Black sailors and the battle of George Square

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Tony Adams recalls a forgotten chapter of the events around ‘Red Clydeside’ in 1919

The year, 1919, in Britain represents a high point in working class struggle and one un-matched since in its breath and scale. Over 34m working days were not worked due to strikes compared to an average of 4.5m for each of the preceding four years. Two thousand soldiers, ordered to embark for France, instead mutinied and formed a Soldiers’ Union. Even the police force struck and demanded the right to unionise. Britain, it is said, was on the brink of a revolution. On 31 January that year a violent confrontation took place in Glasgow between the police and radical striking workers centred in and around the area around George Square. The workers were striking to demand a reduction of the working week from 54 hours to a 40 hour working week.

At a massive union rally in George Square on the day of the protest, the red flag was raised above 60,000 striking shipbuilding and engineering workers. Newspapers of the next day dubbed the demonstration which saw pitched battles between the police and strikers as ‘Black Friday’ or ‘Bloody Friday’. What began as a protest soon became a riot, with fighting across the city continuing throughout the night and 53 people were recorded injured. This dramatic incident and the leaders of the strike have been mythologised under the banner of ‘Red Clydeside’.

Meanwhile, a lesser known harbour race riot on Thursday 23, January 1919 in which black British colonial sailors were branded as unfair economic competitors by the national seamen’s unions and their local delegates, has been overlooked both in the personal and historical accounts of the general strike until more recently. The riot began in the yard of the mercantile marine office in James Watt Street where sailors gathered for their chance to be signed on to a ship. While waiting to see if they would be hired, competing groups of black and white sailors jostled and shouted insults at each other. This baiting descended into a pitched battle which spilled out of the yard onto the street. More than thirty black sailors fled the sailors’ yard pursued by a large crowd of white sailors. White locals joined the crowd which grew to several hundred strong. The rioters used guns, knives, batons and makeshift weapons including stones and bricks picked from the street. On being chased out of the hiring yard, the group of black sailors initially ran towards the nearby Glasgow sailor’s home on the corner of James Watt Street and Broomielaw Street. The white crowd smashed the windows of the sailor’s home and then invaded it. The two or three beat police officers in the harbour area were overwhelmed and an additional force of 50 police officers was called in. The large police force cleared the two set of rioters from the sailors home.   Photo

Though the staging of a general strike in Glasgow, its collapse following ‘Bloody Friday’ and the presence of tanks in the city centre the next day were far more eye-catching than the riot in the harbour a week earlier, the two events were explicitly inter-connected through the activities of the members of the leadership of the 40-hours strike movement. Emanuel Shinwell, leader of the Glasgow branch of the Seafarer’s was in addition, president of the Glasgow trades and labour council and chairman of the workers strike committee. Although a moderate, he advocated direct action in the most inflammatory terms in the days leading up to both the harbour riot and the mass protest of the 40-hours campaign. He and other strike leaders, such as William Gallacher, sought to encourage unskilled workers – including seamen – to take part in the sort of strike action that had been the province of the skilled workforce on wartime Clydeside. The two episodes ought to be viewed together as the harbour riot and the George Square demonstration occurred within a few days of each other. This proximity was much more than coincidental especially as the riot in Glasgow seaport, was soon followed by similar riots in South Shields, Salford, London, Hull, Liverpool, Newport, Cardiff and Barry.

It is important to note that the Glasgow harbour riot was the first instance of a spate of rioting focussed upon black residents in British ports which reached its height in June of that year. It was also part of the wider picture of industrial strife which has been simmering below the surface on Clydeside and other heavily industrialised regions throughout the war years and into 1919.

During these riots, crowds of white working class people targeted black workers, their families, black owned businesses and property. One of the chief sources of the violent confrontation in the run- down port areas was the ‘colour’ bar implemented by the sailors’ unions campaigning to keep black, Arab and Asian sailors off British ships in a time of increasing job competition. The imposition of a ‘colour bar’ on black workers at Glasgow and elsewhere around Britain’s seaports to protect white British sailors’ jobs illustrates the disregard for sections of the working class among many of those who considered themselves protectors of the organised workforce. Historically expressions of racist hostility have been tied to questions of employment. Hostility towards groups of fellow workers among trade unionists was nothing new. The opposition of white union members to the employment (in some cases) of cheaper overseas merchant sailors, violently demonstrated at Glasgow harbour, bears comparison to the wartime industrial action on Clydeside which aimed at preventing the ‘dilution’ of skilled with unskilled job losses and the permanent undercutting of ‘engineers’ wages.

The sea port riots of 1919 in which white crowds attacked black workers, their families and communities, have long presented a painful conundrum as they prefigure a century of conflict and harassment of people of colour in Britain. The causes of the riots are located in the interplay between on-going strikes, riots and other collective violence elsewhere in Britain and the Atlantic basin as well as the local context and meanings (including housing shortages and unemployment). In this light, the British riots appear less an isolated eruption ‘proving’ British racism, as they have often been portrayed. They were part of a broader political movement of resistance against post-war betrayals. This made the role of service and recently demobilised men a significant factor in the riots, one which was commented upon in many local press accounts of the violence. It is also clear that the specific grievances of the white sailors were not the only issues in the riots. The sense that the great sacrifices of the war years had been futile was being experienced at a national level as post-war shortages in housing and increased competition in the job market were the first results of mass demobilisation. Wider frustrations were being focused on the black community in Britain as a means of release. That the authorities in part recognised this is often apparent from the light sentences meted out to the white rioters in various centres around the country. However, there is also an element of racial antipathy revealed by the official response to the riots.

The fear of violence in the immediate post-war period became a worldwide phenomenon, and not without reason. The level of global unrest in the late 1918 and 1919 is also worth considering as it provides a wider context in which the race riots in Britain may be discussed. The Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1918 provided governments worldwide with a spectre of the overthrow of the state in a situation of crisis. The attempted revolts of the Spartakist movement in Berlin, the establishments of soviets in Bavaria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia and the socialist revolt in Austria fuelled the worldwide fear of Bolshevism. It was not merely in the ‘defeated’ nations that unrest occurred for the politicising effect of war service and the strains placed on every day society by the war resulted in riots in the United States, the Caribbean, Africa as well as in Britain. As one of Scotland’s leading expert calls for a permanent fixture to remember the demonstration which took place on 31 January 1919, the black sailors of the Glasgow harbour riots deserve a place to be commemorated too because there is a single working class in Britain by historic right and present participation.

Tony Adams is a lecturer and EIS equality rep at City of Glasgow College. He has published in the Asian Times, Caribbean Times, Morning Star and Weekly Journal. Jacqueline Jenkinson’s ‘Black 1919 Riots, Racism and Resistance in Imperial Britain’ (Liverpool University Press, 2009) is the best available study of the issues.

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