great war to race riots

A new history of the 1919 race riots locates the dynamics of racism in the context of class, imperialism and wider popular struggles, argues Chris Nineham


Madeline Heneghan and Emy Onuora, Great War to Race Riots (Writing on the Wall, Toxteth Library 2017), xii, 114pp.

In early 1919 a series of race riots spread across Britain, centred on sea ports. The first, in Glasgow, was followed by South Shields, London, then Barry and Newport in Wales. Cardiff and Liverpool in June were the most serious. Three people died in the Cardiff riots, one black and two white. In Liverpool, a black man, Charles Wotten, was murdered by drowning in the docks.

This book tells the story of the Liverpool riots partly through a recently discovered archive of letters of complaint sent by black seamen and soldiers to the city authorities, and the replies they received. The book also contains a careful re-examination of the context and causes of the riot interweaved with and enriched by the personal testimonies. Heneghan and Onuora are excellent in tracing the complex interaction of imperial politics, state racism, the trauma of the First World War and the post-war economic slump and the impact of the Russian Revolution which created the conditions for the riot.

The result is a disturbing and fascinating account of a pivotal moment in Black British history. The combination of broad sweep and personal history provides a whole series of insights.

The ways of war

The complex and contradictory impact of the First World War on colonial rule, for example, is clearly explained. The fact that thousands of people in the colonies volunteered to serve the ‘mother country’ in the war is partly explained by a sense of identification with empire, encouraged by an (all too familiar) attempt by the British government to present its war effort as driven by a civilising mission. Such delusions were also fostered by some nationalist leaders like Marcus Garvey and Mahatma Gandhi, who did their best to identify themselves with the British war effort. Gandhi called on upon Indians at home and abroad to ‘unconditionally’ support the motherland and the empire (p.25).

Economic drivers were almost certainly more important in the mobilisation, and the experience of the war led to the breakdown of some of the barriers between races and subject peoples and, as David Olusoga is quoted arguing, ‘black people from parts of of Africa and and the West Indies gained new and first-hand experience of the racism and racial hierarchies that both informed and, for many, justified colonial rule’ (p.24).

With considerable prescience, the War Office opposed using colonial troops to fight white people in Europe. Its leaders were worried that gaining experience of killing white people could encourage rebellion against their colonial masters.

In the end the War Office was overruled, partly because, given the level of carnage in the war, the extra troops were needed, and partly because the Commonwealth Office took a different view, believing that to exclude colonised populations from the army would undermine the colonial power’s authority in its dominions. The king eventually stepped in to impose the commonwealth office’s line.

Fear and loathing

The authors’ take on the riots themselves is equally nuanced. They argue the riots need to be understood ‘in the context of the huge social unrest and working-class dissatisfaction that was expressed, not only through intensifying racial tensions and violence, but in mass strikes, protests and calls for self governance in colonised lands’ (p.41). As they explain, in 1919, ‘the political elite in Britain thought a Bolshevik-style revolution was a real possibility: two thousand soldiers ordered to embark for France mutinied and went on strike; thousands of workers in Glasgow downed tools in demand of a 40-hour week; working days lost through strike action rose from six million in 1918 to almost thirty-five million in 1919’ (p.41). To add to ruling-class concerns, towards the end of the war resentment had spread amongst black troops against the blatant racism in the services. Eight thousand members of the British West Indian Regiment stationed in Italy mutinied in 1918 against the fact that white troops had been demobilised while they were still stationed abroad.

Against this background of insubordination and the weakening of ruling-class authority, the demobilisation of millions of troops at a time of economic stress created an explosive situation. Faced with fear of disorder, it was second nature for Britain’s imperial ruling class to reach for divide and rule tactics. In a letter to the Secretary of State for the Colonial Office Liverpool’s mayor reported on a delegation he had received from unemployed white workers complaining about the presence of black workers in their midst. This was ‘a sentiment with which I thoroughly agree,’ he said, and went on to suggest a programme of repatriation (p.46).

In general, relations between black and white troops had been good. However, the pressures created by a chaotic and unplanned demobilisation, economic crisis, the racist response of the authorities, and relentless racist scapegoating by the press, stoked tensions. In Liverpool trouble erupted first in Belmont Road Military Hospital, a few weeks before the end of the war, when a pitch battle took place between about fifty black and around four hundred white patients, apparently sparked off by the presence of some white soldiers who had fought in South Africa. Some white soldiers who had fought alongside black troops did their best to defend them (p.43).

In the following months there was a growing number of attacks on black people in Liverpool and on 11th May the police raided a black-run gambling house and arrested fourteen men. Apparently, the police turned up ‘ready for a fight’ (p.47). The June riots were precipitated by police raids on black boarding houses following a racist attack by some Scandinavians. Over the next few days white mobs numbering thousands wandered the streets ‘savagely attacking and beating any negro they could find’ according to the Times newspaper (p.48). Much of the reporting, including police files, blames the black community for the violence, but in reality, it was black people who were the victims and black boarding houses and hostels that were burned and ransacked.

Roads not taken

If Heneghan and Onuora provide a very convincing account of the factors that led to the riot, they also show there was nothing inevitable about the riots. The subsequent events in many of the cities where riots had taken place showed that very different responses to this multi-level crisis were possible. Just weeks after the race riots in Liverpool there was a police strike which led to widespread disturbances and a mood of working-class insurgency in the city. Warships, tanks and troops had to be sent into the city to restore order. 

One of the reasons why the resentment over jobs and conditions was at least temporarily channelled against black people was the attitude taken by the local unions. The Seamen’s Union at the time was relatively weak and extremely right-wing. It was led by Havelock Wilson who had collaborated so closely with the Admiralty at the start of the war that he had managed to win the union to refusing to transport Labour leaders Arthur Henderson and Ramsay MacDonald to an international peace conference in Stockholm soon after the Russian Revolution (p.55).

The union had accepted pay cuts during the conflict, and was therefore in no position to channel the anger people felt at the end of the war. Worse still this combination of patriotism and submission meant that, in the words of historian Jaqueline Jenkinson ‘when push came to pull the union representatives came down heavily on the side of their majority white membership, at the expense of British Black members’ (p.54).

The book ends with a brief update outlining the history of racism and resistance in the city in the nearly hundred years since these terrible events. 1919 serves as a warning but as the authors argue, one of the great differences a century has made is that whereas in 1919 Liverpool’s black community was largely left to fight alone, now ‘a more unified opposition, involving black and Asian communities, trade unions, the organised left and white anti-racists, has provided strong opposition to racist activity’ (p.98).

There is no room for complacency, but this kind of work, which carefully locates the ever changing dynamics of racism in the context of class, imperialism and wider popular struggles, is exactly what is needed to help us find a way forward.

For more information about the availability of the book, please visit the Writing on the Wall page


Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.