Shaheen Sutton asks why, in a time when increasing emphasis is being placed on diversity and representation by Wales’ governing institutions, so little attention is being paid to the hundred year anniversary of the Newport Race Riots.
Nothing reflects a society more than the history it chooses to commemorate, and nothing relegates a community more than its story being rendered invisible.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ‘race riots’ in Newport. Yet despite the increasing focus on the diversity of modern Welsh identity, and in contrast to the spotlight placed on of other national historic events and popular struggles, you will struggle to find anything commemorating this historic, important and violent chapter in Welsh social history. This I find incredulous, especially considering that Newport – after Cardiff – is the second oldest multicultural community in Wales.
The 1919 race riots are a significant part of Newport’s history, and at its centenary, I think it is important Welsh people once again learn about it. Such an event demands attention, especially if as a society we are to pay more than simple lip-service to ambitions of inclusivity. Currently it seems hardly considered noteworthy. It is not even recorded on the Newport Wikipedia page key historical dates.
When and how did the 1919 race riots start in Newport?
Wars change societies. Soon after the Armistice was signed on 11th November 1918, many discharged soldiers and sailors of colour who contributed to the efforts of World War One were brought back to Britain to take up permanent residence. This increased the minority ethnic population in Wales, especially in seaport areas like Cardiff, Newport and Barry, where there was already an Indian population made up of lascars. Lascars were merchants and seaman who settled when unable to return to their homeland because of the Navigation Act. Many lascars ended up in seamen’s hostels close to the docks, where they found work. However, at a time of dissatisfaction with post-war employment, and with a shortage of housing, many who had found work began to encounter overt racial hostility from white counterparts, who in returning to old jobs looked enviously upon the well-paid roles on ships in docklands. Money divisions led to racial tensions which also extended towards Arab, Somali, West African and West Indian ex-servicemen.
This racial animosity led to a series of race riots all over Britain. Tensions erupted first in Glasgow, in January, 1919, then boiled over into parts of England, like London, South Shields, Hull, Salford, Liverpool, and eventually Wales. Another factor that exacerbated growing racial tensions between black and white men was the perception that these black men were fraternising with local, white women. This incensed many white men, who actively began targeting and violently attacking black men for having relations with, or marrying white women.
Some spotlight has been put on Butetown and Tiger Bay (now Cardiff Bay) and understandably so, as it had, and has continued to have, the biggest minority ethnic population in Wales. However, the first of the race riots in Wales actually broke out in Newport. On 6 June, 1919 it was alleged that a black man had made an insulting remark to a white woman. A white soldier then attacked him. Violence quickly flared, as an angry mob of white people began attacking at random all perceived non-white people, who then began retaliating in turn with whatever they had to hand, including sticks, pokers, razors and knives.
Foreigners of whatever strip were caught in the violence. Contemporary reports record, for example, that ‘Two boarding houses in in George Street were wrecked and ransacked by a mob. In Dolphin Street, Chinese laundries and a Greek owned lodging house were wrecked, as were black people’s houses in Ruperra Street and a restaurant in Commercial Road owned by a black man.’ Those of you who are familiar with Newport will recognise these streets in Pillgwenlly and the city centre. They are still there, but with no evidence of this turbulent past. It was reported by the South Wales Argus newspaper that ‘White mobs wrecked so many properties that the town looked as if it had suffered an air raid’.
The riots resulted in 30 arrests, of which 27 were black people. Public accounts suggest that despite the air raid analogy there were no reported serious injuries in Newport, which is difficult to believe.
The anger and tensions spread quickly from Newport into other parts of South Wales, namely Barry and Cardiff. On 11th June, 1919 a crowd of white people began forcing their ways into the homes of black men in Barry, where they thought that interracial relationships were at play. It was worse felt in the Cardiff docklands, which was plunged into chaos and violence. According to the South Wales Echo, a passing vehicle ‘containing a number of coloured men and a white woman’ attracted a crowd’. This incident spiralled out of control, culminating in the worst race riots in Wales and Britain as a whole. Four men were killed in Wales following this event, and one person in Liverpool. Many more were hospitalised, buildings and homes wrecked and lodging homes burnt down.
Days of rioting was only extinguished when local police called in military support. On June 14, 1919 Welsh Regiment troops were sent in. The government eventually responded with a repatriation drive of people of colour, however not everyone was willing to leave. Many had married, and begun raising families here. Wales had become their home, their country.
How now is it remembered?
Not well or impartially. When I was growing up, I recall a (hopefully unimagined!) blue plaque commemorating the event on Stow Hill. This led me to want to learn more about the experiences of others before me who had settled here. This drove my interest in British Black history and embedded my sense of Welshness. Now this is gone, and I wonder how others growing up here to migrant families might find their sense of belonging?
Unmarked publicly, there is also no complete official record of what happened, as many of the narratives from the period are from the white community only, and thus present a naturally biased perspective. Secondly, there is no evidence or concrete reminders of these notorious race riots in either Newport, Barry or Cardiff. There are no official memorials, no remaining plaque, or no public events to mark the centenary of the Race Riots of 1919. Yet this was a crucial, a time when the collective identity of Wales’s nascent black community was forged, and working men, newly settled, were forced to violent retort in order to fight for their rights to a life in this country. Compare to the way in which we rightly acknowledge the Chartist Movement, known as Newport Uprising; or the annual D-Day Memorial Parade, which also marks its 75th anniversary on 6 June this year: it should also not be forgotten that the Second World War was a war that black, brown and people of colour contributed to too (men like my grand-father’s brother, the first generation of my family to settle in to Wales from the Indian sub-continent).
It is to be regretted that the Race Riots of 1919 have become an ignored chapter in Welsh history. As a Welsh person of South Asian heritage, born and bred in Wales and proud of my Welsh identity, this disappoints me greatly, but as I finish writing this piece I become more heartened as I learn that this previously forgotten aspect of this untold history will be shared by National Theatre Wales and The Heritage & Cultural Exchange, thanks to the persistence of community activists in Cardiff. I very much hope commemorations are replicated in Newport and Barry in time, and disenfranchised children of South Wales are once again invited to a shared heritage.
Cymru Ddu Black Wales: A History (2005) by Alan Llwyd
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain (1984) by Peter Fryer
Why I am No Longer Talking To White People About Race (2017) Reni Eddo-Lodge
Shaheen Sutton has worked in the changing field of equality, diversity and social justice, both in Wales and Scotland.