World War One was a desperate time for Britain. Finding itself floundering against the advances of the Central Powers, Britain looked to its empire for support--and that's exactly what it got. Buoyed by aspirations of respect and independence, or just a genuine desire to fight alongside what they saw as their fellow countrymen, thousands of black, asian and Arab men and women came to work in Britain's factories and fields, or to serve in its armed forces.
While black recruits were generally restricted to support roles, many did find themselves serving as seamen on British ships. These ships would typically be used to transport supplies for the troops or as bait to draw German submarines to the surface. Consequently, these troops would often find themselves a constant target from enemy aggression. The shameful truth being that any respect felt by the Empire's citizens for Britain was clearly not reciprocated by its leadership.
When the war finally ended in 1918, many of these demobilised black seamen chose to remain in Britain in the hopes of building lives for themselves. This unfortunately lead to a surplus of labour in the seafaring trades--as well as housing in the port towns. Seeing these outsiders as a threat to their livelihoods (coupled with a decent amount of unabashed racism), white workers instigated a number of violent attacks on minority groups--often with deadly consequences.
The resulting race riots of 1919 remain an incredibly dark and shameful, yet criminally unrecognised period of British history. While few are aware of the violent incidents which took place that year, the gruesome effects can still be seen in British society over a hundred years later.
“Race hatred must be a terrible thing, I thought, to be vindictive to a total stranger who had done no harm was incomprehensible to me.” - Ernest Marke
In this episode of The Gallimaufry, we investigate the events and circumstances which lead to the riots, the countries reaction and effect they have had on Britain's black community.
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