Billy Strachan’s was a remarkable life
23 May, 2019
• THE life of Billy Strachan was exceptional, (Thanks to Caribbeans like Billy, May 16).
I never met him but when I interviewed veteran Caribbean Communists Trevor Carter and Cleston Taylor 20 years ago on their political careers, the first person both mentioned as leader, teacher and mentor was Billy Strachan. Many years later I spoke with Winston Pinder, another of his close comrades, who declared, “Billy was our father”.
I discovered the Strachan papers at the University of London and spent months trawling through the amazing information in the 40 boxes of his archive. This led to me writing my booklet Billy Strachan Above All Caribbean Man*, which has just been published.
In 1940, aged just 18, Strachan, heeding the call to the British colonies to volunteer to fight nazism in Europe, sold his bicycle and saxophone to raise the fare to sail from his native Jamaica to Britain. He joined the RAF within two days of his arrival. He trained first as a wireless operator on bombers and made his first flight in 1941.
He graduated to air gunner and then as pilot of Wellington bombers. Despite a leg wound, that caused him problems for the rest of his life, he flew an amazing 33 missions, an astonishing feat as the average life of a bomber crew was seven missions. He rose to the rank of Flight Lieutenant, a remarkable achievement for a Black person at that time.
By 1947 Strachan joined the Communist party and remained faithful to that party until his death. The next year he became secretary of the London branch of Caribbean Labour Congress, a militant socialist organisation founded in the West Indies after World War II and served in that capacity until 1956.
He was instrumental in setting up Caribbean News , the first Black British monthly newspaper dedicated to the ideals of Caribbean independence, socialism, and solidarity with colonial and oppressed people throughout the world.
Strachan was a civil rights pioneer, welcoming the Empire Windrush passengers to a meeting in London within days of their arrival in 1948. He spoke to meetings all over London and beyond opposing racism and supporting Black people in Britain from the 1940s through until illness prevented it in the 1990s.
He self-studied at home for the law, using books borrowed from the public library, as he was raising a young family at the time. After years of diligent study, he achieved his Bachelor of Law degree in 1967 and became first clerk of courts and then chief clerk of court at Clerkenwell.
As Communists could not serve in this capacity, he spoke with the Communist party leadership and it was agreed he would cease being a card-carrying member but in every other way he followed and supported the party until he died.
Strachan was held in high regard by such Caribbean leaders as the Jamaican Richard Hart, the Trinidadian John La Rose and Cheddi and Janet Jagan in Guyana.
He died in 1998 and at a memorial meeting that year Hart and La Rose, among others, spoke and the President of Guyana Janet Jagan sent this message: “Billy was my friend, my comrade, my mentor for most of my adult life.
“He gave himself fully to our struggles. He was a genuine Caribbean man always in the forefront of labour and political challenges of our time. I will miss him very much. Life without Billy is not the same.”
• Billy Strachan Above All Caribbean Man is available from me, contact email@example.com.