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Kamal A. Chunchie of the Coloured Men’s Institute: The man and the legend by Rozina Visram

This article by Rozina Visram provides an insight into the work of Pastor Kamal A. Chunchie and his work and support for the black and Asian community in East End London. With particular focus on the Coloured Men’s Institute (CMI), Visram outlines how Chunchie struggled for almost 30 years to improve the lives of these individuals through social welfare and Christian fellowship.

Kamal Chunchie was born in Kandy, Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1886 and at an early age showed an interest in Christianity. In 1915 he came to Europe and enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion, 3rd Middlesex Regiment to serve on the Western front. After converting to Christianity, Chunchie came to Britain in 1918 where he married a Welsh woman who became a fellow supporter of his work for the black and Asian population of the East End.

Visram discusses the situation soldiers found themselves in Britain after being discharged. They were given no employment opportunities or financial support and were expected to survive on their own. This therefore led to many being stranded and jobless in a difficult 1920s economy and as a result, were faced with severe levels of poverty whilst also facing racial discrimination. Chunchie faced discrimination and racism after the war and Visram highlights how this moulded his philosophy and work which turned him into an outspoken champion on behalf of the black and Asian people of the East End of London.

He started off by visiting lodgings, slums and hospitals in search of black and Asian soldiers he could help. To these individuals, he gave material assistance. For instance, Visram highlights one African sailor who was discharged in Cardiff but robbed of all his possessions and Chunchie provided him with clothing, a bed and other necessities. Soon Chunchie came across the resident black and Asian population who were living in poverty. They lived in overcrowded housing and with the men being married to white women, the mixed-race children of this community also faced discrimination at school and further lack of support and opportunity when they left. The welfare of this community therefore became Chunchie’s priority whilst he denounced racism which impacted these people’s lives in Christian England.

In 1926, Chunchie established the Coloured Men’s Institute with the aim of meeting the needs of both the soldiers and the resident community and it would serve as a recreational and social centre for them as well as a place of worship. Visram argues that the extent to which these individuals received welfare shows the desperate condition their lives were in.

He travelled all over Britain addressing crowds and exposing the hypocrisy of Christian England where black and Asian peoples were discriminated against, whilst the missionary messages ‘back home’ in their own countries with the aim to convert the native populations in colonised countries to Christianity, painted a very different picture of life in Christian England.

Visram points out how Chunchie faced a significant amount of critic. One being that he was accused of being a ‘showman’ by Rev. F.W. Chudleigh. Further, his conversion to Christianity was questioned by Rev. W.J. Noble who accused him of playing ‘football’ with the Bible as a schoolboy. Visram argues that the first accusation was an example of professional jealousy and the latter, an exaggeration since Christians were respected as people of the book by Muslims and the Bible would not have been treated in such a way. Therefore, Visram identities that this represents Chunchie’s conversion to Christianity as being even more significant.

After further accusations regarding finances, such as being too generous and incapable of managing money, Chunchie parted from the organisation in 1932. He branched out on his own to continue his work to create a ‘better confidence and spirit of brotherhood’ between the black and white population. Between 1933 and his death in 1953, he worked hard to establish a new Coloured Men’s Institute. Through this, he set up a multiracial council and the organisation delt with stranded sailors who were given bed and breakfast. Families were also offered clothes, coal, boots and shoes throughout the year as the material conditions they lived in through a depression-hit Britain was reflected in the ill-health they suffered.

The racial hostility these families faced was widespread and Nancie Sharpe wrote a 40,000-word report on ‘The Negro Population in London and Cardiff’ in the mid-1930s. She concluded that ‘The whole economic situation of those families is an indictment of the society in which we live.’

Visram concludes that without the work of Chunchie and the CMI, the lives of the black and Asian community in the East End would have been bleaker. Further, she praises Chunchie’s humanity and generosity as he was passionate and worked so hard to improve the lives of these individuals and combat racism- whilst never losing his identity which is reflected in his reports where his Malay origin is always identified as well as his love for Sri Lanka.

 

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