Dr Nicholas J. Evans
Lecturer in Diaspora History
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Recent events across the UK and America remind us of the continual struggle for black and ethnic minorities to secure the equalities most of us take for granted. Despite Britain championing the historic and contemporary crusades against slavery, it has not prevented outbursts of violence scarring our nation. This month marks the centenary of widespread anti-black violence in Hull, what was then the third largest port in Britain and home to the world’s largest fishing fleet.
Whilst both the city and port of Hull showed sustained growth during the long nineteenth century, the outbreak of the First World War brought an end to both commercial and urban expansion. Following the outbreak of the war, Hull’s position as one of the world’s largest migrant entrepôts came to an abrupt end. During the war a shortage of maritime labour was supplemented by the casual employment of large numbers of non-white seafarers, especially on long haul routes to Asia and Africa. Despite valiantly staffing vulnerable steamers ploughing through bomb ridden waterways, and being paid less than their non-white counterparts, at the end of the conflict most non-white mariners were dismissed as military personnel returned from active service and demanded their jobs back.
For non-white seafarers, further misery followed as a wave of xenophobia swept British ports, including London, Glasgow, Liverpool, Cardiff, Salford, Hull, South Shields, Newport and Barry between 1919 and 1921. Despite being British subjects, competition for jobs fuelled blatant prejudice against the non-white seafarers. As Jacqueline Jenkinson has observed, this was not just related to the end of the war, but instead “evidence of a persistent anti-black sentiment in British society which, at times, in specific circumstances, spilled over into violence.” Though organisations in Hull tried to forcibly resettle mariners back to Africa or the Caribbean where they had originated, a colour bar on vessels bound for those destinations meant they could not work their passages back home.
Violence followed in June 1920 as those left stranded became the scapegoats for sustained outbursts of racial violence. Focusing upon Osborne Street, Pease Street and Lower Union Streets, close to the Paragon Railway Station, events reached a crisis when in one incident over 200 people were seen attacking a “negro child”. To try to bring some degree of order, the nearby pubs banned all non-white men, yet further attacks prevailed. Attempts were made to bribe sailors to leave Hull, but these too were largely ineffective. Meanwhile the wives and children of interracial unions were left traumatised.
Accounts published in local newspapers detail how xenophobia prompted Hull’s non-white population to decline to between 60 and 100 people by the close of 1920. In its aftermath the city developed a trend for growing intolerance to those seen as racial outsiders. Despite its proud record of accepting waves of migrants and refugees for centuries, the economic challenges of the interwar period made life for Hull’s ethnic minorities challenging. That racism emerged as the economic well-being of the port city diminished reinforced the close ties between austerity and racial intolerance.
Yet as we approach the centenary of these events, a real stain on Hull’s racial past, perhaps we need to pause and reflect upon how inclusive the city is to racial and ethnic minorities today. Despite the great work by organisations including Hull City Council, Hull Culture and Leisure Limited, Humber All Nations Alliance, the Freedom Festival, the University of Hull, and the creation of education resources like the Africans in Hull and East Yorkshire website, anti-black racism is again on the rise. Speaking to those who have chosen to make Hull their home in the past few decades, the pervasiveness of prejudice is once again alive. We all need to stand up during this centenary year for everyone. #BlackLivesMatter!
* This blog entry is based on Nicholas J. Evans, ‘The making of a mosaic: Migration and the port-city of Kingston upon Hull’, in D. J. Starkey, D. Atkinson, B. McDonagh, S. McKeon, & E. Salter (eds.), Hull: Culture, History, Place (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017), pp. 144 – 177