Was Manny Shinwell a race rioter?

Submitted by cathy n on 24 November, 2009 - 3:39 Author: Dale Street

According to a recent article by Mark Smith in "Scotland on Sunday", a “controversial new history" which contains "new revelations unearthed by Stirling University historian Dr. Jacqueline Jenkinson" accuses Red Clydesider Manny Shinwell of having "encouraged Glasgow seamen to launch a series of attacks on black sailors."

Shinwell, according to Smith, was one of Red Clydeside's "towering figures". When "Churchill ordered British army tanks into Glasgow's George Square to avert a Scottish revolution," he writes, Shinwell was "thrown in jail for his part in the revolt after he faced down the tanks on 31st January that year."

To put the above more succinctly: great revolutionary leader exposed by Scottish historian as racist pogromist.

But Shinwell was no great revolutionary leader (and never aspired to be one either). Nor was he was a racist pogromist (although he certainly deserves condemnation for his attitude to black seafarers).

The "Scotland on Sunday" article and Jenkinson's "controversial new history" deal with a 1919 Glasgow race riot which was directed at black sailors. The riot took place just four days before the start of the 40 Hours Strike on Clydeside (and other parts of Scotland).

The linkage made between the two events is Shinwell: a full-time official of the British Seafarers Union (BSU), and also one of the leaders of the 40 Hours Strike (although he was actually more of a figurehead than a leader).

In later years Shinwell went on to become a Labour MP, chairperson of the Labour Party, Minister of Fuel and Power in the post-war Labour government, Secretary of State for War, Minister of Defence, Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and Baron Shinwell of Easington.

Shinwell's political odyssey took him from Red Clydeside to red ermine. His "hallowed status" had been well and truly "tarnished", to use Smith's expressions, during his own lifetime – well before "Scotland on Sunday" discovered Jenkinson's book.

But Shinwell was not without some redeeming features. When a Tory MP told Shinwell, who was Jewish, to "go back to Poland" during a debate in Parliament in 1938, Shinwell crossed the floor of the chamber and hit him in the face.

Smith's thumbnail sketch of events in Glasgow during the 40 Hours Strike of 1919 is certainly dramatic – but completely inaccurate.

Shinwell "faced down the tanks on 31st January"? But the tanks in question arrived in Glasgow on the night of 31st January and the early hours of 1st February – as a panicked response to the rioting which had occurrred earlier that day in the square. There were simply no tanks for Shinwell to "face down" on 31st January.

Churchill "ordered tanks into George Square"? But there are no reports of any tanks being stationed in George Square, neither on nor after 31st January. The tanks were stationed in the Saltmarket and apparently remained there until their withdrawal from Glasgow.

The photo usually used, by the BBC among others, to illustrate tanks on the streets of Glasgow in 1919 is in fact a photo of a tank arriving in wartime Glasgow as part of a "War Bond Tank Bank" fundraising effort.

The tanks were ordered into Glasgow "to avert a Scottish revolution"? But given the leadership of the 40 Hours Strike, epitomised by Shinwell himself, there was never any chance of a "Scottish Revolution". Shinwell saw the dispute as a purely industrial one and was most aggrieved at suggestions that it had an insurrectionary content. If only the strike leaders such as himself had been listened to, he lamented, the authorities would have understood this.

Shinwell was "thrown in jail for his part in the revolt"? Well – yes, and no. He did spend five months in prison for supposed incitement to riot. But this was a miscarriage of justice. Shinwell and the other strike leaders had tried to stop the rioting on 31st January, not encourage it. In fact, when the rioting began Shinwell was inside the City Chambers as part of a delegation meeting the Lord Provost.

Smith's references to Jenkinson's "controversial new history" do not fully engage with reality either.

Jenkinson's "Black 1919" (which deals with that year's race riots against black sailors not just in Glasgow but throughout England and Wales) was published in June of this year, pre-dating the "Scotland on Sunday" article by four months.

The contents of the section on Glasgow in "Black 1919" had largely already been published in an article by Jenkinson which appeared in the magazine "Twentieth Century British History" in January of 2008.

An earlier version of that article, including coverage of Shinwell's role in the events of 1919, is to be found in a collection entitled "Race and Labour in Twentieth-Century Britain", published in 1985.

The "new revelations" about Shinwell to which Smith refers are therefore a quarter of a century old. Both the 2008 article and the 1985 article are readily accessible over the internet, and have been so for a considerable length of time.

To find out whether Smith is correct to say that Shinwell "encouraged Glasgow seamen to launch a series of attacks on black sailors" (and whether he is correct to write that Jenkinson accuses him of this) requires some analysis of the events of 1919 and their background.

1919 saw a wave of race riots in Britain: in Glasgow, South Shields, Salford, Hull, London, Liverpool, Cardiff, Newport and Barry. They were directed primarily at black sailors, although some black-owned businesses were also attacked.

The Glasgow riot was the first to occur, but, without minimising its seriousness, was not the most significant of them.

On 23rd January that year fighting broke out on the Glasgow waterfront between black and white sailors waiting to sign on to a ship. According to three newspaper reports, whites were being signed up in preference to blacks. A fourth report claimed that blacks were being signed up in preference to whites.

The black sailors, over 30 of them, fled from the hiring yard, pursued by a much larger crowd of white sailors. Locals joined the crowd, swelling its numbers to several hundred.

The mob, using guns, knives, sticks, batons, bricks and other makeshift weapons, attacked the nearby sailors' home in which the black seafarers had taken refuge. When the police arrived, they cleared both sides out of the home.

The black sailors fled back to their own boarding house. When this, in turn, was attacked by the rioters, some of the black sailors fired shots at them.

Police again intervened, this time by taking thirty of the black sailors into 'protective custody'. All of them were charged with riot and weapons offences. None of the white rioters were arrested.

Two white sailors and one black sailor had been seriously injured during the fighting. The former were taken to hospital. The latter, despite his wounds, was brought before a magistrate, and only then taken to hospital.

After five days in custody the black sailors appeared in court. In 27 cases pleas of 'not guilty' were accepted. In the other three cases the weapons and rioting charges were dropped, and fines were imposed for breach of the peace.

(If the black sailors had been found guilty of rioting, it might be noted, then Glasgow Corporation would have been financially liable for all damage caused during the riot.)

The black sailor taken to hospital was initially charged with shooting one of the white rioters. By the time of his release from hospital three weeks later, however, the charge against him appears to have been dropped and no further action was taken.

The later riots which occurred in other British ports over a period of eight months had more fateful consequences. Five people were killed, dozens seriously injured, and over 250 people – usually blacks – arrested. In some cases troops had to be brought in to stop the rioting.

The origins of the riots in Glasgow and elsewhere lay in the policies pursued by shipowners and shipping unions in the preceding years, with additional fuel being provided by the post-war demobilisation of members of the armed forces.

National wage rates for sailors hired in Britain (who were almost certain to be white) were established after the 1911 seafarers’ strike. But rates of pay for those hired overseas (who were almost certain to be black or Chinese) were lower by as much as 25-50%.

When shipping companies employed foreign (black and Chinese) sailors rather than (white (British) sailors, the latter saw themselves as being undercut in the jobs market by the former.

Although black sailors hired in Britain – because they had arrived here on another ship, or because they had settled here – were theoretically paid the higher rate, they were seen by white British sailors as part of the lower-paid overseas workforce. This perception was reflected in one press report about the riot in Glasgow:

“The trouble began because the blacks were being given preference over the whites in signing for a ship about to sail. The whites resented this, especially as it is well known that coloured men are paid lower wages.”

(An additional complication is that a black sailor from, say, Sierra Leone was, theoretically, just as British as a white sailor from Glasgow. Until the British Nationality Act of 1948 came into effect, there was no such thing as a British national. Inhabitants of the colonies, like inhabitants of the imperial metropole, were all, in legal terms, simply “British subjects” (of the Crown).

The trade union response to shipowners using black sailors to cut their labour costs was not to campaign for an extension of the 1911 wage rates agreement to cover all sailors employed on British ships. The union response was to demand an end to the employment of foreign (black and Chinese) sailors.

According to a report in the "Glasgow Herald" of one seafarers’ meeting held in Glasgow in 1914, for example:

“A demonstration in furtherance of the agitation against the employment of Asiatic labour on British ships was held last night in the City Hall, Glasgow. … The Chairman said that their objection to Chinese and Indian labour was not that these men were of a different race and colour, but because they lowered the standard of life for white men.”

Such an attitude was not the sole property of seafarers. It was widespread throughout the trade union movement at the turn of the last century and culminated in TUC support for the Aliens Act of 1905. Addressing a meeting of migrant workers in London in 1892, for example, dockers leader Ben Tillett told them: “Yes, you are our brothers, and we will do our duty by you. But we wish you had not come.”

Giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee a few years later Keir Hardie argued: “It would be much better for Scotland if those (Scots who emigrated from Scotland) were compelled to remain there (in Scotland) and let the foreigners be kept out. Dr. Johnson said God made Scotland for Scotchmen, and I would keep it so.”

(Hardie’s comments about Lithuanian migrant workers in Ayrshire were much more vitriolic than anything Shinwell ever said about black seafarers. According to Hardie, the Lithuanians had “filthy habits”, they lived off “garlic and oil”, and they were carriers of “the Black Death”.)

Attempts by white British seafarers to exclude foreign black seafarers from sailing on British ships were given added impetus in the post-war years by the threat of unemployment resulting from the rapid demobilisation of the armed forces.

White sailors who had quit the merchant navy to join the Royal Navy, or who had been conscripted to join it, demanded ‘their’ jobs back in the merchant navy. But many of those jobs had been filled by foreign black seafarers. Thus, at the time of the Glasgow riot there were an estimated 400-500 unemployed white sailors in the city.

The Glasgow branch of the main seafarers union, the National Sailors and Firemen’s Union (NSFU), succeeded in having a ban imposed on the employment of black sailors in the port. Shinwell’s British Seafarers’ Union (BSU), a small and more militant breakaway from the NSFU, went a step further, according to Jenkinson, and refused to accept black sailors as members.

Ironically, but not inconsistently, the position taken by the NSFU was condemned by the ultra-patriotic “John Bull” journal. For the latter, the black sailors were people who had served their country in wartime but were now being excluded from work to make way for foreigners:

“The NSFU took the disgraceful step of refusing them – although members – to serve on British ships. The only shadow of an excuse is the shallow pretence that the places the coloured men would take are to be reserved for discharged soldiers. This is sheer bunkum.”

“One poor fellow has died as a result of the privations, and of ‘sleeping out’ for he had no money and no bed. Yet he was a Briton who had defied the Hun and his devilries for the sake of Britain. … They are ordered to ‘clear out’ from ships at Glasgow, while they see Norwegian, Swedes and Spaniards taken on.”

There is no doubt that Shinwell fully supported the BSU line of securing jobs for white British sailors at the expense of black foreign sailors. The Glasgow “Evening Times” reported one of Shinwell’s speeches:

“Over 600 men were present. Councillor Shinwell, of the BSU, who addressed the meeting, directed attention to the large number of British seamen and firemen who were at present unemployed and the large number being demobilised who would find it difficult to secure employment aboard ship. This he attributed to the refusal of the government to exclude Chinese labour from British ships, and it was essential, he said, that action should be taken at once.”

It is only this report of these extracts from this speech by Shinwell which provide the basis for the claim that Shinwell "encouraged Glasgow seamen to launch a series of attacks on black sailors”, and for the headline in the “Scotland on Sunday” article: “Hero Shinwell Incited Racist Clydeside Mob”.

The speech was made in the morning of 23rd January. The riot took place in the afternoon of the same day. (And there was one riot, not a "series of attacks", although one riot was bad enough.)

There are many reasons to condemn this speech. But it does not contain any incitement to violence. Shinwell's demand that "action should be taken at once" was directed at the government. Any other interpretation would be inconsistent with Shinwell's overall politics.

Although Shinwell's speech was made on the morning of the day of the riot, there was a gap of six hours between the two events. And the immediate trigger for the riot was not Shinwell’s speech but the in-your-face competition between white and black sailors for jobs in the hiring yard.

Nor can Mark Smith, in writing that Shinwell encouraged Glasgow seafarers to attack their black counterparts, claim that he is only repeating Jenkinson’s allegations.

In her 2008 article Jenkinson wrote: “There is no direct evidence that Shinwell’s words incited the riot.” Similarly, in her earlier 1985 article Jenkinson wrote: “It would be misleading as well as inaccurate to regard the immediate background to the sailors’ disturbance solely in terms of the coincidence of Shinwell’s dual role (as BSU leader, and 40 Hours Strike leader).”

Jenkinson subsequently speculates, however: “Bearing in mind the character of the men involved, it is not surprising that demands that ‘action should be taken at once’ should be converted into a physical demonstration.” But even this is a far cry from suggesting that Shinwell (consciously) encouraged or instigated attacks.

(Jenkinson probably makes a valid point in referring to a an almost casual readiness to resort to violence amongst at least some Glasgow seafarers. In June of 1913, for example, the “Glasgow Herald” reported the following incident:

“A tragic sequel to a quarrel between two unions took place at Glasgow Harbour last night. In the course of an encounter between members of rival organisations, a delegate of the British Seafarers’ Union was fatally wounded by a revolver shot. …

In connection with the affair Alfred W. French – Scottish Secretary of the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union, a well-known leader of the transport workers – was arrested with a revolver in his hand and lodged in the Southern Police Station. …

The circumstances of the present quarrel date only from last weekend, when a change of crew was made on Messr David MacBrayne’s (Ltd) Steamer ‘Columbia’.”)

Shinwell openly backed the idea of securing jobs for white British sailors at the expense of foreign black sailors. Although such an approach was not uncommon at the time, he still deserves to be condemned for it (i.e. the argument that he was ‘a man of his time’ is no excuse).

And even if, as seems to be the case, there was no direct causal connection between Shinwell’s speech in the morning of 23rd January and the riot later that day, Shinwell likewise deserves to be condemned for a speech which scapegoated non-white foreigners for unemployment. If it did not contribute to some degree to an atmosphere conducive to violence, it certainly did nothing to help dissipate such an atmosphere.

Like many of his contemporaries in the labour movement, Shinwell merits condemnation for advocating what amounted to a “British jobs for British workers” policy, and for his scapegoating of black and Chinese sailors for unemployment amongst ex-servicemen.

But the additional charge, that Shinwell actually "encouraged Glasgow seamen to launch a series of attacks on black sailors” is a step too far, and one that diverts attention away from what genuinely merits condemnation in his politics.

The attitude of Shinwell and the NSFU to black and Chinese seafarers did not go unchallenged, including by those who played a more significant role than Shinwell himself in launching the 40 Hours Strike. Shinwell may have been representative of the 'Labour mainstream', but there was also a socialist left which adopted a very different approach.

After the riots had spread to England, the paper of the London-based Workers Socialist Federation commented:

“The NSFU has placed its ban upon the employment of Negro seamen, so they are ashore and cannot get away. They are attacked and if they retaliate they are arrested! Is this fair play? The fight for work is a product of capitalism; under socialism race rivalry disappears.”

The paper of the Glasgow-based Socialist Labour Party, which played a prominent role in the wartime and post-war industrial unrest on Clydeside, wrote in similar terms:

“The trade unions have prided themselves on having ousted coloured labourers from certain occupations. … The very existence of capitalism depends upon driving all the elements of present-day pugnacity … into racial or national avenues. By forcing workers to ease off their pugnacity over lines of colour, this blinds them to the class line which forms the focus of the struggle of the modern international proletariat.”

Instead of being driven out of the workforce, continued the article, black workers should be organised under the banner of class unionism:

“It is useless to contend that coloured labour cannot be organised. If white men have approached coloured labourers in an arrogantly superior manner, it is small wonder that they have been unable to organise them. ... ‘Alien’ on the lips of one of the working class should have only one meaning – the Boss and all that is his.”

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