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Red Clydeside's Racism

In previous blogs on the history of Scottish labour we have observed how religious bigotry often marred attempts to unite the working class. But racism has also existed and been exploited for sectional advantage by supposed internationalists.

In all the major sea-ports of Britain communities a non-white sea-farers arose, many marrying local women. In Glasgow they mostly settled around the harbour area, commonly known as Broomielaw.

Many Red Clydesiders have become Scottish national heroes, remembered for their fight for workers' rights. Seamen's leader, president of the Glasgow trades and labour council and chairman of the 40 hr workers’ strike committee, Emanuel – Manny – Shinwell gained fame for his part as a left-wing trades union official in 1919, finding himself thrown into jail on Bloody Friday. But Stirling University historian Dr Jacqueline Jenkinson, in her book "Black 1919", accuses Shinwell of encouraging Glasgow seamen to launch a series of attacks on black sailors. Jenkinson reveals how Shinwell's British Seafarers Union banned black members and how labour histories of the period  fail to mention this Glasgow race-riot .

Jenkinson said: "There has been a reluctance to accept that many of the Red Clydesiders promoted actions that were discriminatory and unfair to the black sailors. Manny Shinwell was one of those who campaigned to stop black sailors getting work. His radical seamen's union, the British Seafarers Union, openly banned black members. It was felt they were keeping Scots out of jobs when they returned from service in the First World War, and lowering wages. Shinwell gave what some consider inflammatory speeches in which he condemned the employment of black sailors in the merchant fleet."

Professor Elaine McFarland, a specialist in modern Scottish history at Glasgow Caledonian University, said: "Red Clydeside does have this dark, racist underbelly, and there has been a reluctance to expose it. It may be due to the political leanings of some historians, but there has been a sentimental view of those who took part in Red Clydeside."

Socialists are only too aware of the racism that can inveigle itself into the trade union movement. Our companion blog SOYMB  recently re-published an appeal from Jewish workers about the descrimination they were facing from elements within the British TUC in the 1890s

The SPGB had reason to distance itself from certain members of the Socialist Party of Canada for their anti-Chinese statements in the early 20th century.

Addressing a meeting of migrant workers in London in 1892, dockers leader Ben Tillett told them: “Yes, you are our brothers, and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come.”

Keir Hardie argued: “It would be much better for Scotland if those [Scottish emigrants] were compelled to remain there [in Scotland] and let the foreigners be kept out. Dr. Johnson said God made Scotland for Scotchmen, and I would keep it so.” According to Hardie, the Lithuanians migrant workers in the mining industry had “filthy habits”, they lived off “garlic and oil”, and they were carriers of “the Black Death”. He described the typical Irish immigrant coal-miner as having "a big shovel, a strong back and a weak brain"

E.D. Morel of the Independent Labour Party and future Labour MP, could describe colonial French troops as "black savages" .

The Glasgow Evening Times were able to employ the words "sambo" and "nigger" in its articles.

The two main sailors’ union, the British Seafarers Union and the the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s’ Union, played the "race" card to attract and mobilise white members at the expense of their black co-workers. The operation of a "colour" bar by sailors’ unions heightened dockside tensions around Britain’s seaports. Prominent Glasgow labour leaders enforced and supported the "colour" bar on black and Chinese sailors. They opportunistically played on this manufactured division within the low-paid and low-skill seafaring workforce as part of the wider campaign for a 40-hour week to reduce unemployment pressures caused by demobilisation. Trade union leaders endeavoured to involve white British sailors in the general strike called in Clydeside, by tying on-going white sailors’ protests against the "unfair" competition posed by overseas labour to the 40-hours strike action. During waterfront speeches at sailors meetings, Shinwell linked the predudices among white British merchant sailors about the ‘unfair’ competition provided by overseas "Asiatic" labour, placing them into a wider industrial setting. He offered dissatisfied white British merchant seaman an opportunity to voice their concerns about workers from overseas undercutting their wages and threatening their job opportunities as part of the wider strike movement. The rioting at the harbour and the threat of more in the succeeding days drew public attention to the 40-hours campaign. The day before the general strike descended into violence on ‘Bloody Friday’ Shinwell presided over a third meeting of sailors in a week, where he ‘…urged them to take effective steps to prevent the employment of Chinese labour on British ships….’  A newspaper report reads: “...Councillor Shinwell, of the BSU, who addressed the meeting, directed attention to the large number of British seamen and firemen who were at present unemployed and the large number being demobilised who would find it difficult to secure employment aboard ship. This he attributed to the refusal of the government to exclude Chinese labour from British ships, and it was essential, he said, that action should be taken at once.”

Willie Gallacher joined with Shinwell on 28 January to address sea-going members of the BSU and other unionised sailors at the harbour to persuade them to take part in the strike action. The tenor of this meeting was no different from the ones addressed by Shinwell; again, the tactic was to import the old demand that black and Chinese crews should be expelled from British ships into the broad strike campaign. The strike committee viewed support from white sailors as useful in widening the 40-hours protest movement and were none too particular as to how such involvement was secured. Shinwell and Gallacher were simply parroting the mis-conception that it is the poor unfortunate immigrant who is responsible for wage cuts and unemployment.

Jenkinson uncovered newspaper accounts that reported Shinwell's role in a Glasgow race riot in 1919. She said:"He played a celebrated role in the protest in George Square on 31 January 1919. But just a week before, on 23 January, he also played a key role in a very violent attack on 30 African sailors. Newspaper reports tell how he spoke to 600 sailors and it was quite a rabble-rousing speech about black and what he called Asiatic, or Chinese, sailors. This led to around 30 black sailors being chased by a baying mob down James Watt Street. On 23rd January that year fighting broke out on the Glasgow waterfront between black and white sailors waiting to sign on to a ship. According to three newspaper reports, whites were being signed up in preference to blacks. A fourth report claimed that blacks were being signed up in preference to whites."

The riot on Thursday 23 January 1919 began at the signing-on hall in James Watt Street a few hours after a Shinwell speech. The black sailors, fled from the hiring yard, pursued by a much larger crowd of white sailors. Locals joined the crowd, swelling its numbers to several hundred. The mob, using guns, knives, sticks, bricks and other makeshift weapons, attacked the nearby sailors' retreat in Broomielaw in which the black seafarers had taken refuge but the mob smashed all the windows and they were turned out on to the street. The black sailors fled back to their own boarding house. When this, in turn, was attacked by the rioters, some of the black sailors fought back with guns, shooting one of the mob. One black sailor was singled out and attacked with knives, leaving him with a gaping wound in his back. The police eventually intervened, this time by taking thirty of the black sailors into 'protective custody'. All of them were charged with riot and weapons offences. Only one of the white rioters was arrested. Shinwell blamed the violence on the arrival in Glasgow of black West African sailors from Cardiff and the recent appearance of a group of Chinese sailors from Liverpool.

The 1919 Glasgow race riot proved the first of a number that spread to major ports throughout Britain such as South Shields, Salford, Hull, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Newport and Barry. Five people were killed, dozens seriously injured, and over 250 people – usually blacks – arrested and soldiers deployed to stop the rioting. The origins of the riots in Glasgow and elsewhere lay in the policies pursued by shipowners in that national wage rates for sailors hired in Britain (who were almost certain to be white) had been  established after the 1911 seafarers’ strike but rates of pay for those hired overseas (who were almost certain to be black or Chinese) were lower by as much as 25-50%. The trade union response to shipowners using black sailors to cut their labour costs was not to campaign for an extension of the 1911 wage rates agreement to cover all sailors employed on British ships but to demand an end to the employment of foreign (black and Chinese) sailors. Instead of directing the union's wrath at the capitalist class which exploits and takes advantage of the lack of working class unity, Shinwell openly backed the idea of securing jobs for white British sailors at the expense of foreign black sailors.

Such was the perception, that when shipping companies employed foreign (black and Chinese) sailors rather than white (British) sailors, the latter saw themselves as being undercut in the jobs market by the former. This was exacerbated  by the increased unemployment of the  post-war demobilisation when white sailors who had quit the merchant navy to join the Royal Navy, or who had been conscripted to join it, demanded ‘their’ jobs back in the merchant navy. Yet  many of those jobs had already been filled by foreign seafarers. Thus, at the time of the Glasgow riot there were an estimated 400-500 unemployed white sailors in the city. The rioting was triggered by intense job competition among merchant seaman. However, a black sailor from any part of the Empire eg Sierra Leone (where the 30 sailors originated from) was just as British as a white sailor from Glasgow and would be paid the higher rate, and likewise any foreign sailors hired in Britain – because they had arrived here on another ship, or because they had settled here. While whites viewed blacks as foreign, different and inferior, blacks viewed themselves as citizens of the British Empire. The black workers attacked in Glasgow were regarded by the white crowd not as fellow Scots caught up in the same contracting post-war job market but as outsiders trying to snatch employment from white Scottish workers. Shinwell's speeches amounted to not much more than “British jobs for British workers”, scapegoating black and Chinese sailors for unemployment amongst ex-servicemen.

Colonial Britons were used as a convenient "industrial reserve army of labour" during wartime but after the war soon found their continued presence among the white British working class was resented. Black people were viewed as an "alien" element in the workforce by white rioters whose violent actions against their employment were ultimately appeased by the launch of an extended programme of repatriation for black colonial residents throughout Britain in summer 1919. By August 1921 repatriation forced two thousand black workers and their dependents out of Britain under protest. However, many others stayed put in Glasgow, continuing to live and work in the city. But the race-rioting at the docks had served its purposes, limiting the job opportunities for black sailors. Following the riot shipping employers’ were more reluctant than previously to hire black sailors in the port. The increased difficulty in finding employment provoked an organised  protest campaign as members of Glasgow’s black population worked together to publicise the growing destitution among black seafarers caused by the long-term unemployment. The African Telegraph in April 1919 reports "In Glasgow there are more than 130 British seamen walking on their uppers, down and out. They happen to be coloured men, but they are all true British-born subjects, who have served on British ships during the war."

Sylvia Pankhurst's, Workers' Dreadnought, of the Workers Socialist Federation described the sea-port race riots as by-products of capitalism and a divide and rule tactic of the employers. "Do not you know that if it pays to employ black men employers will get them and keep them even if the white workers kill a few of the blacks from time to time?"  It also wrote: "The fight for work is a product of capitalism; under socialism race rivalry disappears.” and asked "...those who have been Negro hunting: - ‘Do you wish to exclude all blacks from England?’ If so, ‘do you not think that blacks might justly ask that the British should at the same time keep out of their countries?’ "

The Socialist Labour Party's journal The Socialist commented: “It is useless to contend that coloured labour cannot be organised. If white men have approached coloured labourers in an arrogantly superior manner, it is small wonder that they have been unable to organise them. ... ‘Alien’ on the lips of one of the working class should have only one meaning – the Boss and all that is his." It bitingly explained  "The Trades Unions have prided themselves on having ousted coloured labourers from certain occupations... Black men and yellow men have been attacked for doing precisely what white men do. This, of course, is but the logical development of the Trades Unions’ policy which is prepared to strike rather than that any unskilled white worker should get a 'skilled job.' "

The temptation to blame your unemployment or wage level on foreign labour may be strong. But nevertheless such views are false. The blame lies elsewhere. You must not blame another worker for your poverty. The clash on the Broomielaw can be taken as an example of how one element of the working class can be made the scapegoat, by those supposedly protecting the interests of all workers, in order to secure a better deal for their members, at the expense of the minority.

Shinwell went on to become a Independent Labour Party then Labour Party MP, chair-person of the Labour Party, Minister of Fuel and Power in the post-war Labour government, Secretary of State for War, Minister of Defence, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Baron Shinwell of Easington. It is ironic that he played a role in this campaign against black sailors when Shinwell himself was a victim of anti-semitism. After a Tory MP told Shinwell, who was Jewish, to "go back to Poland" during a debate in Parliament in 1938, Shinwell crossed the floor of the chamber and punched him.

Sources from here and here and here


It is not blame the immigrants but blame the bosses for employing the immigrants. Besides, even if we take on the bosses does not mean that all immigrants can come here because no working man is interested in their presence on these isles.

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