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From Colonies to Commonwealth Art exhibition at Unity 101




Unity 101 is pleased to present an exhibition that shows the sacrifice and contribution of Merchant Seaman from the British `colonies’ in World War 2 and the seismic shift from Colonies to Independent nations after 1945 which led to the end of the British, French, Belgium and Dutch Empires.


The “story” is told in two parts. Through names, pictures, family links and ships that were sunk as a result of enemy action the contribution and sacrifice of men from Bangladesh, China, Poland, Africa, India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, Yemen and Somalia is acknowledged. Men like the 11 men on the SS Manchester Brigade that left behind wives and children in Lancashire. According to their identity cards these men were British and that is how they saw themselves because as civilians they did not have to fight in a war so far from where they were born.


At the centre of the exhibition is a powerful poem from local man Bob Purvis that shows through his own experience of being a black seaman in a changing and often alien world the journey that shaped him.


The “story” moves on to show the journey of the `colonies’ of Western Empires, a journey to independence and for those in the British Empire the creation of a Commonwealth of Nations. A group of 52 nations, with every member having one vote regardless of how big or how small, whether Australia or Barbados.


The exhibition shows a timeline of over 100 nations as they marched to freedom ending a colonial world and the Empires of Britain, France, Belgium, the Soviet Union and the Netherlands. The march of 100 nations who in 50 years created a new world, Across Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, Asia, Easter Europe and South-East Asia. The exhibition also acknowledges 20 of those first-time leaders, such people as Kenyatta, Banda, Eugenia Charles, Williams, Walesa and Mandela. For those returning home after 2 World Wars too much had been seen, and too much experienced for the order of things not to change. The exhibition acknowledges this.


The exhibition also poses the question – Who was Jessie Rawlings?


6 hours after war was declared on the 3rd September a German Uboat sank the SS Athenia. On 1 September 1939 Athenia, commanded by Captain James Cook, left Glasgow for Montreal via Liverpool and Belfast. She carried 1,103 passengers, including about 500 Jewish refugees, 469 Canadians, 311 US citizens and 72 UK subjects, and 315 crew. She was sunk 6 hours after war was declared by the German submarine U-30.


98 passengers and 19 crew died. 54 dead were Canadian and 28 were US citizens, which led to German fears that the incident would bring the US into the war, which is why they denied sinking the ship until 1946 during the Nuremberg trials. Because of this incident Canada declared war on Germany. America took no action.


Among the 19 crew that gave their lives saving passengers was Jessie Rawlings, a 60 year old Stewardess born in Scotland but living with her family at 214 Derby Road, Southampton. She was the first Southampton resident to die in World War 2 as a result of enemy action. A civilian Merchant Navy crew member.


From Colonies to Commonwealth at   107 St. Mary’s Road, Southampton, Hampshire, SO14 0AN.  Open NOW from 10am to 7pm daily. 02380 230 5050  


Contacts: Jim Baker Port Horizon Project 07736 147480 & Ram “Kelly” Kalyan – Unity 101- 07733 713736

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