June Milne with Kwame Nkrumah in Conakry, Guinea, in 1970. He settled there after the 1966 coup in Ghana.
To the end, she was a passionate supporter of his vision of a united Africa throwing off the imperial yoke. Nkrumah had been hailed as the “great liberator” when Ghana became the first British colony in sub-Saharan Africa to gain its independence in 1957.
As he lay dying of cancer in a Romanian hospital 15 years later, having been ousted in a military coup in 1966, Milne was at his bedside.
A redoubtable bluestocking, Milne always defended Nkrumah, who was accused of squandering money after Ghana’s independence by making vainglorious donations to other emerging African nations that bought into his Marxist-Leninist ideals. In many cases the money ended up in the pockets of corrupt dictators.
She insisted that the military coup in Ghana that brought Joseph Arthur Ankrah to the leadership in February 1966 was “organised by foreign powers”, meaning the CIA. A serious and rather austere woman, she would light up during debates, declaring: “A united Africa is the only way.”
June Milne was born in Melbourne in 1920, and was raised in Britain after her mother remarried a prosperous businessman. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies’ College and studied modern history at Westfield College, University of London, where she came top of her year.
During the war she worked as assistant principal at the Ministry of Supply, liaising with the US government to secure supplies for Britain under the Lend-Lease policy. Back at home in Cambridge she fell in love with a dashing Scottish RAF pilot, Evander (Van) Milne, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross and was billeted at her parents’ house.
A proto-feminist, she made it known to him that she deplored the idea that women should be the ones expected to do the cooking and cleaning. The couple married in 1944. Her husband died in 2006 and she is survived by a son, Peter, who is a former investment analyst, and a daughter, Ann Bedlow, who is a housewife.
After the war she became chief examiner for the London University examinations board, setting A-level papers and supervising marking. At the same time, her husband, who was working at Thomas Nelson Educational Publishing, met Nkrumah and persuaded him to sign a publishing deal. Nkrumah told him that he would need a first-class research assistant. Not long afterwards he flew to London for the 1958 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, booked into a suite at the Grosvenor Hotel in Park Lane and summoned Mrs Milne.
She arrived to find a long queue of Ghanaian expats waiting for an audience outside Nkrumah’s room. The door opened and a voice boomed: “Is June Milne in the room? I wish to speak to her.” When she told him that she had a PhD in history from the University of London he said: “You must be a radical.”
The partnership worked well. Milne kept up with Nkrumah, who enjoyed that rare advantage of needing little sleep and would work on his literary enterprises well into the night. When Nkrumah lost power while on a peace mission to Vietnam, Thomas Nelson told him that it was dropping his books. The company was worried that Ghana would boycott its highly profitable educational volumes if it carried on publishing his work.
Nkrumah was then invited to settle in Guinea, where he was reverentially appointed the nation’s “co-president” by Sékou Touré, its leader. From there he set up Panaf Books in 1968 under the management of Milne, with the aim of continuing the publication of his writing.
He still had many enemies, though, who wished to silence him — and her. The Panaf Books office in Regent Street was broken into and files were stolen, while on another occasion a knife was left on Milne’s desk.
After she wrote a biography of Patrice Lumumba, the assassinated leader of the Democratic Republic of the Congo who was sympathetic to Nkrumah’s vision, she was visited by two Congolese men. They told her how much they admired the book and asked her to give them the address of the author so they could thank her in person. Milne knew that they were agents of the Congolese President Mobutu. She did not tell them that she was the author.
Nkrumah soon ran out of money, but she kept the publishing house going, and he was delighted to receive her in Guinea, where she arrived laden with his favourite Cadbury’s chocolates. He bequeathed her the copyright on all his books and papers, which was a valuable gift, given the fact that the military regime destroyed many of his letters in a bonfire at the presidential palace in Accra.
In 1987 Milne flew to his villa in Conakary, which had been abandoned and looted, with his remaining papers scattered everywhere. Having put them back in order and packed them into suitcases, Milne took them back to Britain. They formed the basis of her book Nkrumah: The Conakry Years. Milne was proud that Panaf Books continued to publish Nkrumah’s works, helping to spread his message that “the emergence of a continental union government for Africa will immediately make the independent states of Africa a mighty world influence”. She also remained close to Nkrumah’s children, Gamal and Samia.
“It is not difficult,” she wrote, “to imagine the greatly improved condition of the African people today if Nkrumah had continued in power in Ghana to lead the pan-African movement.”
She claimed that his vision remained very much alive. In his nine years in power, she said, “foundations were laid that could never be reversed” and insisted that one day the continent would rise just as Nkrumah had predicted.
June Milne, historian and publisher, was born on June 22, 1920. She died on May 7, 2018, aged 97.