The Reverend Michael Scott was born on 30 July 1907 at Lowfield Heath Sussex, the youngest of three brothers. In 1911 his father, an Anglican priest, was transferred to a slum parish in the port of Southampton, where the surrounding poverty and suffering permanently affected his outlook.
Especially traumatic was the periodic sexual abuse he received at the hands of his primary school headmaster, also an Anglican priest. Scott regarded the headmaster as a man of faith, but also someone he learnt to fear. He would later recount how he became extremely confused and upset due to an inability to differentiate the love and affection shown by his parents from the unwanted attentions forced on him by his headmaster. Unwilling to tell his parents, he internalised the issue and tried to erase the experience from his memory.
His original plan to study medicine collapsed when, during his final year at King's College, Taunton he had to undergo major surgery. On removing his gall bladder, the surgeon diagnosed TB stomach glands and he was sent to Switzerland for a sun-cure. Although after some months said to be cured, he was advised not to return to the English climate. So, acting on the invitation of the Archdeacon of Cape Town (one of his father's parishioners) he sailed for South Africa to work in the leper colony of which the Archdeacon was in charge.
From there he went to St. Paul's Theological College, Grahamstown and continued his training back in England where, in 1930, he was ordained in Chichester Cathedral by Bishop George Bell, who became a staunch supporter. After serving in a rural and then a fashionable London parish, he was happier when moved to All Saints Clapton in London's East End. In his book 'A Time to Speak' he wrote that gradually he was becoming aware there were two kinds of Christianity. There was the religion which was the divine sanction of the status quo and there was the religion which was the divine instrument of change.
The growing Nazi threat led to an interest in Communism, but he never actually joined the Party and came to realise how irreconcilable his aims were with theirs.
In 1935 he went to India, first as Chaplain to the Bishop of Bombay and then as Senior Chaplain at St. Paul's Cathedral, Calcutta. He became deeply influenced by Gandhi's doctrine of satyagraha (non-violence). In Calcutta, especially, he had considerable opportunity to work among the really destitute, which he did wholeheartedly.
Shortly before the outbreak of WW2 he returned to England and joined the RAF, not as a Chaplain but as aircrew. He had learnt to fly while in India. But within a year he was invalided out following a recurrence of Crohn's disease (ileitis) an incurable bowel disease for which he had an emergency operation in 1939. After further major surgery, he was advised to return to South Africa.
The Bishop of Johannesburg appointed him Assistant Priest at St. Albans Coloured Mission in Johannesburg and Chaplain at an Orphanage for Coloured Children in Sophiatown. He lived in a rondavel in the grounds of the latter. Archbishop Trevor Huddleston, who also went to Johannesburg in 1943, once said of Michael Scott that he was ten years ahead in vision and in achievements. "For this he had to pay the heavy price of loneliness and misunderstanding.....But that has been the lot of all prophets".
Appalled by the squalor, poverty and malnutrition around him, Scott studied Government Blue Books, finding useful recommendations made by Government Commissions and never implemented. He formed a non-political organisation called the Campaign for Right and Justice (CRJ). A practical programme based on Commission reports was centred around a scheme of regional planning, principally on the lines of the Tennessee Valley plan. The CRJ placed Scott in direct opposition to the then Church establishment and the South African Government. However, in the short-term it was successful in facilitating cross-cultural dialogue and producing innovative proposals. Throughout l944 and l945 it continuously put pressure on the Government, but various complications arose including the fact that a section of the CRJ had plans for it to develop into a political party and Scott had given his word to General Smuts that this would not be the case. He felt forced to resign; the CRJ ground to a halt and eventual collapse.
At the same time the CRJ was imploding, the South African Government passed the Asiatic Land Tenure and Indian Representation Act. South African Indians used passive resistance and Michael Scott was asked to go as an observer. When he saw how mobs of hysterical white youths were attacking the Indians who, with great self-discipline were not defending themselves, he felt moved to join them. For this act of moral courage he was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Due to absence he had to resign from Parish work, which left him no regular income. Unintentionally, he became an international celebrity, winning praise as a defender of human rights, while also making himself a target of the South African Government.
Soon after another appeal for help came. He was asked by the African Section of the Springbok legion to investigate conditions in 'Tobruk' a shantytown outside Johannesburg. In order to do this and gain the confidence of the people he felt it necessary to live among them. This led to a Court summons to answer a charge which prohibited such residence without official permission. By then, Scott was struggling to contain an outbreak of smallpox and, despite witch doctor opposition, establish a vaccination programme. The case was adjourned, but after the smallpox was brought under control Scott, listed as being of 'no fixed abode' received a suspended sentence
By now, he had become exposed to extremes of hatred on either side. His African friends in 'Tobruk' narrowly saved him from assassination by an anti-white black group. Late, he had to be removed by police to escape the fury of Afrikaner farmers in the notorious Bethel district. Together with Ruth First, he had gone to bring to public attention conditions of slavery imposed on black farm labourers.
He went to Basutoland at the request of relatives of accused members of a small political organisation who maintained the charge against them was fabricated by the police. Scott obtained the services of a Johannesburg lawyer and shortly after the accused were released from jail. He was not so successful in an attempt to probe further into the arrest, and eventual execution, of various prominent Chiefs on a charge of ritual murder.
Scott never went in search of problems but, in his own words, became a straw at which people clutched.
Tshekedi Khama, Regent of the Bamangwato, in Bechuanaland (now Botswana) invited him to visit his homeland and arranged for him to meet Chief Frederick Mahareru, Paramount Chief of the Hereros , living in exile there. Chief Mahareru asked Scott to visit South West Africa where his, and other tribes, were resisting attempts by apartheid South Africa to incorporate their land. A former League if Nations mandate, South Africa was refusing to let it transfer to UN Trusteeship. Scott duly met Herero Chief Hosea Kutako and other Chiefs in SWA. They were forbidden to travel, so begged him to take their petition to the UN.
Many obstacles were placed in his path, but eventually he achieved an historic hearing by the UN Trusteeship Committee, the first individual to do so. "I wish these African people could be here to tell you their story in their own way..." In due course they were, but Michael Scott's at first lonely, long and valiant role should never be forgotten. Without it, the erstwhile League of Nations mandated territory could, in the late 1940's, quietly have been incorporated as a fifth province of the Union of South Africa, against the wishes of the majority of its inhabitants.
As the journalist, Cyril Dunn, would later point out There could not have been any other disinterested, single-handed non-violent action for peace and justice to compare with it. An unknown, sick and impoverished English parson, who hadn't previously addressed an audience bigger than a parish-church congregation, travelling half across the world and, by sheer dogged unboreable persistence and with virtually no help, compelling the world's greatest organisation of nations to give him a hearing - an unprecedented concession - on behalf of the survivors of a shattered African tribe of which nobody present had ever previously heard,
Scott continued to attend the UN almost every year until a fewe months before he died. Sadly, he did not live to see the end of apartheid or South West Africa become independent Namibia.
In 1950, while at the UN, he heard from the South African Government that he had been declared a prohibited inhabitant of, or visitor to, South Africa. He went back to Britain, where he was grateful for some Quaker support and the generous hospitality of Fred and Dorothy Irvine at the Friends International Centre in London.
In 1952 he was to meet two people who would have a great impact on his life. The first was David Astor (second son of Lord Waldorf and Nancy Astor) Editor of the British newspaper 'The Observer' who became a lifelong friend and supporter. The other was Mary Benson who , during the War, had been a Captain in the South African Defence Force and would become the future biographer of Nelson Mandela and Tshekedi Khama. Having read about him, she applied to work as Scott's Secretary. After initial doubts, he found her competent assistance invaluable. She became first Secretary of the Africa Bureau. But insurmountable difficulties developed as their personal relationship deepened, partly, no doubt, due to his childhood psychological problem. She left him in 1956 and returned to South Africa.
Scott would later tell Lorna Richmond that he got over the personal side of his relationship with Mary, and sooner than he expected, but thought she never had. He always greatly regretted the break-up of their working relationship. Lorna joined the Africa Bureau (where she worked for several years) shortly after Mary's departure. She and Scott came to have a long and caring relationship. In time, when her lodger left, he joined her for many happy years at her London flat in the house of mutual friends. After years of improved health, he was unexpectedly diagnosed with liver cancer and she was with him when, after a short illness, he died there on the evening of September 14, 1983.
In 1997, interviewed on the BBC programme 'Desert Island Discs' Mary Benson mentioned how deeply she had been in love with someone during the War, but he was married to a Catholic, so divorce unlikely and he returned to his wife. She then told of falling in love with the idea of Michael and his work through reading an Observer 'profile'. When asked if she came to fall in love with the reality she replied I suppose I did in a way. I would see later it was part of my teenage idolising of movie stars.
Unable to return to South Africa, Michael Scott , in the early 1950's, became Honorary Director of the Africa Bureau which he set up with the support of David Astor, as a non-party political organisation, to both help Africans who might otherwise be overwhelmed by party politics, or exploited by sectional interests, and to help people in Britain realise the nature and importance of African problems. He thought that if Kikuyu Chiefs who came to England in the 1930's to ask for modest constitutional reform had not been practically ignored, the situation might not have arisen which led to the Mau Mau revolt. The Bureau, which existed until the late 1970's, became widely trusted and filled a crucial gap. Linked to the Africa Bureau were several charitable Trusts one of which, The Africa Educational Trust, still exists. Scott and Astor, also, were the prime movers behind the setting up of the Minority Rights Group.
The growing nuclear threat brought about Scott's connection, in a private capacity, with non-violent Direct Action. He went with a small World Peace Brigade team to the Upper Volta in an attempt to prevent the testing of a French nuclear bomb in the Sahara. He was involved with Bertrand Russell in the formation of the Committee of 100. Passive resistance at Swaffham, and later with the Committee of 100 in Whitehall led to short prison sentences.
Another involvement unconnected with the Africa Bureau was during the 1960's when he was invited by the General Secretary of the Nagaland Church Council to be part of a peace mission to try and resolve the conflict between India and Nagaland. Scott had been reluctantly drawn into this problem after being contacted by the nephew of a Naga leader trying to reach the West and who heard of his work for SWA at the UN. Prime Minister Nehru promised Scott that if the Peace Mission could achieve a 'cessation of hostilities' he would preside over a Conference to include the Naga 'Underground'. News of a cease-fire reached Delhi as Nehru was dying and, in a second sad setback his successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, died suddenly in Tashkent having come to some agreement with the Russians. His last known words were Now we must go and do the same with the Nagas.
Later, amid increasing tension, the other two members of the Peace Mission (Jayaprakash Narayan and the Chief Minister of Assam) resigned, leaving Scott in an untenable position. Almost immediately, he received a deportation order the Indian Government having decided his presence sustained Naga resistance to India's will. Cyril Dunn headed his Observer report 'India turns on its Hero'. However, when the cease-fire ended there was no return to large scale violence. Dr. Aram, in his book 'Peace in Nagaland' though not without some criticism of Michael Scott thought, on the whole, both Nagaland and India had much to thank him for.
It was not true, as some thought that he never fully trusted anyone, though he could be suspicious, sometimes with good cause. His natural reticence could lead to misunderstanding and he could be an exasperating Committee member. But, as someone wrote, those who expected a firebrand were surprised by his gentle manner, reasonableness and the quietness of his public speaking.
Though sometimes an extremist he was never fanatical and never lost a keen sense of humour. He was fond of quoting lines from T.S. Eliot's 'Four Quartets' - "For us there is only the trying, the rest is not our business". .
In 1972, the General Theological Seminary in New York awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Theology and in 1975 the exiled Bishop of Damaraland , Colin Winter, appointed him an Honorary Canon of St. George's Cathedral, Windhoek, Namibia, while in 1968 President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia had made him a Grand Officer of the Order of the Grand Companion of Freedom.
Although a private funeral had been announced, Hampstead Parish Church was full and there was a further large congregation for a later Thanksgiving Service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields. In Namibia's capital, Windhoek, a prominent road is named after him and in Sussex, where Lorna Richmond now lives, Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 1992 dedicated a small window in his memory in the village Church of St. Pancras, Kingston-near-Lewes. His ashes are buried in the Churchyard.
- 'A Time to Speak' by Michael Scott, Faber & Faber. 'In Face of Fear' by Freda Troup. Faber & Faber.
- 'A Search for Peace and Justice - Reflections of Michael Scott ed: by Paul Hare and Herbert Blumberg. Rex Collings Ltd.
- 'The Troublemaker - Michael Scott and his lonely struggle against Injustice' by Anne Yates and Lewis Chester. Aurum Press.