Britain's merchant navy has employed sailors from across the world for centuries. This multi-national workforce was represented in British port towns not only by the sailors themselves but also by the lodging house keepers, merchants and other tradespeople who supported the industry. During the first half of the 20th century local opposition to non-British (particularly non-European) workers in maritime towns sparked violence and explicitly racist campaigns to remove the 'peril' of foreign workers. The better known flashpoints include the campaign of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union against Chinese workers before the First World War, the 1919 race riots, and the 1930 South Shields riot.
The Modern Records Centre holds key archives relating to the British shipping industry, including archives of the National Union of Seamen, the Shipping Federation, the Chamber of Shipping and the National Maritime Board. Additional collections also hold some material relating to race relations in British ports, including items in files on the shipping industry compiled by the Trades Union Congress.
The photograph shows a multi-ethnic group standing outside the Mercantile Marine Department of the Board of Trade, Bute Place, Cardiff.
'The Seaman', newspaper of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union / National Union of Seamen
The MRC has a run of this weekly newspaper from 1908, 1911-1993. Several extracts have been digitised relating to the union's anti-Chinese campaigns during 1913-4:
'Steadily growing menace', 27 June 1913
Anti-Chinese cartoon originally used as publicity material for the election campaign of Joseph Havelock Wilson (the union's President) in the parliamentary constituency of Wandsworth.
"Get ready for the fight", 1 May 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". This edition of the union newspaper contains extensive coverage of the early weeks of the campaign, including reports of speeches made at public meetings.
'An impudent production', 29 May 1914
This 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".
'The Asiatic Peril', 12 June 1914
Explicitly racist and nationalistic poem published in 'The Seaman' as part of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union's campaign against Chinese sailors.
Photograph of protest against Chinese sailors on British ships, undated [1910s]
The photo was sent by the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union to the International Transport Workers' Federation.
Drafts of an article or pamphlet written as part of the anti-Chinese campaign of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union.
Written by Father Charles P. Hopkins, National Sailors and Firemen's Union representative on the National Maritime Board.
Typescript notes on the attitude of the National Maritime Board, and particularly of NSFU representatives thereon, to restrictions on "coloured" (especially Chinese) seamen.
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. This document has been made available as a pdf, please contact us if you are unable to access this format.
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).
South 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. It is notable that although the majority of the prisoners were Arabs, only the European prisoners gave evidence to court. Several extracts from the report have been digitised:
The evidence of Detective Inspector Alexander Wilson
The evidence of Prisoner Dowell
The summing-up of Mr Lowenthal, Counsel for the Prosecution
Circulars aimed at "British White Seamen", calling for repatriation of "black and yellow seamen". They were published in Barry, South Wales.
Appeal against discrimination 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. This document has been made available as a pdf, please contact us if you are unable to access this format.
International African Opinion, 1938-1939
Copies of the monthly journal of the International African Service Bureau, London. The publication included a regular column by Chris Jones (a pseudonym of Chris Braithwaite) aimed at "coloured seamen".