One of the fascinations of espionage history is that it is full of incidents so bizarre that you could not make them up. So while we wait to hear whether US intelligence did or did not justify the assassination of Soleimani, here is the answer to the question: who was the first person of colour to serve in the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service? It turns out to have been a white man.
Maurice Jeffes was admirably suited to secret service work. He was fluent in both French and German, the son of a former British Consul in Belgium, educated in Brussels and then at Heidelberg University. In 1916, he joined the Royal West Surrey Regiment before transferring to the Intelligence Corps where he cut his teeth working closely with SIS (then MI1C) in Belgium as a War Office (MI1B) officer.
When military intelligence was re-organised at the end of the First World War, Jeffes transferred to SIS. In October 1919, he became head of station in New York under cover as Passport Control Officer. (Jeffes was disappointed to find that the role did not merit consular rank as his father had held.) Jeffes served in New York until March 1922 when he returned to London. In Oct 1922 he became head of station in Paris where he served, astonishingly, until late 1937. This remains a record for an SIS head of station and was possible, in part, because from 1926 there were actually two SIS stations in Paris, the other being led by Wilfred “Biffy” Dunderdale. Jeffes’ time at Paris was notable for one punch up with the French government when they thought that Jeffes had become so assimilated that they could tax him like a French citizen.
In 1937, Jeffes returned to London to take charge of the Passport Control section, a role he occupied until the end of the war. An SIS officer who met him in 1939 described him as: “… a jolly, good-natured fellow, but a peculiar looking man, with a dark office on the ground floor which matched his complexion. The curious gunmetal colour of his face was due to a doctor having inoculated him with the wrong serum which turned it a kind of purple-blue that could not be changed.”
And therein lies the nub of the story. On one of his trips to the United States, Jeffes booked a room at a hotel. When he arrived and tried to check-in, the staff refused to allow him to register on the grounds that he was a coloured man. (This was of course at a time when the United States practised segregation.) A ferocious row ensued. But a lifetime in secret service had taught Jeffes not to give in. He did eventually prove his point and registered. At the same time, he made a little piece of secret service history. It was to be another thirty years before a real person of colour joined the Service.