Updated: Sep 24
Not for nothing did authors Derek Humphry and David Tindall choose ‘False Messiah’ as the title for their book about the remarkable life of the individual who called himself ‘Michael X.’ As book titles go it’s a choice as apt as they come. For the character portrayed within these pages indeed comes across as a Svengali, a man who promised much but delivered very little - apart, that is, from misery and suffering to all who landed in his orbit.
Born Michael de Freitas in 1933, False Messiah traces the formative years of a young Trinidadian for whom criminality came naturally. Whenever there was trouble teachers knew that De Freitas would usually be the instigator. Even as a schoolboy De Freitas’ reputation preceded him. In the years to come his older self would exploit his reputation as a man not to cross to its full extent.
The book sketches out an unstable though by no means unusual family background. Michael’s mother herself had a reputation as a witch doctor. After being abandoned by her Portuguese husband, Mrs De Freitas brought up her wayward son alone. Soon Michael signed up on various cargo ships and by the late 1950s had arrived in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay.
Using his experience of racketeering – mainly in drugs and prostitution – Michael was eager to expand his operation and so arrived in London just as the capital was starting to experience the first stirrings of racial tension. Notting Hill, a west Indian enclave, became his manor. Here, he soon became a rent-collector/enforcer for the notorious Jewish slum landlord Peter Rachman.
Ever the opportunist, the book then goes on to chronicle Michael’s rise from petty gangster to black power leader – a feat largely achieved by cunning. De Freitas simply exploited that class of individual known as the white liberal, their guilt and fragility. From Lynn Redgrave to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, preaching a message of oppression and black empowerment, the Trinidadian gangster was able to inculcate himself into some of London’s most respectable circles.
While London’s in-crowd had itself a black leader whom it could promote and champion, De Freitas remained a gangster at heart. His rise to prominence as a spokesperson for racial politics had been achieved by a mixture of luck and charm – sheer opportunism. Certainly, the authors of this book make it fairly clear that he was a con-man, a salesman with an eye for the main chance.
Hats off to Humphry and Tindall who have certainly done their research; their subject’s various scams and always grandiose schemes are recounted vividly in the pages of this book. His seduction of white liberals is also reported with a good dose of scepticism, as if the authors can’t believe these people fell actually for the patter of such a patently obvious fraud.
A conversion to Islam now restyling himself as ‘Michael Abdul Malik’ or ‘Michael X’ in honour of the American black power icon Malcolm X, by the late 1960s De Freitas’ found himself courted by the British media, a celebrity no less! Yet while he dined with London’s fashionable set, De Freitas was co-ordinating a drugs empire built upon fear and intimidation. Sometimes, the authors clearly can’t believe he got away with so much for so long.
Well-paced and with an style of economy that takes the reader along on what is a rollercoaster journey, it’s when De Freitas returns home to Trinidad, having fled justice in London, that things take a turn for the worse. The guru had set up a commune which he ruled in the manner of an absolute monarch.
And then arrived another black power demi-God Hakim Jamal and his British girlfriend-cum-slave, Gale Ann Benson. Benson’s murder at the hands of De Freitas’ followers has the power to shock, but in retrospect seems inevitable. Violence had always been part of De Freitas’ playbook. (Previously, I have written about the Benson murder here: The Bank Job, here: Make Believe and here: Seberg.)
Believing himself a marked man and suspicious of outsiders, Benson fell victim to a man who had seemingly slid into a world of paranoia, the walls of which the guru felt were closing in. In short order De Freitas has a cousin murdered and orders the ‘liquidation’ of an entire family when they demand payment for the home he has ‘bought’ from them, but in typical fashion, has decided to renege on. It seems De Freitas believed the world owed him a living – a sumptuous one at that.
That Michael De Freitas ended his turbulent days at the end of a rope comes as no surprise. Mustering up even an iota of sympathy for such an unsavoury character is not easy and rather than sorrow, the reader might well feel relief.
False Messiah covers a lot of ground managing to effortlessly depict a quite chilling character and the febrile milieu in which he thrived. Though largely forgotten the story of Michael X is well worth revisiting - if only to serve as a lesson to those who see only that which is directly in front of them.