In the lead up to Black History Month, I spent the summer researching the rich Black history of London and Queen Mary. Much of this time was spent in the QMUL Archives; digging through old student cards, newspapers articles, class photos and transcripts.
The Queen Mary Archives and Special Collections boasts a wide range of items dating all the way back to the 16th century, centuries before the school had been founded. Although it was a remarkable opportunity, I had no delusions of the challenge we faced. Whilst today Queen Mary is known for its diversity, historically this was not the case. With reasonably low expectations, I set out to learn more about the diversity of our student body throughout the early 18th-20th century.
Finding Orlando Marville
After spending countless hours searching through hundreds of pages of school's student newspaper: The Cub, and closely examining numerous class photos, I felt ready to give up. As I flicked through a few final pages in the newspapers, I came across an image of a brawny young man attempting to dunk a basketball. The caption read “Orlando Marville in action for the UL Basketball Team”. My curiosity was piqued, and I spent the last two minutes I had left in the archives eagerly searching for more information about the mysterious figure.
Orlando Marville didn’t remain a mystery for very long. After this initial discovery, I soon came across a plethora of articles and images of Marville’s life here at QM. Marville’s student card tells us that he was a student from Barbados who came on a scholarship in the mid 50s. Nearly every other edition of The Cub featured a piece on Marville – whether it was a profile on his latest sporting success or a column he had written himself, the archives were a treasure trove of information about his college life.
Luckily, the story doesn’t end there. In 2016, Orlando Marville released a memoir titled; Being Me. Flipping through his memoir, it’s astonishing to see the tremendous success he achieved after graduating from Queen Mary – including holding office as the Ambassador of Barbados.
Orlando Marville in action for University of London Basketball Team
Introducing Orlando Marville
Born in the small town of Gilkes, St. Lucy, Barbados on July 26th, 1936 to a young single mother, Marville describes his early childhood as being “poor, but happy.” Although slavery had been abolished some 100 years before his birth, he recounts Barbados as not having changed much from the days of slavery. The continued colonial rule and reliance on the sugar industry meant that many Black people still worked in plantations or as maids. The island was still segregated between the ruling White minority (‘sugar barons’) and the Black majority.
In his memoir, which is dedicated to the “women who have had an impact” in his life, Marville recounts a tough but loving upbringing being raised by his mother and maternal grandmother. After getting pregnant, Marville’s mother was forced to leave her teaching job. He notes that if it hadn’t been for the circumstances of the time, his mother would have had a very bright future and could have easily been a doctor.
Marville’s son, Kolawolé Marville Sr. (who goes by Wolé ) kindly took part in an interview to discuss his father’s life. He explains that his paternal grandmother was one of the toughest and intelligent women he knew and echoes his father’s sentiments saying, “In these times she probably would have been a doctor or some other thing of that nature.”
Being raised by such a strong woman played a big part in Marville’s life. Although he grew up without much money in the countryside, Marville managed to secure two scholarships to attend Harrison College – a grammar school in the city. Upon graduation, Marville obtained a scholarship to study abroad in England and decided to move to London.
Orlando Marville and his mother
At Queen Mary, which was known as Queen Mary College at the time, Marville pursued a Bachelor of Arts in History (Hons) from 1956-1959. In his memoir, Marville explains that since air travel was considered a luxury at the time, he boarded one of three French vessels travelling to England. The journey had many stops, beginning in the French Departments, then heading to Barbados followed by Puerto Rico, then Spain, and finally docking in England. He then took a train to London, eventually settling down in the city, where he would spend the next few formative years of his life.
Marville describes Queen Mary as “a dainty little place on the Mile End Road in the heart of Cockney East London.” By his own account, his studies in History paled in comparison to his involvement in sports at QMC. Marville complains about the lack of diversity in the history curriculum of the 50s, noting that the ‘dull’ subject; “dealt with British and European history pretty much as if it were world history.”
Recounting his time at Queen Mary College he writes; “...I immediately became something of a star...” – and indeed he was. Orlando Marville thrived at QMC. One profile in the student newspaper, describes Marville as a “born athlete” who brought “honour to his College and popularity to himself.”
While sifting through the school papers, it soon became apparent that rather than looking for which sports Marville took part in, it would be easier to find which sport he didn’t. At QMC he was a star player on the basketball team, member of the First XI of the Cricket Club, dabbled in hockey, played rugby, table tennis and soccer.
Orlando Marville Student Card
Sportrait of Orlando Marville in The Cub
Sporting profiles in The Cub, depict a extraordinarily talented young man, known for his humility and wit. After joining the basketball team, he was soon credited with the team’s big successes and in one season he scored a remarkable 350 points for the team. Marville let his talent speak for itself. Within his first year on the University of London team, he earned a ‘University Half Purple’, the second-highest sporting honour at the time. When asked the secret to his success, in classic Marville-fashion he keeps it short; “keep fit, keep fast, keep talking.”
A memorable moment from Wolé’s childhood was the time his father visited his school. The then-Ambassador Marville was spontaneously given the task of filling in as a substitute teacher for his son’s class. “I think the PE teacher was out, so he substituted for my class,” Wolé explains. His father, who came straight from work dressed formally in a suit and dress shoes was wholly unprepared to teach Physical Education. Nevertheless, he demonstrated a layup and impressively almost dunked the ball. “At that time, he was older and was this big, kind of beer bellied guy in dress shoes. But he was still getting up there in a three-piece suit. Thinking back on it now... Maybe he really could hoop back in the day, maybe he was pretty good,” jokes Wolé. ‘Pretty good’ is an understatement. Marville’s athletic prowess and success on the basketball court for the University of London eventually earned him a full University Purple, the highest sporting honour at the time.
Orlando featured in The Cub
Marville’s stardom didn’t end at sports. When reviewing the breadth of his involvement in college life, it’s tempting to conclude that his political aspirations blossomed here on our campus. His first recorded involvement in Student Union Affairs was in his second year from 1957-1958. In 1957 he represented the school as the University of London Union Representative for Queen Mary College. In a column published in The Cub, he reports his experience in the University of London Union and describes it as a place where the “...natural barrier imposed by individual colleges is broken down...”. In a later column, his pride for his West-Indian heritage shines through as he explains how 1950s pop music was heavily inspired by West-Indian rhythms and styles of music.
London Through Orlando Marville’s Eyes
Outside of sports, Marville spent a great deal of time learning from the city. “...Studying in London and living there meant having a double education: from the University itself and from London,” writes Marville.
Though Marville was highly successful, his success did not make him immune to the heightened racism and prejudice of London in the 50s. On one occasion he recounts being stopped and questioned by police officers in Hackney while he was on his way home. On another occasion him and his friend were refused service at a pub in Shoreditch. Marville recounts how the growing tensions between the Caribbean population and the White British population, led to heightened racism and conflict in London. The Windrush generation had only just arrived in London by the early 50s. Two years after Marville came to London, tensions boiled over, leading to the Nottinghill Race Riots which saw the West-Indian population be vilified by both the community and the police.
Racism and colonialist attitudes were not only seen in the streets but also in the education system. Reflecting on his studies, Marville notes that he did not shine as he was expected to. He argues that this was in part due to the Eurocentric design of higher education; “Interestingly here, when one dealt with Nigeria, for instance, primary material was British colonial reports, while Nigerian material was considered secondary material."
Despite what he calls an “area of dark prejudice", he writes that he genuinely enjoyed his time in London and loved taking part in various activities with his college sporting mates.
Orlando Marville in the First XI of the Cricket Team
Life and Travels after Queen Mary College:
Marville traveled a lot after his studies – frequently moving from continent to continent at what seemed like the drop of a hat. After graduating from Queen Mary College, Orlando spent the remainder of his scholarship on a year abroad in Stockholm, Sweden pursuing a course in political science. In Sweden, he learned to speak fluent Swedish and met his first wife. Soon after, Marville moved to Accra, Ghana with his wife to pursue a teaching position. Marville was immediately impressed by Ghana for its independence from colonial rule and the power women held in Ghanaian society. Marville reflects on his excitement about being in Ghana, “It was incredible to be in a black country, which had been independent for some six years before I arrived there, while the first leader of my own country did not want to cut the British yoke.”
Marville later returned to London with the hopes of pursuing a PhD. While in London, he took a job as a substitute teacher for the London City Council. Marville worked hard to secure a job working for the Barbados Government. He was eventually offered a job by UNESCO to work as an ‘expert’ in Sierra Leone – setting off a decades-long career travelling the world as a Public Servant.
It was while teaching abroad in Sierra Leone that Marville met his second wife with whom he shares three children. His two daughters and one son were all born in different parts of the world. After his parents separated, Wolé lived in the United States with his mother and spent the holidays with his father. In the winters, Marville would go to Maryland to visit his son. In the summers Wolé would visit his father in Belgium, where he was serving as the Ambassador of Barbados. The first few times he visited Brussels, he was accompanied by his sisters. But soon, they started college and as Wolé got older he would travel with his grandmother or make the trip on his own. “The first month or so he’d be working...it’s kind of boring, you’d be in this big mansion by yourself,” he explains. “But then by the end of the summer we’d go places.”
Growing up, Wolé explored many countries as he accompanied his father on trips around the world. He followed his father on his travels through Europe, including parts of France, Germany, Sweden and England. One year the father and son travelled to Egypt. “We went on a cruise, so it was nice. We’d get off and see the pyramids in one place and then get off and see the Sphynx here...” Marville’s knack for languages proved to be particularly useful when travelling; “My father was a linguist. He was great at languages. So that helped in the travels as well.” Wolé shares an extensive list of languages his father knew, which include; English, Spanish, French, German, Dutch, a bit of Japanese, some Chinese, Italian, bits of Swahili, Creole and Swedish.
The advantages that came with travelling with a polyglot were enviable. Although they would be miles away from home, Wolé remarks that “You’d be welcome anywhere. You’re getting the better part of the tour, you’re getting the better meals...You’re ‘on the inside’ so to speak.”
Being the Ambassador’s son also meant that Wolé was 'on the inside’ of some very important events and got close to some highly influential figures. In his memoir, Marville recounts the time an 8-year old Wolé met Nelson Mandela while accompanying him on official business in Strasbourg. Although he may have been too young to appreciate the exchange, Marville’s mother tells Wolé that it would be “one of the most important meetings of his life.”
Orlando Marville and his son Wolé
Orlando Marville worked for decades as a public servant to Barbados. He was the Barbados Ambassador to the United States and lived in New York for several years. He was later appointed as the Barbados Ambassador to Belgium – the longest position he held in his career.
Orlando meeting various political figures
Marville also played an influential role in bringing awareness to other Caribbean nations. In 2004, he was called to the United States House International Relations Subcommittee to speak on the topic of the political crisis in Haiti. “He was very influential, apparently in Haiti,” says Wolé. “One of my co-workers is from Haiti and knows him as the guy who came and was speaking for [his] people.”
Outside of public service, Marville continued to pursue his passion for writing after his college days. He published numerous stories and according to Wolé was a big storyteller in the family.
After officially retiring from public service, Marville was still interested in working and took a job working for The Caribbean Community (CARICOM). While working for CARICOM he met his current wife. Shortly after, he was appointed as an independent member of the Senate of Barbados where he served for several years. In 2012, Marville was awarded an Order of the British Empire (CBE) in recognition for his public service. In 2020, Orlando Marville passed away, a hero to his native island of Barbados and an inspiration to many.
Orlando on his 75th birthday
As Black History Month draws to a close, it is a pertinent time to reflect on the contributions of the countless Black individuals who paved the way for us all. Reflecting on the amazing story of the “Barbados Basketball Boy” who left his mark on Queen Mary College in the 1950s, we are given the privilege of looking into the past and taking its lessons for the future. In the great story of Orlando Marville’s life, you find an ambitious and talented young Black man who despite the many obstacles and challenges of the time went on to achieve greatness for himself and those around him. Marville took the courageous step of leaving behind his homeland to pursue a higher education in an unfamiliar and at-times unwelcoming place. Despite the prejudice and challenges he faced, Orlando Marville went from studying a history curriculum that did not represent his community, to playing an active part in shaping history and representing his nation. Reflecting on his father’s life, Wolé concludes, “He comes from tough stuff. That's what I tell my kids all the time, we come from tough stuff. We’ve got to do well in life because of that.”
Orlando Marville’s last official record in the QMUL archives is a 1988 letter he wrote to the Secretary of Queen Mary College. Writing from his office in Brussels, Marville shares that although he had lost touch with his college friends, he was keen to keep in touch with fellow Queen Mary alumni and purchased a lifetime membership to the QMC Association. While it may have taken our institution many years to recognise Orlando Marville for his lifetime achievements, these archive findings ensure that his college contributions and wider achievements are preserved, and remain a source of inspiration for generations to come.
This article would not have been possible without the support of numerous people.
A very special thank you to Kolawolé Marville Sr. for sharing a personal insight into his father's life and granting exclusive access to family photos. Wolé’s childhood stories and insights are what brought the archive findings to life.
I am equally grateful to Florence Dall, QMUL Archives Officer, for her tremendous support and guidance navigating the archives and conducting my research. Her patience, spirited efforts and commitment to making the archives more accessible is what ultimately led me to these findings.
Finally, thank you to the QMUL Archives and Special Collections for preserving the unique and significant history of Queen Mary and East London. Without their service, the contributions of significant figures like Orlando Marville would be lost to history.