Homage to August Agboola Browne – Black resistance fighter of the Warsaw Uprising
This article was updated on 5th March 2021 to reflect new information that has come to light.
Breaking News 30 October 2020 – New information has come to light
On 30 October 2020, I attended a Zoom lecture hosted by the Royal United Services Institute – RUSI for short.
The speaker was Dr Nicholas Boston, who has extensively researched August Agboola Browne. To aid his research, Dr Boston analysed numerous documents and spoke to many sources. The new documentation discovered in late October 2020 appears to contradict the account that August gave to ZboWiD in 1949.
In 1964 the West German Government agreed to pay Great Britain the sum of £1 million to compensate British victims of Nazi persecution in Poland. In the mid-1960s, the British Government started issuing compensation payments to British victims of Nazi persecution in Poland, provided they could make a successful claim to persecution.
August Browne made a successful application and received a sum of money. During the RUSI presentation, Dr Boston showed us a document from the National Archives that was a supporting statement made by August Browne, which detailed the persecution.
In the document, August Browne stated that in 1939, when the Germans occupied Poland, as a Negro he was not allowed to leave the country. August stated he was interned at the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland between 10 May 1940 and 10 October 1944. He said he was then transferred to a camp at Pruszkow for a few days. On 21 October 1944, he was transferred from Pruszkow to the concentration camp at Radomsko in Poland and was freed there on 10 April 1945.
August said he suffered a great deal of ill-treatment during his internment and as a consequence was suffering to that day from chronic myocarditis, chronic bronchitis and chronic gastritis. The statement is dated 10 February 1965.
Clearly, it would not have been possible for August Browne to have been imprisoned during the dates he mentioned and also at the scene of the Warsaw Uprising, which started on 1 of August 1944 and ended on 2 October 1944.
In light of this new information, Dr Boston is investigating further and no doubt we will hear more about this from both Dr Boston and the many parties that have previously disseminated information about August Browne. Whichever way events unfold, I will update this article.
Dr Boston also shed further light on various name versions we have for August Browne.
The ZboWiD document shown below was based on a handwritten statement supplied by August and then filled out by an official at ZboWiD. This handwritten statement is somewhat difficult to read, and it would appear that the ZboWiD official misspelt his name, and this mistake seems to have confused historians and researchers.
Watch the RUSI presentation on YouTube
Unfortunately, RUSI has removed this presentation from YouTube. The link to the YouTube presentation has been removed from this page.
Watch the presentation on RUSI’s website
August Browne: The British-Polish Nigerian Who Took on the Nazis. Accessed 21/11/2023.
Note: The web address of the link above is correct but for some reason it does not lead to the presentation. However, if you use RUSI’s search facility and type August Browne, you will find the presentation.
Updated 5th March 2021. August Browne has also been featured in the January 2021 BBC History Magazine. The new evidence that has come to light is also discussed. Source: History Extra. Subscription required.
The rest of this article continues as originally written – for now.
Birth of August Agboola Browne
August was born to Wallace and Josefina on the 22nd of July 1895 in Lagos, in what was then part of the British Empire.
Black History Month
As we celebrate Black History Month in October 2020, I feel that August Agboola Browne, who was a British citizen at the time of the Warsaw Uprising, has a rightful place in the Black history of Great Britain.
The freedom fighters of the Warsaw Uprising, as opponents of a brutal and common enemy, also fought for our freedom in Great Britain.
Journey to Great Britain and Poland
In 1922 August arrived in Britain as a stowaway aboard a British merchant ship. It is not known what his motivation was for leaving the land of his birth. As a citizen of the British Empire, he had the right to be admitted to Great Britain.
In 1922 August travelled to Poland and lived in Gdańsk, Kraków and then Warsaw, until he emigrated to Great Britain in 1958.
1920s Warsaw with its wide boulevards, and beautiful baroque architecture, had a vibrant entertainment scene. It was a very cosmopolitan city and became a magnet for musicians and entertainers from outside Poland. Thus it became known as The Paris of the North. August would have known about this; it could well have been his motivation for travelling to Poland.
A few sources on the internet suggest that August’s mother was Polish and that her first name was Józefina, a Polish name. There is no evidence I can find that would support August’s mother as being of Polish origin. August’s middle name, Agboola is of Yoruba origin.
August worked as a professional jazz drummer and dancer in many celebrated jazz clubs and coffee houses in Warsaw. He frequently performed in the Mała Ziemiańska Coffee House and the Ziemiańska Wine Bar (AKA Caveau Caucasien) both of which were prestigious establishments in the pre-war capital.
Sources: Newsbook Poland. Published 19 December 2017. In Polish. Accessed 18/10/2020. Kom-Eko. Published 07 November 2017. In Polish. Accessed 18/10/2020. Afryka.org. In Polish. Published 15 February 2011. Accessed 18/10/2020.
Andrzej Zborski in an interview with Jazz Magazine recalls meetings before the war
“Before the war, I met him quite often, just like that on the street, somewhere on Marszałkowska Street, closer to the Saski Garden. I remembered him as a man quite handsome, good-looking and very elegant. He wore bright suits and a colourful tie and of course he wore appropriate hats, some kind of Borsalino. He was undoubtedly an intelligent and clever man“.
Source: Afryka w Warszawie (Africa in Warsaw) by Mamadou Diouf and Paweł Średziński. PDF publication in Polish. Page 97. Published in Warsaw 2010. Accessed 18/10/2020.
First black person to record a jazz album in Poland?
There are multiple sources on the internet claiming that in 1928 August recorded a jazz album for Syrena Record, then the major recording company in Poland.
The name of the album is not known to me. During my research, I could not find any archived audio recordings on the Internet. Neither was I able to find references backed up by any sources.
What is known, is that in 1939 Syrena Record’s factory and archives were destroyed and many of its artists were murdered or became part of the Polish diaspora. Source: BBC Media Centre. Accessed 18/10/2020.
Marriage and the approach of war
August married Zofia Pykówna in 1927. They had two sons, Ryszard and Aleksander. The marriage was short-lived, and when war broke out, August arranged for the children and their mother to leave for Great Britain. Zofia, as the wife of a British citizen, could travel to Great Britain with the children.
August decided to stay in Poland, perhaps because he was committed to the struggle looming ahead in his adopted homeland.
Press Coverage of August’s Marriage
Source: Photograph and cover page from Światowid Magazine in Kraków. Magazine edition No. 35, 1927, page 12. Archived at the Jagiellonian Digital Library in Kraków. Accessed 18/10/2020.
Film Role in 1936
Papa się żeni (Papa is getting married) 1936. Directed by Michał Waszyński. Cameo role as a banjo player.
Source: National Audiovisual Institute (FINA) shows a still from the film with acting credit to August Browne. In Polish. Accessed 21/11/2023.
Watch an extract from the film (in Polish)
To the best of my knowledge, this is the only known movie film/video of August that can be seen on the internet.
Watch the full version
Use the YouTube slider and go to 38:30 minutes to see August.
The Warsaw Uprising
August’s role in the Warsaw Uprising has been verified by the Warsaw Uprising Museum, officially named in English as the Warsaw Rising Museum.
August Agboola Browne’s Official Insurgent Biography
Name of insurgent: August Agbola O’Brown, nom de guerre Ali
Date of birth: 22 July 1895
Date of death: 8 August 1976
Place of birth: Nigeria, then known as the Royal Niger Company
Name of parents: Wallage and Józefina
Work role till 1944: We are told that August came to Poland in 1922 and settled in Warsaw at Złota Street. He was a jazz drummer by profession and worked in Warsaw’s entertainment venues. He married a Polish woman and they had two sons, Ryszard in 1928 and Aleksander in 1929. During the occupation, he made a living by teaching foreign languages and trading in electronic equipment.
Participation in the underground: He was a soldier in the underground armed forces between 1939 and 1944. During the uprising, his branch of the armed forces was the Home Army, District 1 Radwan, Sub-District Sławbor, Battalion Iwo. The battle area was Śródmieście South (Warsaw City Centre South District), and the battalion headquarters was at 74 Marszałkowska Street.
Address before the uprising: 35 Wspólna Street, Apartment 5 and Złota Street.
Life after the war: From 1949 he was a member of *ZboWiD and employed at Warsaw’s Culture and Art Department of the City Council. In the late 1940s and 1950s, he played jazz in Warsaw restaurants. In 1953 August acted in a cameo role in the film “Soldier of Victory”, directed by Wanda Jakubowska. This was a biographical film devoted to General Karol Świerczewski, nom de guerre Walter. August Agbola O’Brown starred in fragments of the film that dealt with the war in Spain. Between 1956 and 1958, he emigrated with his wife to Great Britain.
Place of burial: Hampstead Cemetery in London
Sources: The sources are shown as: MPW-database of WUT participants, **UdsKiOR, family archive of Mrs. Beata Brown-Łuczak. The photos presented in the biography come from the family collection and the collections of the National Film Archive – Audiovisual Institute. Information about the presence of August Agbola O’Brown in the film frames, courtesy of Mr. Piotr Śmiałowski, FINA. Editor’s note: Apart from a photograph of August, no other photographs are shown.
The biography notes that August’s name on his British death certificate is Augustus Browne.
Source: Warsaw Uprising Museum. Accessed 18/10/2020. In Polish.
Explanation of organisations mentioned in the Insurgent Biography
*ZBoWiD. Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy. Polish Związek Bojowników o Wolność i Demokrację. Formed in 1949 and renamed in 1990 as Society of Veterans of the Republic of Poland and Former Political Prisoners. Polish Związek Kombatantów RP i Byłych Więźniów Politycznych.
**UdsKiOR. Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression. Polish Urząd do Spraw Kombatantów i Osób Represjonowanych.
Warsaw City Centre South District
Area of battle where August Agboola Browne fought
August Browne – After World War II
The first record relating to August is from 1949, when he made a successful application to join ZBoWiD, the Society of Fighters for Freedom and Democracy.
August’s ZBoWiD Application
In 1949 August was employed for a short time in the Culture and Art Department of the City Council in Warsaw and also continued his career as a professional musician, playing in Warsaw’s jazz clubs.
In the early 1950s, August remarried to Olga Miechowicz.
Cameo role in the film Żołnierz Zwycięstwa (Soldier of Victory) directed by Wanda Jakubowska
As mentioned in the insurgent biography above, In 1953, August was cast in a cameo role in a propaganda film about historical events in Spain.
Source: Film Polski (Polish filmography internet database). Accessed 22/10/2020. In Polish. August’s name appears under “Obsada aktorska” Actors.
View stills from the film at the National Audiovisual Institute (FINA). In Polish. Accessed 23/10/2020.
It is noted that numerous sources on the internet show stills from the film. Many of these sources say erroneously that the stills portray August in military uniform during the Warsaw Uprising.
Complete August Agboola Browne Filmography
1933 – Dzieje grzechu (The Story of sin). cameo role as player in a casino.
1936 – Papa się żeni (Papa is getting married). cameo role as a banjo player and dancer.
1936 – Amerykańska awantura (American Adventure). Role not known
1953 – Żołnierz zwycięstwa (Soldier of Freedom). cameo role as a soldier.
Source: Internetowa Baza Filmowa (FDB). In Polish. Accessed 21/11/2023.
Emigration to Great Britain
In 1958, August and Olga decided to emigrate to Great Britain. It is said that August was tired of the oppressive communist regime in Poland. Not much is known about August’s life in the UK.
After 1958 – A Modest life In London
The Browne’s had one child, Tatiana who lives in Great Britain.
Recollections from Tatiana
“Dad taught me how to read and write in English.”
Tatiana remembers her father as “very quiet, very private, and quite distant” and that he never discussed his background in Poland or his early years in Lagos.
“To me, it was just me growing up at home with a mum and dad. Whatever our life was, it was my normal.”
“Dad had a real quick wit and a real charm about him.”
“When we used to go to church on a Sunday, I used to see him interact with other people. He had a real warmth that drew you in so you automatically liked him. When he was in company with other people, there was just this energy. People were drawn to him.”
August died in 1976 and is buried at Hampstead Cemetery, London. The Browne’s worshipped at the Russian Orthodox church in Knightsbridge, London and August’s head stone has an Orthodox cross.
Source: BBC News. Published 02 October. Accessed 18/10/2020.
Unanswered Questions – The Wartime Period
It remains a mystery how August could have survived the Nazi occupation of Poland and the Warsaw Uprising. With his non-Aryan looks, had he been apprehended, the outcome would surely have ranged from summary execution to torture and imprisonment in a concentration camp.
There is evidence from Jan Radecki, nom de guerre Czarny, a participant in the Warsaw Uprising. In an interview with the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, Jan Radecki recalls:
“I saw a black man in the command centre of the Iwo Battalion at 74 Marszałkowska Street. It seems to me that he was in communications, in the telephone exchange. I do not remember more. I didn’t know his name or surname.”
Source: Gazeta Wyborcza 16 December 2010. In Polish. Accessed 18/10/2010.
Could Jan Radecki’s recollections of seeing a black man during the Warsaw Uprising be a clue as to how August may have been shielded by his insurgent comrades and superiors? The only documentation currently available is that there was only one black man who participated in the uprising. It is also probable that August was the only black resident of Warsaw at the time of the uprising.
We know from his insurgent biography that August traded in electronic equipment. It could be that if he had technical knowledge of electronics, he could have been a vital link in the telephone exchange mentioned by Jan Radecki. One could imagine that such a more static role might have kept him at least somewhat shielded from the enemy.
It is known that some insurgents managed to survive and avoid capture by hiding in the complex network of Warsaw’s sewers.
August Brown’s Commanding Officer
August’s commanding officer was Corporal Aleksander Marcińczyk, nom de guerre Łabędź. We know from his official insurgent biography at the Warsaw Uprising Museum that Marcińczyk was transported to the Stalag X-B concentration camp in Germany. His biography does not list his date of death and it could be presumed that he died at the hands of the enemy.
Source: Alesander Marcińczyk’s insurgent biography. In Polish. Accessed 18/10/2010.
What goes around comes around?
Krzysztof Karpiński, a Polish jazz historian has this to say about August, concerning help given to Jewish musicians who escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto:
“The fugitives from the ghetto were repeatedly helped by other artists, among them August Agbola Brown – a Black drummer living in Warsaw.”
Source: Article in Teologia Polityczna (Political Theology) dated 16 April 2016. in Polish. Accessed 18/10/2010.
It is noted that Karpiński does not provide any source information for his statement in the article.
Another recollection about August from Andrzej Zborski
“During the German occupation, he was a distributor of the underground press, he helped those in hiding and he made his living by trading in electrical equipment.”
Source: Africa in Warsaw. Page 99. In Polish. Accessed 18/10/2010.
Memorial to August Agboola Browne
On the 2nd of September 2019, in Warsaw, a commemorative memorial dedicated to the memory of August Agboola Browne was unveiled.
Inscription on the memorial
In honour of Augustine Agboola Browne. Nom de guerre Ali, a jazz musician of African origin and participant of the Warsaw Uprising. Poland was the country he chose to live in.
Image attribution: Adrian Grycuk / CC BY-SA 3.0 PL. Derivative work.
Address where you can view the memorial
Pasaż Stefana Wiecheckiego Wiecha, 00-017 Warsaw, Poland.
By chance, the memorial is approximately 5 minute’s walk from the Ziemiańska Wine Bar (see above,) which used to be situated in the building of the National Philharmonic at 5 Jasna Street (map link), where August used to perform before the war. This wine bar no longer exists.
Watch the unveiling ceremony in Warsaw of the memorial to August Agboola Browne
The commemoration of August Agboola Browne was an initiative of the Freedom and Peace Foundation.
“Each anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising is an occasion to reflect and honour its participants. Among them was August Agboola Browne, nom de guerre Ali, a Black jazz drummer from Nigeria, for whom Poland was the homeland of choice. The preserved memories show that Ali was a respected, liked and exceptionally kind resident of Warsaw. At a dramatic period he did not hesitate to join the ranks of the Polish Army to fight for the freedom of his new homeland. The commemoration of the figure of Ali is a testimony to the realization of the idea of openness of the Republic of Poland which for centuries was a common home for many nations.”
Source: Freedom and Peace Foundation. In Polish. Accessed 18/10/2010.
Notes and Explanations
Correct spelling of August’s name
I acknowledge that our hero’s name has multiple spelling variants on this page and the internet. This inconsistency confuses readers. For researchers and historians, it prolongs the time needed for searching the internet, paper and digital archives. If you are faced with the task of, let’s say, six different name spellings, you need to wade through each of those six spelling combinations in order not to miss vital information.
These days Google, through its algorithm, is generally quite “clever” at suggesting alternative spellings of your subject and bringing up spelling variations in its search results. This is not something you can rely on, as you are likely to miss information.
Where I have quoted and translated from Polish language sources, I have kept the spellings of August’s name as shown in those sources.
As for our insurgent hero, which name should we settle on?
If you look at August’s ZBoWiD application, we see a name version, filled in by August himself, that does not tally with his official insurgent biography. If we then look at the newspaper feature about his first marriage from 1927, we see something else. Next we can look at the name at the top of his memorial in Warsaw and see that this does not tally with his name at the front of the memorial.
We can also look at the inscription on his memorial in Hampstead Cemetery, London and note that it reads:
To a beloved husband and father
Augustine Agboola Browne
Passed away 8 September 1976
Rest in Peace
August Agboola Browne – Sources and Links
NIGERYJCZYK żołnierzem POWSTANIA WARSZAWSKIEGO ?? Cudzoziemcy broniący stolicy Polski w 1944 roku ! A Nigerian soldier of the Warsaw Uprising? Foreigners defending the capital of Poland in 1944! YouTube video presentation. In Polish.
August Browne: The British-Polish Nigerian Who Took on the Nazis. At the RUSI website. In English.
BBC Media Centre. In English.
History Extra magazine at the BBC. Subscription required. In English.
Jest kolejny trop w historii o czarnoskórym powstańcu. There is another clue in the story of a Black insurgent. Wyborcza newspaper. In Polish.
Muzyczna mapa dawnej Warszawy at Teologia Polityczna. Musical map of old Warsaw. In Polish.
O afrykańskim jazzie, Polsce Podziemnej i Paryżu Północy. About African jazz, Underground Poland and the Paris of the North. In Polish.
Opowieść trzydziesta ósma – w dwudziestoleciu mocno osadzona. Thirty-eighth story – firmly set in the twenty-year inter-war period. In Polish.
Poszukiwany przez żonę, cd. sprawy Agbooli. Wanted by his wife. About Agboola. In Polish.
Africa in Warsaw. In Polish.
Światowid Magazine. In Polish
National Audiovisual Institute in Poland. (FINA). In Polish.
Idź Pod Prąd. Against The Tide. In English.
Polish Film. Film Polski. In Polish.
Film Role in 1936 on YouTube. In Polish.
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Appeal for Information
If you have any further information (or corrections) that could help me to make this article about August Agboola Browne more complete, please contact me. You can write to me in English or Polish.
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