Though the systematic detention and deportation of people born outside this island without the correct documentation is a somewhat recent development, the use of migration control as a political implement by the British state has a long history.
In 1921 Emma Goldman the most famous female political radical of her generation moved to Britain, where she was virtually alone on the left in condemning the Russian revolution. She, along with Alexander Berkman had been deported to Russia by the US government in 1919 for being ‘people of dubious character’. It appears that the British establishment took a similar view and intended to deport her back into the clutches of the Bolshevik regime. On hearing this James Colton, a miner from the Aman Valley, Carmarthenshire offered to marry her in order to give her British Nationality.
A widower in his mid-sixties and self educated, James Colton was known in the collieries as ‘no respecter of persons’ and was involved in the anarchist South Wales Freedom Group who had brought Goldman to speak in South Wales in March 1925 where she gave three lectures on “Heroic Women of the Russian Revolution,” and “The Bolshevik Myth”. Their marriage in London on 27th June 1925 was an act of political solidarity, but also an act of friendship, and given the date perhaps a birthday gift. They exchanged letters regularly and few days before the first anniversary of their marriage, with the great miners’ strike at its height, Emma wrote to him:
“Another five days and it will be a year that you have taken the anxiety from me as to where I might have some safety. I shall always remember that, dear friend. I want you to have a little holiday on the 27th … for that I enclose a £1. I wish I could make it a hundred times as much. I’d love to be able to help the miners.”
However the details of the union were not make public, as Colton told a reporter for The New York Times in 1926:
“I have just completed writing the first true story of our association which extends over twenty years. It is a story that many have sought since the news of our romance was broadcast throughout the world, but as yet I have the manuscript in my desk, and perhaps it may remain there always. I am at liberty, however, to make public these interesting details when I see fit”
James never did publish the manuscript detailing their relationship, not that the details were very important, back then the simple act of marriage could render it impossible for the state to deport anyone, even a radical like Emma Goldman. These days such ‘forced marriage’ by the state on people without the correct documentation is of limited value. James Colton died in 1936 but his act of defiance against the border regime continues to inspire to this day.
Emma, travelling under the name Mrs E. G. Colton, with the aid of her new citizenship was able to move to Canada where she wrote her autobiography, Living my Life, in which she remarked:
“The Welsh people were impressionable and easily aroused, but not always dependable, John Turner had once told me. After the English icicles I had tried to melt, I welcomed the Welsh crowds and their enthusiasm. The difficulty was not the indifference of the workers, but their dreadful poverty. Many had been unemployed for a long time, and those who were fortunate enough to have jobs earned the barest pittance. The amazing thing was that people living in such bleakness should come to meetings at all; it seemed extraordinary that they could muster up enough sympathy in their suffering brothers in far-away Russia. The pale, pinched faces of these toilers made me painfully aware of my own position. Like all missionaries I was appealing for “charity for China” when help was so desperately needed at home. If I could at least enter their lives, share in their struggles, show them that anarchism alone has the key that can transform society and secure their well-being, my begging would have some justification.”