Comment // The Unsung Story of David Oluwale

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A couple weeks ago I was fortunate enough to be aware of the memorial event held for David Oluwale at the University of Leeds. However, if my Uncle had not been involved in the project I doubt I would have known about it. While currently living in Leeds and being overwhelmingly aware of various campaigns based around inequality, especially the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Oluwale’s story couldn’t be more important at this point in time.

David Oluwale was a British Nigerian who drowned in the River Aire in Leeds in 1969. He was born in Lagos and in 1949 he hid on board the SS Temple Bar, a cargo ship heading for Hull. When the ship docked he was handed over to the authorities, and under the British Nationality Act he was technically a British subject and not an illegal immigrant, but he was charged as one with 28 days imprisonment at Northallerton Prison. After being released from prison in 1949 he hoped to carry on his tailoring experience and worked in Leeds where there was a large textile and clothing industry. However in 1953 Oluwale was charged with disorderly conduct and assault after a police raid on a nightclub, a 28 day sentence followed and it was at this point where David’s story is most crucial. It was reported he suffered from hallucinations (potentially from a truncheon knock during his arrest) and was transferred to an Asylum for another eight years. David Oluwale was treated with various drugs and electroconvulsive therapy.

Following his release, Oluwale was unable to gain a permanent residence or a job and quickly became homeless. In a time where Britain was predominantly racist, his choice of employment was already restricted. In 1965 he returned to hospital where he spent another two years and following his release he was once again homeless and living on the streets. The events leading to his drowning have been described as “the physical and psychological destruction of a homeless, black man whose brutal, systematic harassment was orchestrated by the Leeds city police force”. His death was not treated as suspicious by the police and the events that led up to Oluwales death - whether he was thrown, chased or fell accidentally have never been known. Although two witnesses testified that they saw the police officers chasing him alongside the river the night he is believed to have drowned.

In the following enquiry against Kitching and Ellerker, the two police officers, it was stated they regularly beat-up Oluwale, often kicking him and, on one occasion found urinating on him. They also verbally abused him, referring to him as a “lame darkie” and additionally used racist terms relating to Oluwale on paperwork, such as writing “wog” in the space reserved for nationality. It also came to light that on numerous occasions they drove him out of Leeds and then abandoned him on the outskirts. Arguably, their intention was to force Oluwale out of Leeds and not to return. However, Oluwale saw Leeds as his home and always came back.

In 1971 the two suspected officers went on trial for manslaughter. However, during the trial, the judge himself who once described Oluwale as a “dirty, filthy and violent vagrant” found the defendants, not to any surprise of a racist Britain, not guilty. The case received national media coverage but justice campaigners consider it to be ‘white washed’ as it deliberately portrayed a negative image of Oluwale as a ‘menace to society’ as it failed to call any witnesses who disagreed with this account. During the enquiry and trial, it was revealed they had taken special interest in Oluwale and asked colleagues to let them personally handle incidents relating to him. They specifically targeted him in the early hours when there was nobody about as he could usually be found sleeping in shop doorways. Despite this, the trial disgustingly made no mention of racism. In November 1971, two Leeds police officers were innocent of the manslaughter of David Oluwale, but were imprisoned for assaulting him. Oluwale’s death resulted in the first successful prosecution of British police officers.

While you could say lots has changed in the world and in the UK since this terrible incident, the recent #BlackLivesMatter is a sad reflection of similar, if not worse, police brutality targeting racial groups. However, unlike those around at the time of David Oluwale, we are living in a time where we can understand what David Oluwale had to go through. His death is an example of understanding rough sleepers with mental health issues, refugees, racism, as well as victims of police brutality. All of which are important issues that are still happening today.

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Words: Radhiyyah Phillips

One Comment so far:

  1. ByRAN says:

    Thank you Radhiyya for shining a light on David Oluwale’s life - including the brutality he endured and his tragic end. I pray that your efforts in highlighting these aspects of our history and struggle for equality will inspire those of us enjoying freedoms today to stand up against injustice and do the right thing/s. Stay Strong & thank you🙏🏾

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