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Britain's multi-national ports, 1910s-1930s

Before air travel or the Channel Tunnel, Britain depended on its merchant navy to trade with other countries - supplying essentials such as food and allowing goods produced in Britain to be exported. Sailors on British-owned ships came from many countries, and some settled in Britain, particularly around the port areas. The documents shown here show some of the reactions (many hostile) to the employment of foreign nationals on British ships.

Click on the images to read the documents in full.

Steadily growing menace'Steadily growing menace', 27 June 1913

Cartoon published in 'The Seaman', the newspaper of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union. The image had been used in publicity material for the election campaign of Joseph Havelock Wilson (the union's President) in the parliamentary constituency of Wandsworth. Wilson had stood for the Liberal Party against the Conservative and Unionist candidate (and shipowner) Samuel Samuel, and chose to use the election as a platform to campaign against the employment of Chinese sailors on British ships. Statistics regarding the numbers of Chinese hired in British ports in 1911 and 1912 are also included.

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175A/4/1/2]

The Seaman"Get ready for the fight", 1914

In April 1914 the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union launched a publicity campaign against what they termed the "Yellow Peril problem" - the "employment of Chinese and other Asiatics [i.e. Indians] on British ships". The 1 May edition of the union newspaper, 'The Seaman', contains extensive coverage of the early weeks of the campaign, including reports of speeches made at public meetings. The union's principle objection to the employment of Chinese sailors was that by accepting lower wages and worse working conditions the foreigners were causing unemployment amongst British workers, however there is a strong racist undercurrent to many of the articles and speeches (for example in a poem entitled 'The Asiatic Peril' in the 12 June 1914 edition of 'The Seaman').

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175A/4/1/3]

The Seaman'An impudent production', 1914

The 29 May 1914 edition of 'The Seaman' contains further coverage of the campaign against the employment of Chinese sailors on British ships. As well as reports of speeches made at protest meetings, the newspaper also reproduces 10 points from a petition against the union's campaign, "signed by a number of Chinese grocers, boarding-house keepers, and firemen in Liverpool", which was sent to the Chinese Ambassador. Unsurprisingly, the newspaper is not in favour of the arguments of the petitioners, condemning the document as "an impudent production".

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175A/4/1/3]

The problem of half-caste children, 1930 'Problem of half-caste children', 1930

In 1930 the Liverpool Association for the Welfare of Half-caste Children published a report following inquiries into "the Anglo-Negroid population of Liverpool" - this summary is included in the 27 June 1930 issue of 'Medical World', the journal of the Medical Practitioners' Union. The summarised report portrays "Anglo-Negroid unions" in the port city in an extremely negative way - as affectionless, filled with regret and producing "outcast" immoral children. In contrast, it portrays Anglo-Chinese children as providing "no particular problem".

[From the archives of the Medical Practioners' Union; document reference: MSS.79/MPU/4/1/10]

Rules for joint supply registration and engagement of Somali and Arab seamenRules for joint supply registration and engagement of Somali and Arab seamen, 1930

In 1930 an agreement between the Shipping Federation and the National Union of Seamen introduced new regulations regarding the employment of Arab and Somali sailors on British ships. Arab and Somali sailors were now only able to work on the majority of British ships if they were registered at the Joint Supply Office, provided proof that they were "bona fide seaman and... lawfully in this country", and reported to the office every fortnight. On registering, they were categorised as either Arabs or Somalis, assigned a number, and employed only in numerical order (e.g. sailor no.5 could not be employed before sailor no.1).

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175A/Box 154]

South Shields riotsSouth Shields riots, 1930

On 2 August 1930, the day after the new rules regarding the employment of Somali and Arab seamen came into force, a protest meeting in South Shields turned violent - several police officers were injured with knives and stones, and protestors were clubbed with truncheons. The report of the resulting four day long trial includes descriptions of the protests and riot; several extracts have been digitised, including the evidence of Detective Inspector Alexander Wilson, part of the evidence of Prisoner Dowell, one of the speakers at the protest meeting, and part of the summing-up of Mr Lowenthal, Counsel for the Prosecution. It is notable that although the majority of the prisoners were Arabs, only the European prisoners gave evidence to court.

[From the archives of the National Union of Seamen; document reference: MSS.175/7/LE/103-105]

The Order of the White Seamens Brotherhood'The Order of the White Seamen's Brotherhood', c.1932

These two leaflets were circulated by J. Marston of Barry, South Wales, the Secretary of the Order of the White Seamen's Brotherhood. The group called for the repatriation of "both black and yellow seamen", claiming that foreign workers increased unemployment amongst British sailors, were a potential security risk at times of war, and were a "moral problem", due to "many of our own girls having established relations with foreign Seamen".

[Included in a file on 'Shipping, 1930-1962', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/655/6]

"Cardiff coloured seamen appeal""Cardiff coloured seamen appeal", 1938

This appeal against discrimination was sent by the Colonial Defence Association of Cardiff to the National Executive of the National Union of Seamen. This version was published in the 1 May 1938 bulletin of the Colonial Information Bureau, a London-based organisation previously known as the League Against Imperialism.

[From a collection of Communist and other left-wing publications; document reference: 1168/5/13]

Indian workers conference, 1939Indian Workers' Conference, July 1939

This circular provides information about a conference in Whitechapel, East London, which was called to "concretise the aims and aspirations of ... Indian workers in Great Britain, and to seek for the necessary sanctions to implement them". It particularly identifies Indians who were working in Britain as seamen, unskilled labourers, waiters, pedlars and film extras.

[Included in a file on 'Shipping, 1930-1962', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/655/6]