Anti-Black racism and the hostile environment have a long history. For Tré Ventour Griffiths, the interwar years of 1919-1938 deserve more recognition in how we understand British history.

Following heightened discussions about anti-racism in the summer of 2020, I found it challenging that popular media stayed rooted in Windrush as the starting point of anti-Black racism in Britain. Though, the Black Victorians and Georgians before them also experienced racism, representations of Black people in the interwar years (1919-1938) are manifestly absent in British popular media. If we dared to look at 20th century Britain before the arrival of the Windrush generation (those who arrived from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1971), we might find the year 1919 and what was reported as ‘race rioting’ as another lens through which to trace British histories of racism. Within popular culture, including documentaries and television dramas that have been made recently, those ‘race riots’ have largely escaped public discourse. Meanwhile, those presented as ‘experts on racism’ on popular television have rarely named white supremacy as a sociopolitical system within their critiques (Mills, 2004).

In this piece, via the Black-white binary I will look at 1919 Britain, before the arrival of the Windrush generation and the more recent immigration “Windrush Scandal” (Olusoga, 2019; Gentleman, 2019) – as a site of white terror (hooks, 1992: 169-170). While the victims of the former did include non-Black people of colour, this piece centres those racialised as Black. However, it is taxing to see how the interwar years in popular British media are whitewashed. If the First World War and the interwar years were part of the ‘official history’ of racism, we might see a paradigm shift in how anti-Black racism is thought about. For example, a hostile environment had been cultivated for many years with the rolling back of Black residency rights in the 1920s (Lane, 1995: 104-129). As Ray Costello (2015) has observed, “these broad powers [previously] granted by the Aliens Restrictions Order of 1914, originally [applying] to British subjects of German or ‘alien’ descent, were now applied by the establishment and union leaders to Black British subjects” (p155). He continues to describe how xenophobia against white Germans during this period set a precedent for “questioning an individual’s loyalty and jeopardizing [their] citizenship rights” (ibid).

This is also what I think of as whiteness as policy, whereby “The myth of a unified white “race” as Emma Dabiri (2021) writes, “makes white people, from what are in truth distinct groups, better able to identify common ground with each other and to imagine a kinship and solidarity with others racialized as “white,” while at the same time withholding the humanity of racialized others” (p45). Although people racialised as white benefit from white privilege (Allen and Ignatiev, 1976; McIntosh, 1988; Eddo-Lodge, 2017; Bhopal, 2018), “extending the gaze to whiteness enables us to observe the many shades of difference that lie within this category – that some people are ‘whiter’ than others, some are not white enough and many are inescapably cast beneath the shadow of whiteness” (Nayak, 2007: 738).

Simultaneously while these “fictive kinships” (Dabiri, 2021: 45) are fabricated, histories of rolling back Black residency rights move in parallel to other distinct histories of this happening to white people that the state considers as ‘not white enough’ (Nayak, 2007). As such, state violence, even against different white groups with varied cultural heritages pre-dates the Windrush Scandal, where I believe British hostility to Black people, including Caribbeans, preceded the first Windrush arrivals in June 1948 (Ventour, 2021).

Another Hostile Environment, Another Windrush – the 1919 ‘race riots’

              Following a conflict that was supposed to be over by Christmas, between January and August 1919, as many as nine seaport communities were sites of white terror (badged as ‘race riots’) (Jenkinson, 1996: 92). The term ‘race riot’ to describe these events distorts the reality of what happened. In a BBC short film, Gaika tells us, “When millions of soldiers, sailors and airmen returned from the frontlines expecting … to settle into their old lives, they were met with … mass unemployment” (BBC, 2019). May and Cohen (1974) have described how the events in Liverpool “vividly demonstrate the intimate link between the origins of racism in Britain and the world-wide involvement of the metropolitan country in her colonial Empire” (p112).

Thus, the continued framing of the First World War as a history separate from colonialism, reinforces the whiteness of how the war is still presented and sits juxtaposed to the cosmopolitan Britain that existed at the beginning of the 20th century:

“Edwardian Britain’s … population of African birth or descent was resident at the centre of the world’s largest empire … Some knew no other land and others were self-motivated migrants. There were ambitious professionals, youths anxious for education, parents concerned about the future, adults seeking tranquility and workers seeking more money, as well as the descendants of earlier generations” (Green, 1998; xiii).

Jeffrey Green’s Black Edwardianssituates Britain as home to Black people between 1901 and 1914. Britain was still a dominant colonial power at the time and historical research shows how Black residents in Britain were subject to sustained forms of anti-Black racism. Those Black servicepeople that fought for Britain and the British Empire came back to the hostile environment of the ‘imperial centre’. Early 20th century racism has been most usually attached to the story of Walter Tull (Vasili, 2010; Costello, 2015; Ventour-Griffiths, 2021). Ray Costello (2015) writes how high-ranking white army officers ignored racist policies to promote him (p67), stating, “Commissions in the Special Reserve of Officers are given to qualified candidates who are natural born or naturalised British subjects of pure European descent” (H.M Stationary Office, 1914: 198). White supremacy pervaded wartime policymaking, with the reality of Black soldiers being able to kill white soldiers, further disrupting the so-called racial order (Emma Dabiri, in BBC Stories, 2019). As Olivette Otele has made clear “… the Government were worried about damaging decades of white racial prestige” (BBC Stories, 2019).

In a video for Double Down News, author-journalist Gary Younge says, “riots are polarising, they are often hypermasculine […] people aren’t racist for fun; they aren’t even necessarily racist because they don’t like Black people …”. Certainly, the 1919 riots were intertwined with racism, but the economic violence of the state against the white working-class must also be recognised. Discussing the riots in Wales, Yasmin Begum (2019) has described how,  “… unemployment across all working class communities and a perception that men of colour were “stealing” the jobs … meant that hostility ramped up.” In chronicling how during the events in Glasgow, Black sailors were accosted by the seamen’s unions, Jacqueline Jenkinson (2008) writes how the sailors were “chased out of the merchant marine hiring yard by white sailors when they sought jobs, beaten in the streets, attacked in their boarding house, and then targeted for mass arrest by police called in to halt the disorder” (p30).  For those Black men living in London’s East End in 1914, “some … chose to make new homes … while others, because of the downturn in world trade, and the colour bar, found it difficult to obtain passage home” (Howard Bloch, in Bourne, 2019: 200). Michael Banton (1955) has demonstrated how the trade unions gave preferential treatment to white men over Black men (p33).

Within intimate and domestic relationships, those white women who chose to have children with Black men rather than white men (BBC, 2019; Mixed Museum) also upset a racial ‘order’ that had previously been dictated by white men. This is what occurred in the Limehouse Riot Trial in London’s East End (Paddy Docherty). As The Times Reported on 1st July 1919:

“Mr. Percival Clarke, prosecuting, said that in Limehouse there was a lodging-house in which over a hundred coloured men resided. They came over here having been demobilised from ships in which they had done transport duty during the war and were waiting for a vessel to take them home. Whether they under-sold the white sailors or not he (counsel) did not know, but whatever the cause the ill-feeling was very great. If there was one thing more than another that white seamen resented it was black sailors associating with white women…” (cited by Paddy Docherty).

In those years following the First World War, there was a public outcry about racial mixing and the numbers of white women and Black men who had started families together. Chamion Cabellero and Peter Aspinall (2018) discuss how interracial families lived in places such as Liverpool, Cardiff and London in the early 1900s . The Cardiff “riots” were triggered when a white crowd saw Black men returning from an outing with their white partners (p62). And the 1920s further shaped racial politics as a “numbers game” with the state’s efforts to deport unemployed Black men (Jenkinson, 2009: 182), whilst there were also biases in news and police reports: “… racial statistics of arrests … partially remedied in acquittals in the courts. Such biases were to plague British race relations in the interwar years …” (Caballero and Aspinall, 2018: 66). 

However, Black-white racial mixing was not new in the British context and had existed among the Victorians, Georgians, and Tudors (Olusoga, 2017: 110; Nubia, 2019: 19). Yet, by the start of the 20th century, ‘race science’ had a forceful impact in British society (James Coleman in May and Cohen, 1974) and white women choosing to have children with Black men was deemed to be “a scandal and disgrace to English womanhood … a real and direct threat to the control of empire and preservation of racial hierarchies” (Olusoga, 2017: 413). With white women in the role of ‘mothers’ of empire (Davin, 1978), there was an interruption to a sexual hierarchy that was both racialised and gendered, “to transgress racial boundaries and risk producing mixed-race children was seen as particularly unpatriotic” (Caballero, 2019).

Entangled with employment and ‘sexual jealousy’, the events of 1919 are early examples of white terror on British soil, where “[racial theories] had assumed a material force in their own right … used to legitimize relationships of dominance … within the Empire” (May and Cohen, 1974). While media narratives, such as those in the Manchester Evening News blamed Black men for the ‘riots’, the ‘race’ in “race riot” should be attributed to whiteness and white masculinities in particular. Historian James Walvin (1973)  has asserted, “All neutral observers agreed that the black community was on the defensive and yet its members … were arrested and prosecuted for their attempts at self-defense, while all but a handful of the white aggressors went unchallenged” (p207). He continues to discuss how Black people during the events in Liverpool “were subjected to scandalously biased treatment” by police and put in camps ready to be deported (p207). Black people in Britain today continue to live with the effects of racist policing (Andrews, 2019: xxiii), with further erosions of nationality rights (Kinouani, 2021). Racist policing did not start with Mangrove, the Brixton Riots or the Macpherson Report.

So, Black people toiled in European theatres of war, but did not meet the colonial criteria of a human being (Lammy, 2019). After many fought in what was called ‘The Great War for Civilisation’, those that came back to Britain were met with a hostile environment including racist policymaking in residency rights (Tabili, 1994: 56) and the on-going violence and extraction of colonialism. Now, as we continue to sit in the tiger’s mouth of white supremacy, we must understand how these varied histories of the early 20th century, inflected by racisms in the public and private spheres, are imperative to our understandings of contemporary racism. Especially with the recent proposals to rewrite the history curriculum in light of the Sewell Report.As Black people, our bodies remember the trauma of our forebears. As Guilaine Kinouani (2021) writes “… from the treatment of our ancestors to enduring race inequalities and … hostility, we are deeply affected and shaped by … what happened in the past, and this includes the violence and shame our forebears experienced” (p56).

Inspired from Tre’s MA thesis – ‘1919, the Year History Forgot: ‘Riot’ and Interraciality in a Decolonised School Curriculum’. See the preliminary summary here.

Tré Ventour-Griffiths is an artist-academic and an advocate for multidisciplinary approaches in education. With interests in the Black histories of provincial Britain, much of his thinking also threads through various disciplines in the arts, humanities and the social sciences including history, sociology, film, and English literature. Tré is also a spoken word poet having read nationally and internationally, with much of his recent work revolving around autism and dyspraxia while Black.  

His research interests include, but are not limited to Black West Indians in provincial Britain and race/whiteness in historical dramas. Concurrently, he conducts educational sessions about neuro(dis)ability, race, and Black history, including for public/private sector and community groups. His intrigue of present-day inequalities stem from history, and how issues that are presented as ‘new’ are historically grounded. His recent journal article ‘National Trust in Jane Austen’s Empire of Sugar’ allowed him to combine his passions for literature with media and sociology, looking at how analyses of global colonial whiteness of regency houses should be a factor in how we read Austen. 

Tré is published across different forms including poetryjournalism, and essays. At the moment, he is working on a history project documenting the stories of Northamptonshire’s Windrush Generation.  

Twitter: @treventoured 

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One thought on “Black British histories didn’t start in 1948

  1. An important article, but of course, the presence of Africans here dates back to c. 400AD. There was a whole African regiment in the conquering Roman military; some settled here when discharged. And if you only want to look at the 20th century, my book The Origins of Pan-Africanism: Henry Sylvester Williams and the African Diaspora, ( 2010) should be the starting point. Apart from much else, Williams was the major organiser the 1900 Pan-African Congress.

    Marika Sherwood


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