This week BBC One aired Mangrove by Oscar- and BAFTA-winning director Steve McQueen, the first in the Small Axe series of feature-length films charting the struggle of the Black British community in the post-War years.
The globally renowned Notting Hill Carnival has only ever been cancelled twice in its fifty-plus year history: This year, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in 1970, after confrontations a few weeks prior between Notting Hill’s Caribbean community and the police. Then, tensions were pent up from decades of unprovoked violent attacks, murders, and persecution rooted in bigotry, not only from the police but sections of the white community. After years of sustained and premeditated aggression from an institution employed to protect citizens, the local Caribbean populace reacted and rose up. Its base was the Mangrove, a small Caribbean restaurant in West London.
In the 1950s and 60s, job and life prospects were touted by various recruitment drives set up in cities across the Caribbean. NHS, London Transport, and British Rail, themselves targeted young men and women across the Caribbean islands to help rebuild Britain after the war — a recruitment drive that tore families apart. On arrival, the jobs and the lifestyle were far from that which was promised in the advertisements; as such, homesick, if not mistreated, many of those recently arrived sought solace and support in their local communities.
By 1970, The Mangrove restaurant was at the centre of the Black community in Notting Hill and was one of the focal social spots of the Caribbean diaspora. The eatery was owned by Trinidadian Frank Crichlow, who before opening the Mangrove was a known local entrepreneur, who had previously run a café named El (or, more commonly, The) Rio. In Jonathan Green’s oral history, Days of the Life, filmmaker Horace Ové calls the Rio “the first black restaurant in the Grove,” whilst activist Courtney Tulloch remembered: “if there was a community centre for black people, it was the Rio.” From its inception, the police targeted The Rio with spurious aggression, justifying their pointed scrutiny with allegations of illicit activities such as gambling, refusing to let police enter the premises, and even ‘permitting music and dancing’ without a license.
Hoping to start afresh and shake off the negative connotations of The Rio, Crichlow opened a new diner at 8 All Saints Row in 1968— and he named it the Mangrove, a shorthand term for tropical forests in Trinidad. Photos and archives depict the derelict nature of the Notting Hill neighbourhood at the time, however the allure of the Mangrove, and its leather furniture, traditional African art, and portraits of the day’s coolest musicians stood out. As described in the biography of Darcus Howe, a “countryman and acquaintance” of Crichlow:
“Over the door was a crystalline green neon sign bearing the restaurant’s name. A purple awning and glossy paintwork completed the classic 1970s’ colour scheme. Against the backdrop of general dilapidation, the Mangrove looked positively space-aged.”
Here, Crichlow served up an assortment of Caribbean meat curries learnt from his mother, salads, and French fries, which were novel at the time, (the first U.K. Mcdonald’s didn’t open until five years later), the place immediately became a hub for London’s Caribbean community. Howe describes “Black people who wanted to find a place to live or who were having trouble with pig-headed landlords went to the Mangrove. Recent arrivals who wanted to know where to source the ingredients for their favourite dishes went there too.” Simultaneously, as the anti-establishment punk revolution and ‘swinging sixties’-branded movement swept through Britain, a growing number of white people from all classes, looking to align themselves with the “cool” and “countercultural,” were drawn to the hipness emanating from the Mangrove. It had been the same at the Rio: it found itself in the middle of the infamous Profumo scandal, with two of its key protagonists, Christine Keeler and Stephen Ward, frequent visitors to Crichlow’s first establishment.
It was not only the socialites, the artists, and the hipsters who would step into the Mangrove. This corner of West London was an epicentre of the music industry, home to various reggae, punk, and pop record labels; record shops, and live venues. Because of this, The Mangrove saw frequent patronage from music A-listers of the time, such as Bob Marley, Nina Simone, Sammy Davis Jr., Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, and many other celebrities of the day followed suit.
Even with all this fame and profile, The Mangrove, like the Rio, was subjected to police antagonism and continual raids. Each one predicated on an unsubstantiated claim that it was a drug den. No drugs were ever found. Nonetheless, police helped create an image of the locale — picked up and promulgated by the media — as a commune of pimps, prostitutes, and drug pushers. By contrast, immediately next door at 8a All Saints Road, was a health food shop called Ceres, known for supplying the likes of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. The shop sold organic food and a wide range of East Asian foodstuffs that were equally unfamiliar to Londoners at the time, however, the shop was not targeted by the police. This raises the possibility that it was specifically the Blackness of The Mangrove’s patronage that made it a target, not simply its non-Britishness.
In the late 1960s, the Mangrove had been taking £100 a night, but by the 1970s, according to Darcus Howe’s biography, Crichlow was lucky if he took a tenth of that. Legal efforts against police discrimination undertaken by the restaurateur failed to deliver even a modicum of justice. A frustrated Howe, influenced by the various African American resistance movements of the time, urged Crichlow to publicly protest these injustices. From this point on, the Mangrove became a hub for what would become known as the local Black resistance.
On 9 August 1970, when preparations for Notting Hill Carnival should have been in full swing, a few hundred people, including Crichlow and other local activists, disgruntled Caribbeans, and a handful of white British allies, took to the streets. They were met by early forms of kettling tactics from a force dispatching twice as many officers as protestors. Protestors were unable to progress after the police blocked roads; tensions exploded. Naturally, both sides had different versions of the events. But what is known is this: Rows of police officers barricaded the protest route which antagonised the protestors. Conflict erupted into fighting. Protestors tried to disperse to avoid the violent melee and police officers making numerous arrests, including that of Crichlow. Other community leaders and activists such as Altheia Jones-LeCointe and Barbara Beese were targeted for arrest and those like Howe who weren’t detained at the protest were arrested later that day.
These leaders who had been singled out for their past activism, organising events, and creating media to raise awareness about the various injustices of the times were put on trial with various bogus charges chiefly, those of inciting riot and affray — they became known as the “Mangrove Nine.” Their decision not to agree to any plea bargains, but to staunchly fight their charges propelled them into the British mainstream. But an initial victory at the Marylebone Magistrates court was short-lived, as The Director of Public Prosecutions overturned the ruling and set a date for a new trial at England’s central criminal court, the Old Bailey.
The BBC film depicts the motions of the trial and (spoiler alert) the Mangrove Nine ultimately won — a landmark recognition of prejudice towards Black people. But the victory didn’t last. Police aggravation at the Mangrove didn’t stop; it increased. After the trial, officers continued to raid the premises and charged Crichlow with supplying heroin and cannabis, and banned him from going near the restaurant for a year. In 1992, Crichlow won £50,000 (the equivalent of £100,000 today) in damages from the Metropolitan police for false imprisonment, battery, and malicious prosecution. But the damage to the Mangrove was done. Crichlow was demoralised and patronage from both the local Caribbean and wider populace dried up as customers had been scared off. Soon after, that same year, Crichlow closed the restaurant and retired. He died in 2010, at the age of 78.
In the decade after the closure of the Mangrove, and as the creep of gentrification set into Notting Hill, the once vibrant Caribbean community waned. The upstairs of the building where the Mangrove once stood became a luxury home, sold in 2004 for £1.3 million. The downstairs is now dormant, after most recently being home to an outpost of the Rum Kitchen, a popularised London version of a Caribbean restaurant, which today has branches in Shoreditch, Soho, and Brixton. What remains of the Mangrove is an honorary blue plaque celebrating Crichlow. In the 1970s, Black Britain didn’t have the same critical mass of Black political collectivism and global icons as their American counterparts to look to in times of distress. But the mobilisation and resilience of the Mangrove Nine formed a British legacy of demonstration that has since been seen time and time again — from the Windrush protests to the Black Lives Matter protests this year.
No doubt, it will be seen again.