reinstalled, he still lies in Kenyan soil. With his death came the final gasp from that generation of Pan-Africanists; the once radicals who took over from Du Bois and Blyden had similarly faded into the past, and none faded from memory more than T. R. Makonnen.


[i] Alfred Gaisie and Robin Grinter Interview Transcript, GB 3228 34/3, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre, Manchester University, Manchester, UK, p. 1.
[ii] ibid.
[ii] ibid.
[iii] ibid., p. 3
[iv] ibid., p. 10.
[v] Ras Makonnen, Pan-Africanism from Within, as recorded and edited by Kenneth King (London, 1973), p. 8
[vi] Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood, Pan-African History: Political figures from Africa and the Diaspora since 1787 (London, 2003), p. 118.
[vii] Makonnen, Pan-Africanism from Within, p. 164.
[viii] ibid.
[ix] Transcript of Gaisie Interview, p. 2.
[x] Makonnen, Pan-Africanism from Within, p. 163; Carol Polsgrove, Ending British rule in Africa (Manchester, 2009), p. 75; Hakim Adi, ‘Pan-Africanism in Britain: Background to the 1945 Manchester Congress’, in Hakim Adi and Marika Sherwood (eds.), The 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress Revisited with Colonial and … Coloured Unity edited by George Padmore (London, 1995), p. 13.
[xi] Transcript of Gaisie Interview,p. 4.
[xii] ibid.
[xiii] George Padmore (ed.), Colonial and … Coloured Unity: A Programme of Action, History of the Pan-African Congress (London, 1947).
[xiv] Transcript of Gaisie Interview, pp. 5-6.
[xv] Kenneth King, ‘Ras Makonnen: A Brief Biographical Sketch’, in Makonnen, Pan-Africanism from Within,p. xi; Transcript of Gaisie Interview, p. 9.

Overviews of Key Figures

George Padmore – ‘George Padmore was a Trinidadian pan-African activist often operating at the centre of the movement from the 1930s-1950s. A tireless author and organiser, Padmore published the majority of Pan-African pamphlets and books in this period, and was involved in nearly every major event and meeting. He later went on to advise Kwame Nkrumah in the soon-to-be independent Ghana, sadly passing just months before Independence was granted.’

Marcus Garvey – ‘Jamaican activist, thinker, politician and speaker Marcus Garvey was a contentious figure in the early twentieth-century. His firebrand politics, self-stylings of grandeur and bold economic approaches carved him out as the pan-African radical of the 1910s-20s. Although his vision of the future of Africa was unrealised, his immense ideological impact on the period cannot be understated.’

Kwame Nkrumah – ‘Kwame Nkrumah, future president of independent Ghana, was a reserved figure on the fringes of pan-Africanism right up until the Manchester Congress in 1945. A protegee of Padmore’s, he later went on to build his own political thought, Consciencism and later Nkrumahism, until his rule descended into despotic tyranny. Deposed in 1966 he lived the remainder of his life in exile, leaving behind a wealth of engaging political tracts and texts.’

IASB – ‘The International African Service Bureau was the development of the International Friends of Abyssinia. The former, founded in response to growing Italian aggression to Abyssinia, soon became limited in its scope. As such Padmore, Makonnen, C. L. R. James, and others developed it into a broader organisation; the IASB. With Makonnen as its general secretary the organisation was seen as the official Pan-African vessel, organising Manchester, publishing pamphlets and journals, and collating global pan-African thought under one roof. It was later reborn as the Pan-African Federation after the Manchester Congress.’