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date: 27 November 2021

King, Bryan Earlefree

(1906–1987)

King, Bryan Earlefree

(1906–1987)
  • Chris Birch

King, Bryan Earle (1906–1987), legal scholar and anti-colonial campaigner, was born on 22 November 1906 in Basseterre, St Kitts, the first son and second of the five children of George Howard King (1871–1951), postmaster of St Kitts, and his wife, Lilian Mary (1882–1958), sixth daughter and eighth of the ten children of Frederick Augustus Burt, sugar planter, and his wife, Alice. His father’s ancestors had been in the West Indies since the eighteenth century and his mother’s since 1635.

In 1923 King won the Leeward Islands scholarship and went to Cambridge the following year to read law at Pembroke College. He did outstandingly well in the tripos examinations and in 1928, when he was only twenty-one, he was elected a fellow of his college. He was Pembroke’s director of studies in law, and a university lecturer in Roman law, international law, and jurisprudence. He was elected a membre titulaire de l’Institut International de Philosophie du Droit et de Sociologie Juridique.

King was much concerned by the problem of juvenile delinquency, and during the Second World War he served in the children’s branch of the Home Office. Later, in 1948, he was closely involved in the founding of Kneesworth Hall, an ‘approved school’ near Royston noted for its relatively permissive regime. His Times obituarist noted:

He helped boys financially or by finding them employment or by defending them in courts. Boys on leave came as his guests to Cambridge …. Of course, he was sometimes let down, but he never allowed this to daunt him.

(The Times, 16 June 1987)

King also felt deeply about what was called ‘the colour problem’. He used a lecture on international law in 1937 to demand the expulsion of South Africa from the British Commonwealth. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he organized an apartheid relief fund in Cambridge. £1,000 was raised, and the money was used to bring a black engineer and a black medical student from South Africa to England for further education.

Early in 1945 King flew to Barbados to become the British Council’s first representative there. He soon resigned and gave his reasons, in strong language, in his first and only annual report. In the council’s files there is a note saying that his report had been destroyed as its retention was not in the council’s interest. In 1946 he returned to Cambridge. In 1951 the college agreed, at his request, that his teaching load as director of law studies should be reduced and that twelve months later another director of studies in law should be appointed. This gave him more time to follow his own inclinations. He had become disenchanted with mainstream law and increasingly preoccupied with jurisprudence and philosophy, saying that he no longer knew what the law was about.

But King knew that he was a West Indian, although he was white and had lived most of his life in England; and he identified with West Indian culture and the aspirations of West Indian people. He counted among his friends the black peers lords Constantine and Pitt and the West Indian premiers Norman Manley, Forbes Burnham, Grantley Adams, and Robert Bradshaw. According to Ian McDonald, the Trinidad poet, King’s rooms at Pembroke, occupied in the eighteenth century by the poet Thomas Gray and then by William Pitt the younger, ‘were famous for all West Indians … all over England. Any West Indian who wanted anything would go to Bryan King’ (Walmsley, 19). As Kamau Brathwaite, the Barbados poet, put it, ‘King was our godfather …. I like many other Bajans chose not only Cambridge but Pembroke because we had heard of him’ (ibid). He recalls George Lamming, also from Barbados, often coming to see King and their first meeting, soon after the publication of Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin (1953).

Many meetings of the West Indian Society, of which King was treasurer, were held in his rooms, which were like a museum of West Indian art. They are described in Lamming’s novel The Emigrants (1954). One of the paintings hanging in the rooms was the Trinidadian Dermot Louison’s 1958 self-portrait in oils. King played an important role in his painting career.

In 1956 some West Indian editors visited Cambridge, and King entertained them in his rooms. The Jamaican editor said: ‘Mr King, I see St Kitts coming up all the time. Have you ever been there?’ (King papers, priv. coll.). He had indeed. His obituary in the The Times recorded that ‘his most dramatic service to the West Indies was in 1948. The whole industrial workforce of St Kitts threatened a strike, which would have been disastrous. At his own expense King flew out and helped negotiate a settlement. This made him a close friend of the Premier, R L Bradshaw – and an idol of the working people’ (The Times, 16 June 1987).

He helped set up the West Indian Students Centre in Earl’s Court, London, and was chairman of its board from 1963 to 1969. A British Pathé newsreel shows Princess Margaret opening the centre in 1955 and King shaking hands with her. He enthusiastically supported Les Ballets Nègres, Europe’s first black dance company. When they visited Cambridge in 1952, he entertained them and helped out of his own pocket when there wasn’t enough money for wages.

The Pembroke senior parlour books dating back to 1846 provide insights into the fellows’ lives. On 21 December 1934 it is recorded that ‘Mr King gave a bottle of wine on his election to the executive council of the West India Committee’, and on 9 November 1970:

Mr King gave a bottle of his own port (drunk same night) having added honorary membership of the West Indian Students Centre to that of the Caribbean Artists Movement, and the honorary presidency of the Organisation of the State of St Kitts-Nevis-Anguilla to the deputyship for the vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies on the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth – and having been voted a souvenir to the value of forty pounds by the representatives of four Caribbean Commonwealth States, two colonies and three West Indian student organisations.

He was much involved with the Caribbean Artists Movement. His name occurs eight times in the index to Anne Walmsley’s The Caribbean Artists Movement, 1966–1972. As chairman of the West Indian Students Centre, he was able to make it available to the Caribbean Artists Movement for its meetings.

By 1974 King had spent nearly fifty years at Pembroke. He presented the college with a pair of suitably engraved Georgian silver sauce boats and planned to put up a memorial to the college’s fourteenth-century foundress, whose birthday he shared, in Westminster Abbey. At his last big college feast, he ignored the no-speeches rule and said: ‘You British, you know how to murder, how to enslave, how to exploit and then leave to starve. But until you learn how to live with, you are a nation doomed’ (7 Days, 3 Oct 1987). The college granted him facilities for a farewell garden party. He invited eighty West Indians from Birmingham, including a cricket eleven and a steel band, and another forty from London, including another cricket eleven, and about twenty West Indians from Cambridge. Also present were the Jamaican high commissioner, the Eastern Caribbean high commissioner, Sir Hugh Springer, then secretary-general of the Association of Commonwealth Universities (later governor-general of Barbados), and Sir Roy Marshall, vice-chancellor of the University of the West Indies. There were cricket matches on the college grounds and a dance in the evening at the University Centre.

King returned to live in St Kitts following his retirement, and in the early 1980s campaigned vigorously for independence but against what he saw as Britain’s flawed constitutional proposals (which resulted in a separate legislature for Nevis but not St Kitts when the islands gained independence in 1983). He died in St Kitts on 12 June 1987 and was buried there. After his death, his nephew carried out his wish and erected a memorial to the countess of Pembroke in Westminster Abbey.

Sources

  • The Times (16 June 1987)
  • 7 Days (3 Oct 1987)
  • A. Walmsley, The Caribbean artists movement, 1966–1972 (1992)
  • C. Birch, The milk jug was a goat: two families, two Caribbean islands, 1635–1987 (2008)
  • M. A. Bucknor and A. Donnell eds., The Routledge companion to anglophone Caribbean literature (2011)
  • H. Blanc, Louison: his painted words (2014)
  • B. E. King papers, priv. coll.
  • private information (2018) [R. Tomkys, M. Mellor, J. Ringrose, S. Stobbs, Pembroke College, Cambridge]

Likenesses

  • photographs, priv. coll.