Duse Mohamed Ali: Fleet Street's first Black Muslim editor, with an international vision
The year is 1912, the city London, England. The fashion at the time for women is that of the long column silhouette: ankle-skimming, hobble skirts and full “Gibson Girl” bouffant hair; while for men it is the top hat and frock coat favoured by the soon to be prime minister, David Lloyd George.
The opulence and hubris that so characterised the Edwardian era still infuse the early years of George V’s reign. In April of that year the world’s largest passenger ship set sail from Southampton on its maiden voyage to New York. The “unsinkable” Titanic never reached its destination.
Enter Duse Mohammed Ali, an Egyptian actor and freelance journalist, who had been touring theatres in the UK and US with a cut-glass English accent and a trademark fez. A promotional leaflet of one early tour of the US proclaimed him as “The Young Egyptian Wonder Reciter of Shakespeare”.
Though he would go on to wield great influence, Ali’s choice of career at the turn of the 20th century was insecure, as the historian Ian Duffield observes, “freelance journalism and travelling theatre work of a varied kind [were] his usual ways of making a living. In both professions, life was precarious, fame and fortune eluded him and he was on more than one occasion reduced to abject want."
Born in Alexandria, Egypt on 21 November 1866, the son of an Egyptian army officer, Abdul Salem Ali, and his Sudanese wife, the non-Arabic speaking Ali in early 20th century Britain was a rarity and something of an oddity, a status he clearly relished.
In an anecdote from his autobiography Leaves from an Active Life (originally published in serialised format in The Comet magazine between 1937-38), he recalls performing at the Surrey Theatre in London in 1908:
During my connection with the show, I met many distinguished people including Princess Victoria… and doubtless to the fact that I wore native Egyptian dress, enquired where I learned my perfect English and … many members of the Court paid us frequent visits bringing parties of the ‘upper crust’ to view the entertainment.
According to University College London, the population of non-white citizens in the UK was largely unknown at that time, with the national census not recording ethnicity.
In July 1912, he founded what is arguably his greatest legacy, The African Times and Orient Review, the first Black-owned and edited newspaper in the UK to have a substantial national and international presence
Stephen Bourne in his book Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War estimates that Britain’s Black population in 1914 was at least 10,000 in an overall population of 45 million.
Ali was a man of many business ventures and talents, but it was the work he did in furthering the struggle against imperialism and racism that was remarkable in its vision.
In July 1912, he founded what is arguably his greatest legacy, The African Times and Orient Review (ATOR), the first Black-owned and edited newspaper in the UK to have a substantial national and international presence.
The fact that he did this at a time when horrific lynchings of Black people were a common occurrence in the US, a mere seven years before the soldiers of the Empire fired on an innocent crowd in Jallianwala Bagh in India’s Punjab, killing up to a 1,000 people, and when an overt colour bar was operating across most of the western world, makes his achievement even more remarkable.
Tragedy was to inform Ali’s early life and make him acutely aware of imperial injustice. At the age of nine, he had been sent to England to study by his army officer father, who placed him in the care of his friend, a French officer named Captain Duse. Ali subsequently adopted his guardian’s first name.
His father was a firm supporter of Colonel Ahmed Urabi Pasha, an army commander who had fought for the rights of Egyptian peasants, and joined the Urabi Revolution (1879-82), a nationalist uprising against British and French influence in the country.
In his autobiography, Ali recalls with great embarrassment not being able to converse with Urabi when he visited his father’s house
My residence in England had all but bereft me of my knowledge of Arabic, and as Urabi spoke no European language, I was placed at a disadvantage which I have always regretted.
Ali’s father and brother were both killed in the battle of Tel-al-Kabir when the British bombarded the port of Alexandria in 1882.
Unable to locate his mother and sisters, who had been sent to Sudan to safety during the uprising, Ali returned to England following his father’s death to complete his studies. Rejecting medicine, the career path his father had chosen for him, he opted to study history at King’s College London and join the acting profession.
Ali would bemoan the stereotypical parts he was given – the amorous sultan in The Extreme Orient, the 'man-vulture' in Because I Love You
In a column in the Nigerian Times on 10 March 1933, Ali explains his decision: “suffering … from a weak stomach with no special penchant for blood-letting or human dissection, I decided upon my return to England to change the lancet for the pen and the operating theatre for the rather doubtful plaudits of the playhouse.”
Although his acting career was lauded in the British press, Ali would bemoan the stereotypical parts he was given – the amorous sultan in The Extreme Orient, docile slave (several plays), the “man-vulture” in Because I Love You.
As Duffield points out, such roles will have made Ali acutely aware of the prejudices people of colour faced, and may well have been the impetus behind producing a publication such as ATOR, to respond to such dire misrepresentation.
Ali persevered with acting and even produced his own plays, however it was his production of A Daughter of Judah at the Empire Theatre, Glasgow, in 1906 that garnered him real acclaim. Reviewing the production, The Daily Telegraph wrote: “Duse Mohammed is an actor of outstanding merit.”
Still the touring and insecure nature of acting began to grate. When his musical comedy The Lily of Bermuda, which he managed, wrote and co-produced, failed to get audiences on its provincial trial tour of 1909, Ali moved to London and began to concentrate on journalism.
Land of the pharoahs
From January 1909 to April 1911, Ali’s articles would appear frequently in The New Age, a literary and political magazine of high standing, nicknamed the “No Wage” because of its poor contributors’ pay.
A fellow contributor to the magazine was the Muslim convert Marmaduke Pickthall, who later translated the Quran. Ali and Pickthall would visit the only mosque in the country at that time, the Shah Jahan mosque in Woking, Surrey (established in 1889), along with the Irish peer and convert Lord Headley.
Ali’s articles covered Egyptian nationalism, opposing the British occupation of Egypt, and the need to curb racial prejudice and oppression in all its forms.
He also contributed to the Freewoman, a weekly feminist magazine, where he criticised the religious establishment in Egypt for not improving the conditions of women in Islamic societies.
A speech by Theodore Roosevelt at London’s Guildhall in 1910 incensed Ali and was to prove a turning point in his career. In his address, the former president impressed on the British government the need for employing a “big stick” in Egypt following the assassination of Prime Minister Boutros Ghali and declared that Egyptian nationalists were “a menace”.
“When I read that report of his Guildhall speech I was literally boiling over,” writes Ali. “I immediately hurried to the office of the New Age and requested the editor, AR Orage to permit me to write a rebuttal in his pages, to Roosevelt’s vituperative utterances.”
Orage suggested a book on the history of political conditions in Egypt and Ali received an advance of £30 from the publisher Stanley Paul to write 100,000 words in three months.
In the Land of the Pharaohs, a history of modern Egypt, was initially published to widespread acclaim in 1911 in New York and London. This was the first book published by an Egyptian author in English about Egypt, and it was hailed as an “authentic Egyptian and nationalist authority”, covering the grievances of British occupation.
However, when it was discovered that an undoubtedly pressurised Ali had plagiarised the works of renowned Arabist Wilfred Scawen Blunt among others, Ali was forced to publish a qualification, recognising those authors as sources of his work.
The African Times and Orient Review
Despite being embroiled in a literary scandal, Ali’s debut had a huge impact in America and West Africa, entering the canon of Pan-African literature and cementing Ali’s position as a defender of Black rights.
Its publication was also praised in British academic and intellectual circles, and Ali received an invite to the first Universal Races Congress in London in July 1911, where a number of speakers from different countries, including WEB Du Bois and Mahatma Gandhi, discussed race relations and how to improve them.
It was this conference that inspired Ali to set up the African Times and Orient Review, with the help of Sierra Leonean journalist John Eldred Taylor.
'As for you of the Black race, the Brown race and the Yellow race, this is your very own journal. The more humble you are, the more need you have of us and the more readily we extend our sympathy and advice'
- Duse Mohamed Ali, ATOR Editor
Ali wanted the journal to be a high-quality publication, and to this end he sought out the artist Walter Crane, whom he commissioned to create a strikingly beautiful cover image of Concordia, the Roman goddess of peace and harmony, linking hands with two women of African and Asian descent across the globe.
The first volume boasted the strapline: “A monthly journal devoted to the coloured races of the world”, and featured 35 pages of editorial, with a cover price of four shillings and sixpence.
On page two of the review, in an address to his new readership, a smiling Ali is pictured above the narrow, cramped building of 158 Fleet Street from where the paper is produced.
He proclaims under the headline A Word to you Our Brothers: “As for you of the Black race, the Brown race and the Yellow race, this is your very own journal. The more humble you are, the more need you have of us and the more readily we extend our sympathy and advice.”
The journal was global in its outlook, with articles in the first issue as varied as a condemnation of the public flogging of clerks in Zaria, Nigeria who had refused to salute the local British Resident; a focus on an increase in crime in Egypt; and a report on the treatment of Sikh labourers by the Canadian government. There were also book reviews, biographies and profiles of African and Asian inventors.
The quality publication attracted a wide range of contributors and thinkers of the time such as Annie Besant, George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. Prominent nationalist, anti-colonial leaders, including Egypt’s Mohamed Farid Bey and Nigeria’s Herbert Macaulay, also wrote for the paper.
Through the ATOR, Ali linked African, Asian and Arab communities together in the struggle against prejudicial British colonial policies.
In his columns, Ali would frequently highlight colonial injustices, which he knew would be picked up by opposition Labour MPs in the UK parliament.In an editorial in November 1912 he wrote: “Europe stretches out her hands on every side to squeeze the darker races to her advantage, because she knows the people of Africa and the people of Asia to be divided… It therefore behoves you, men of Asia, men of Africa, to join yourselves in one common bond of lasting friendship.”
Fearful of the journal’s controversial nature, the British government banned it in India and the British colonies in Africa towards the end of the First World War in order to prevent unrest. Duffield notes that it received the “backhanded tribute of being disliked and rather feared by the Colonial Office, the Foreign Office and the India Office”.
Ali was also keenly aware of the importance of the economic emancipation of people of colour, making a point of advertising African products in his newspaper.
In 1913, a young Marcus Garvey, the Jamaican Black nationalist leader, joined the paper’s editorial staff in order to learn more about the conditions of Africans in other parts of the Empire, not just the West Indies. It is widely acknowledged that Ali’s ideas and personality had a profound influence on the Jamaican activist.
As ATOR’s influence grew, Ali founded the Indian Muslim Soldiers’ Widows and Orphans’ War Fund in 1915 to assist families of the thousands of Indian soldiers who died fighting for Britain in the First World War. The charity’s patrons included prominent members of the British cabinet, such as Lloyd George, Sir Edward Grey and Lord Curzon.
Labour of love
The ATOR was published continuously from 1912 until 1920, except for a break between 1915 and 1917 during the First World War. Its circulation was wide: Ali lists South Africa, West Africa, Canada, New Zealand, the US, India and Sri Lanka as some of the territories on its mailing list.
However, financing the production of such a high-quality publication was a struggle. Several times Ali had to raise the cover price – the final issue in 1920 was 10 shillings and sixpence.
Furthermore, advertising revenue was also a problem: the big European trading companies, especially those operating in West Africa, would be reluctant to place ads in the paper because of its overt criticism of their operations.
In his final editorial, Ali wrote: “The Review has always been costly, and ever since its inception in 1912 it has been produced at a considerable loss, which the Editor has personally born on behalf of the cause the Review represents.”
Once the Review folded, Ali left the UK, eventually relocating to Lagos, Nigeria, where he founded The Comet in 1933.
In 1944 he sold The Comet to Nnamdi Azikiwe’s Zik’s Press Limited (Azikiwe went on to serve as the first president of Nigeria from 1963 to 1966). A year later, on 25 June 1945, Ali died.
Though the newspaper was ranked among the top publications in Nigeria during this time, with a circulation of 4,000, it never achieved the prestige of the ATOR.
Despite its relatively short life, the message behind ATOR is still a contemporary one, with later progressive, anti-racist publications, such as Claudia Jones’s West Indian Gazette and Race Today, as well as today’s innovators, gal-dem, Black Ballad, The Black Muslim Times, able to trace their lineage directly back to those offices in 158 Fleet Street and the extraordinary vision of one man.