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Encountering racial discrimination and disadvantage, ‘coloured’ colonial migrants who settled in Liverpool long before the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948, were denied the creative diversity enjoyed (at least in literary and cultural theory) by their post-colonial counterparts. Migration is now perceived as a creative ‘in-between’ without secure roots, the point of departure for existential trans-national routes crossing geographical, chronological and imaginative boundaries, enabling and facilitating multiple subjectivities. Hybrid and flexible, trans-national migrants (as the prefix suggests) do not simply cross national boundaries but transcend them, consigning to oblivion (not before time) spurious (and dangerous) notions of ethnic essentialism, cultural purity and biological racism. As seen by historians, however, this cosmopolitan outcome, so much to be desired, appears less assured and far from apparent in the early stages of decolonisation. Race and racism, previously shaped by a geographical segregation in which black and Asian people were seen as belonging out in the empire, not in Britain, were perforce recast amidst the ‘tremendous paradox’ (to cite Stuart Hall) of the timing of mass inward migration: at the ‘very moment Britain finally convinced itself to decolonise, that it had to get rid of the colonies, the colonised began flooding into England’. More pernicious than on-going anti-alien and anti-Irish attitudes, prejudice against ‘coloured’ colonials became pervasive soon after the arrival of the Empire Windrush, drawing upon top-down and bottom-up formulations of the threat posed to Britishness. Focused on Liverpool, where the colonial presence was far from new, this study offers a pre-history as it were – hence the book's title – of the deleterious race relations in Britain which accompanied (and besmirched) the otherwise vaunted transition from authoritarian empire to libertarian commonwealth.
As a great seaport, Edwardian Liverpool took pride in its ‘amazingly polyglot and cosmopolitan population’, located for the most part in its boisterous ‘sailortown’ adjacent to the waterfront – similar zones of inter-cultural contact (often with pubs and bars with Liverpool in their names) were to be found in seaports across the oceans, servicing the needs of trans-national maritime labour. ‘There is no city in the world, not even London itself’, Ramsay Muir recorded in the 700th anniversary history in 1907, ‘in which so many foreign governments find it necessary to maintain consular offices for the safeguarding of their exiled subjects’.
The main agencies promoting the ‘middle opinion’ on race relations (to use Paul Rich's terminology), had concentrated their wartime efforts on Liverpool, extending their respective remits to consider the needs (and reassess the character) of the long-term resident ‘coloured’ population. This advance into the domestic domain notwithstanding, colonial advance remained the priority for both the LCP and the Colonial Office Welfare Department, a project premised on economic development and gradual diffusion of political power to groups of ‘“moderate” and amenable nationalist opinion’. ‘Although many V-days had passed, they were waiting for the V N-day when the Negro could go to bed, knowing that his battle had been won,’ S.U. Morris declared at the ‘Coloured People's Plea to Churches’ meeting at the British Council House in autumn 1945, convened by the LCP to encourage all Merseyside churches to allow one of its members to preach from their pulpits: ‘The British Government's policy of training the colonial peoples for self-government was all right as far as it went. The trouble was, he said, finding the criterion of fitness for self-government.’ Promotion of harmonious political relationships in colonies moving towards independence was the key concern, but there was a simultaneous need – in Liverpool at least – to consider how best to progress from wartime temporary accommodation to the ‘absorption’ or ‘integration’ of black ‘residents’ from the empire and commonwealth. (‘Alien’ Chinese were once again deported without hesitation or question.)
Eventually opened in 1946, the flagship Stanley House project seemed to offer inclusion for black Liverpudlian residents within the post-war construction of Britishness. However, other initiatives by the Colonial Office Welfare Department, such as vigorously promoted repatriation schemes and stricter regulation of stowaways, indicated that there was no desire for any increase in numbers of ‘dark strangers in our midst’. The increasing inward flow of ‘coloured’ colonials – readily apparent in Liverpool before the fabled arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948 – was neither encouraged nor welcomed. A re-affirmation of pre-war definitions of imperial citizenship, the British Nationality Act of 1948 maintained an open door for all British subjects from the Empire and Commonwealth, but there was a marked preference for post-war labour market needs to be met instead by ‘alien’ workers from Eastern Europe, recruited on the basis of their ‘presumed genetic similarity’.
Thanks to its massive dock system, ‘as solid and enduring as the Pyramids, the most stupendous work of its kind that the will and power of man have ever created’, Edwardian Liverpool, the proud (and prosperous) ‘second city of empire’, promoted itself as the pre-eminent cosmopolitan hub, the commercial and human entrepôt linking the old world and the new:
Indisputably the premier ocean port in the British Empire, it is the most famous and the most frequented emporium of cosmopolitan traffic the world has known in ancient or modern times … In olden times it used to be said that “all roads lead to Rome”. Today all seas lead to Liverpool, if not as a terminus, at least as an exchange or a clearinghouse for world-wide international transport. There is no part of the globe, however remote, whose natives may not be met on the Liverpool landing stage, and there is no territory so distant whose products do not pass from time to time through the docks and warehouses of Liverpool and Birkenhead.
On a ‘democratic promenade’ along the famous landing stage, renowned for its ‘cosmopolitanism, comprehension and catholicity’, the flaneur encountered the world in one city: ‘all sorts and conditions of men, of all colours … everybody seems to be here, from everywhere. This is representative humanity.’ Jumma prayers at the local Mosque (one of the first in the country) attracted ‘coloured races’ of ‘a cosmopolitan kind’, an ‘ingathering of the representatives of all nations’ with varied dress and ‘polyglottic’ tongues. While engaged in ethno-sectarian defence of its large migrant flock from across the Irish Sea, the local Catholic press sought reassurance and perspective from the city's demographic profile,
a mixture of races the like of which no other industrial community in the North of England can furnish. Jew and Gentile, Mongolian and Negro, Irish and Welsh, with no overwhelming proportion of the genuineborn Englishman, and last of all, that hybrid product of civilisation, the Orangeman, all live and have their being on the banks of the Mersey.
Prescient warnings from ‘black’ Liverpool went largely unheeded in the burgeoning race relations ‘industry’ prompted by legislation in the late 1960s and the mounting hysteria about immigration. A comparatively rare sight in the city, new arrivals from the West Indies, India and Pakistan constituted a mere 0.4% of the local population, well below the threshold for resource investment and concern. Blighted by recession and shunned by ‘new Commonwealth’ migrants, Liverpool, the once proud second city of empire, was in seemingly unstoppable collapse, careering down the urban hierarchy to unenviable designation (and denigration) as the ‘shock city’ of post-industrial, post-colonial Britain. Although meriting special attention as a timely warning and object lesson, the problematic Liverpool experience of race relations was ignored as the city was marginalised, stigmatised and traduced. The proverbial (and irredeemable) exception, Liverpool was portrayed as an internal ‘other’ at odds with positive developments elsewhere in enterprise Britain. Against this backcloth, community relations continued to deteriorate as hard-pressed agencies seeking to regenerate and rehabilitate the city seldom bothered to include (yet alone prioritise) measures to address racial discrimination and disadvantage in a succession of ill-fated plans and projects to tackle multiple deprivation. Along with most of the local media, councillors remained wedded to the fiction of racial harmony, dismissing all who argued otherwise as ‘interfering do-gooders and sensationalist sociologists’. Still to acknowledge the ‘special but not separate’ needs of the long-resident black British population in the city, the Council simply sought to catch up with developments elsewhere, implementing English language centres and other forms of reception provision for new arrivals. Of little relevance to long-established (and long-suffering) black Liverpudlians, such projects caused anger and offence, hindering the efforts of those seeking to promote community relations. A perceived increase in levels of police harassment of black youths exacerbated the tension, leading to the formation of the Merseyside Anti-Racialist Alliance ‘to combat the institutionalized forms of racial discrimination that have existed on Merseyside for a very long time’.
Trouble spot of the immediate post-war years, Liverpool subsequently emerged as a model of race relations in the 1950s, a period of relative (but temporary) prosperity in the city following long overdue industrial diversification. Seemingly favourable in individual and cumulative impact, the various developments of the time, formative influences on the emergence of ‘Merseybeat’, were by no means unproblematic. The remarkable flourishing of ethnic associational culture, from the tribal to the pan-national, revealed the complexity and heterogeneity of the ‘coloured community’, testifying to a new ‘multi-cultural’ Liverpool: the highly segmented structure, however, precluded a united front against discrimination. Co-ordination was more readily effected in the newly established (all-white) Colonial Welfare Committee, a multi-agency initiative which displayed the characteristic paternalist qualities of the local voluntary sector: in seeking to redress the disadvantage endured by the black community, it stopped well short of any provision which might encourage an increase in numbers. Stanley House Community Centre, still lauded as a flagship project, was often beset with conflict over its paternalistic (white) management style and inability to satisfy the competing needs of new arrivals, ethnic groups and Liverpool-born blacks. As most of the black community eschewed the outer council estates favoured by the re-housed white working class, they remained distant (if not excluded) from the prosperity enjoyed (at least in the short term) by those living in close proximity to the new ‘branch plant’ industrial units on the city's outskirts. Liverpool blacks were reluctant to vacate the relative security of the Granby Triangle with its networks of ethnic collective mutuality, shebeens, clubs and other compensatory delights. For the most part, however, these critical reflections on the city's ‘boom’ years derive from hindsight. At the time, Liverpool was regarded as something of a success story, not least in community relations, a reputation reinforced when it escaped the race riots of 1958, after which it was often approached for advice by cities experiencing the post-Windrush influx.
The ‘peaceful invasion’ of refugees, allies and friends, uniformed and otherwise, during the Second World War included significant numbers of ‘coloured’ colonials responding to the needs of the merchant marine, munitions factories and armed services. To mobilise the colonies for global war, Britain was obliged to reconsider the imperial mission, to move forward from ‘tutelage to partnership’ and thence towards colonial self-government. ‘If this process is not to be frustrated it is of the first importance that those who come to this country from the Colonial Empire shall feel that here too the partnership is a fact and not a phrase,’ The Times commented, noting with concern that ‘racial discrimination is not always easy to avoid.’ Hence the new committee established by Lord Cranborne, the Advisory Committee on the Welfare of Colonial Peoples in the United Kingdom (ACWUK), had ‘a task of no small importance to discharge’:
The colonial students, seamen, and others who make these islands their temporary home are in a special sense representatives of their own lands; and it is a duty as well as an interest that they return with an abiding impression of the tolerance, seemliness, and good will of the English way of life.
The Second World War duly signified the arrival of what Paul Rich has described as ‘a nationwide race relations situation, which became slowly embedded in the public consciousness’. Charted here in detail, Liverpool's role in this process was pre-eminent, complex and contentious, punctuated by controversy over the local ‘colour bar’.
Race relations on wartime Merseyside came to the fore following the arrival first of 345 West Indian technicians and trainees, on a labourrecruitment scheme jointly organised by the Colonial Office and the Ministry of Labour, and then of allied US troops including the ‘coloured American Labour Corps’. It gradually became apparent that wartime accommodation, hospitality and recreation for the new ‘coloured’ arrivals – the responsibility of a new multi-agency organisation, linking the public and voluntary sector, the Merseyside Hospitality Council (MHC) – could not be provided in a discrete self-contained manner. Account had also to be taken of the long-term disadvantage and discrimination endured by the resident ‘coloured’ (mainly West African) population.
Hailed in its late-Victorian heyday as ‘the New York of Europe, a world-city rather than merely British provincial’, Liverpool, the human and commercial entrepôt linking the old world and the new, was a vibrant (if not always harmonious) contact zone between different ethnic groups with differing needs and intentions as transients, sojourners or settlers, categories by no means mutually exclusive. At the time of the 700th anniversary in 1907 of the granting of letters patent to the borough, polyglot Liverpool, the nation's second metropolis, stood proudly above the ‘Coketown’ monoculture of adjacent Lancastrian textile and industrial towns. In recent decades, however, as the history published to mark the 800th anniversary in 2007 acknowledged, the position has been reversed. Liverpool has become one of the least ethnically varied cities in the country, with only small numbers of ‘new Commonwealth’ migrants arriving after 1945, the proportions of Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs falling significantly below the national average for England and Wales. The strapline of the successful European capital of culture bid, ‘The world in one city’, drew upon Liverpool's historical legacy rather than its contemporary complexion in 2008.
Changes in Liverpool's demographic mosaic need to be understood within broad processes of imperialism, decolonisation and economic decline. The starting point for understanding the city's troubled history of race relations, however, is a specific contextual factor: legacies and memories of the slave trade. The ‘deep shadow’ cast by this heinous trade continues, and its horrors and inhumanity should never be forgotten. However, the extent of any significant demographic continuity in the Liverpool black community back to the days of the slave trade is open to question. Although the apex of the infamous ‘triangular’ trade across the Atlantic, Liverpool was not itself a major site for the sale of slaves (other than individuals sold by ships’ captains as servants). Even so, by the late eighteenth century Liverpool was the home of what Ray Costello describes as ‘a free black community drawn from many sources’, including servants, students of noble descent sent for education along with the sons and daughters of African merchants and slavers, and ‘dual heritage’ children (to use present-day terminology) of white plantation owners and African slave women. Numbers grew in ‘Britain's oldest Black community’ with the influx of discharged black soldiers, former slaves who had fought for the defeated British in the American War of Independence (1775–83).
Large numbers of colonial migrants were drawn to the port city during the First World War, a time of critical shortage in the labour market, although claims in the local press that wartime ‘Dark Town’ Liverpool numbered at least 5,000 would seem somewhat exaggerated. Most ‘coloured colonials’ were engaged in the merchant marine, filling the vacuum after ‘alien’ seamen were recalled (or removed) to their own countries; some went into active military service; and others took the (otherwise rare) opportunity of moving into shore-based employment, mainly in oil cake mills, sugar mills and refineries, as well as munitions factories. There were some minor wartime tensions, for the most part prompted by the arrival of outsiders, white servicemen from the United States (encamped at Knotty Ash) or South Africa (recuperating in local military hospitals) who were accustomed to segregation. The uneasy transition from war to peace was to have a disastrous impact on labour and race relations amidst an economic reverse felt more acutely in Liverpool than elsewhere, a precursor of inter-war depression and decline. Wartime xenophobia, violently expressed (albeit somewhat indiscriminately) in anti-alien riots, found new expression in clashes with the resident ‘British coloured’ purportedly taking jobs (and women) away from demobilised local white workers denied the land fit for heroes promised by Lloyd George. 1919 witnessed race riots in a number of ports across Britain – London, Glasgow, Hull, Cardiff, Barry and Salford – but those in Liverpool were particularly intense, reflecting tensions which extended far beyond the local waterfront. As anxious Colonial Office officials realised, what happened in ‘riotous’ Liverpool, the gateway of empire, reverberated across the globe.
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Wartime xenophobia was particularly pronounced in Liverpool, a seaport at the heart of the war effort. News of the sinking of Lusitania, ‘the pride of the port of Liverpool’, led to rioting and looting which, the Head Constable reported, soon extended beyond attacks on premises and individuals with Germanic names:
The mob was not particularly discriminating in its attentions, which were paid not only to Germans and Austrians, and the English husbands and wives of Germans and Austrians, but to Russian Jews, heathen Chinese and Irish and Italian Catholics whose wares excited the cupidity of the mob, or who, as was apparent in some cases, especially in the Jewish quarter, had incurred the hostility of trade rivals.
The optimism of the Merseybeat years was soon to dissipate: as economic prospects declined, community relations deteriorated, although the local conventional wisdom of racial harmony still prevailed in media, political and official circles. Critical dissent was expressed first by those concerned with local black youth, as in the report Special but not separate produced by the Liverpool Youth Organisations Committee, an ominous examination of ‘the situation of young coloured people in Liverpool’. The increasingly dangerous consequences notwithstanding, the discrimination and disadvantage experienced by Liverpool-born black youths had gone unchecked, obscured from public gaze and discussion by the spurious local rhetoric of harmonious relations and the wider national preoccupation with new immigrant arrivals. Evidence presented to the Select Committee on Race Relations shortly afterwards suggested that Liverpool, so far from being a role model, stood as ominous object lesson, foreshadowing problems to come if British-born children of recent arrivals were to encounter similar levels of discrimination and disadvantage. While the local authorities and politicians continued to vaunt the city's harmonious reputation, professionals and academics working in community relations looked upon the riots of 1972 as a siren call, warning of trouble ahead elsewhere as British-born black children of the Empire Windrush generation approached adolescence, alienation and racial polarisation.
Attitudes towards adolescence were to alter significantly in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly for those still stigmatised in some quarters as ‘half-caste’. Accentuated by the 1958 riots, moral panic about delinquency focused initially on Teddy Boys, the most visible representatives of the rebellious, ‘thuggish’ and delinquent sub-culture among urban white teenagers. Duly demonised as a kind of class (almost race) apart, they were held responsible for initiating racist (and other) violence. Proud to have escaped the riots and subsequent ‘deplorable incidents in other parts of the country’, Liverpool had its own distinctive ‘aetiology of delinquency’. A series of studies from the 1930s to the 1950s had drawn attention to dangers posed by ‘older, over-crowded areas where the population is of mixed racial origin, and where exceptional degrees of poverty and casual employment are found’. J.B. Mays’ influential study Growing up in the City, focused on ‘interstitial areas’ between central Liverpool and its line of docks, described in the introduction by Richard Titmuss as ‘a delinquency-producing area’.
The violent and intense disturbances designated as the ‘Toxteth’ riots were triggered by harassment in the deprived Granby area of Liverpool 8, where, as Margaret Simey, chair of the Merseyside Police Committee rued, ‘policing by consent has become policing by confrontation’. Powerless to restrain the ‘fortress mentality’ and ill-concealed racism of Ken Oxford, the Chief Constable, the exasperated but redoubtable Simey (impervious to media and other criticism) all but welcomed the disturbances, noting that given the circumstances in Granby, people ‘ought to riot’. The first wave of riots, 3–6 July, developed out of a fracas when police in an unmarked car, having stopped a young black motor cyclist, brought in a further eight vehicles as back up as a crowd began to gather. A scuffle ensued during which the original youngster ran free but 20-year-old Leroy Cooper was arrested for assault. Cooper was well known among young local blacks as coming from a family which had been the subject of excessive police attention: his father Lester, who had come to Britain from Jamaica 18 years previously, had no criminal record and was currently suing the Chief Constable in a civil action for damages alleging harassment of himself and his son Paul, Leroy's younger brother. The 18-year-old had been arrested 14 times since May 1979, had been required to attend over a dozen identity parades, but had not been convicted – indeed, he had been acquitted of a charge in the Crown Court only the day before Leroy's arrest. Intense rioting followed for the next three days, during which the situation became ‘out of control’, prompting the police to use CS gas for the first time in mainland Britain (fired directly into the crowd contrary to the manufacturer's explicit instructions, some of the 74 high-velocity projectiles caused considerable injuries). As a serving Probation Officer subsequently recorded, a relatively minor incident had provided the motivation and opportunity for members of a marginalised community to assert their right to equal concern and respect by means of violence, exposing the weak position of the police, severely outnumbered, as otherwise law-abiding citizens condoned – or exploited – the ‘rioting’.
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