Lessons from the Glasgow Race Riots: 1919-2019
A hundred years ago today, on the 23rd January 1919, in the yard of the mercantile marine office in James Watt Street, a race riot erupted in Glasgow. While waiting to be hired, Black and white sailors clashed and a pitched battle broke out. As the Black sailors ran down the Broomielaw, they were pursued by a white mob which swelled to hundreds. Rioters used guns, knives, batons and makeshift weapons including stones and bricks picked from the street. Three people were seriously injured during the riot.
There will be no events to mark this anniversary. There will be no exhibitions or displays in our museums to commemorate this event. There will be no front page news, nor will schools tell our children about this aspect of our history.
The centenary that will be commemorated is the Battle of George Square. The story of the 1919 demonstration organised by the Clyde Workers Committee to support the 40 hour week movement. The Battle of George Square is inscribed in Glasgow’s left wing, trade union history and on display at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. The mythology of the Red Clydeside and its leaders and the mobilisation of ninety thousand workers shows the true nature of Glasgow’s radicalism. It shows ordinary Glaswegians fighting the oppression of the establishment; fighting for the rights of workers and veterans of the First World War. After all, it’s what they fought for.
However, perpetuating this narrative without exploring some of the issues that led up to this point leads to a society that does not think critically about Empire; a society that fails to acknowledge white privilege and racism.
Just eight days before the Battle of George Square, African and Asian workers, also veterans of the First World War and frequently also patriots of the British Empire, were targeted. Until the British Nationality Act of 1948 came into effect, a Black sailor from Sierra Leone was just as British as a white sailor from Glasgow. Everyone was a subject of the British Empire.
This was noted in a 1919 letter to the press by the African Races Association of Glasgow:
‘Did not some of these men fight on the same battlefields with white men to defeat the enemy and make secure the British Empire? Why can't they work now in the same factories with white men? […] Is the treatment meted out to them now compatible with the British teaching of justice and equity, or is it an exhibition of British gratitude?’
In her book, Black 1919, Jacqueline Jenkinson points out that the legend of Glasgow’s radicalism, whispers of Bolshevism, troops and tanks in George Square, and the brief window of opportunity for revolution on these islands has wilfully obscured the importance of the race riots in this phase of history.
More sinister than this is the role that prominent, and memorialised, trade unionists played in inciting the race riots. Emanuel Shinwell (leader of the British Seafarers’ Union and Independent Labour Party MP in 1922 for Linlithgow, West Lothian) and Willie Gallacher (member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and Communist MP for West Fife from 1935-1950) played prominent roles in the 40 hour week strike campaign, which culminated in the Battle for George Square. Jenkinson argues that the race riots and the George square demonstration ‘were explicitly inter-connected’. Shinwell and Gallacher played a part in inciting the race riot by deploying divisive arguments about overseas labour as unfair competition for white workers. Indeed, Shinwell addressed a meeting of over 600 sailors at the mercantile marine yard a few hours before the harbour riot broke out. There was some resistance to this line of mobilisation from within the socialist movement at the time. The Workers Dreadnought published responses to the race riots: ‘The fight for work is a product of capitalism: under socialism race rivalry disappears.’ But despite this philosophy some trade unions did not campaign for the rights of all sailors in British ships to be paid the same rate. Instead, they campaigned for a ‘colour bar’ to prevent Black sailors being members of the trade union. They also demanded an end to the employment of African and Asian sailors.
In 2019, racial hostility continues to be closely tied to employment and continues to be used as a divisive tool. Ninety years after Shinwell’s speech we had a repeat of the sentiment, ‘British jobs for British workers’, as workers engaged in wildcat strikes in the construction industry. The recent book ‘No Problem Here - Understanding Racism in Scotland’ provides the evidence that people from Black minority ethnic backgrounds continue to suffer disadvantage in the labour market in Scotland. Some of this is due to structural racism and some to direct racial discrimination.
During the 1919 Glasgow race riot, police removed 30 Black sailors from their boarding house and into ‘protective custody’. All were subsequently charged with riot and weapons offences. None of the large crowd of white rioters was arrested. Two white sailors were hurt - Duncan Cowan was shot and Thomas Carlin was stabbed. Tom Johnson, a sailor from Sierra Leone was also stabbed. Cowan and Carlin were taken directly to hospital. Johnson, despite his wounds, was taken directly to the magistrates. Mr. Cook, the defence lawyer for the Black sailors in the race riot case, argued that it was ‘peculiar’ that no white person had been arrested for playing a part in the rioting. Cook also exposed the ‘fragility of police evidence’ during the trial.
The case of the race riots in 1919 illustrates race discrimination within the criminal justice system. These injustices are not relegated to this past in modern Scotland, from Simon San to Sheku Bayou, serious on-going questions over the issue of race in Scotland’s criminal justice system should give pause for thought one hundred years after the 1919 race riot.
The media in 1919 were concerned about the unlimited pool of Black labour presented by Empire; in 2019, they are concerned about immigration. The use of race as a means to scapegoat individuals caught up in structural economic injustice remains from 1919-2019. Competition for jobs and housing was used to fuel the race riot of 1919 and has been repeated throughout the century.
While the media, political, cultural and education institutions continue to dismiss and ignore these important events in Scotland’s history, race (and more importantly, structural racism) continues to be used as a tool to divide our society. Just as our institutions divided the white workers and the Black workers in 1919, silence on racism allows people to be pitched against each other without challenging the engine that drives the oppression.
 Historical detail of the Glasgow riot was taken from: Jacqueline Jenkinson, ‘Black Sailors on Red Clydeside: rioting, reactionary trade unionism and conflicting notions of ‘Britishness’ following the First World War’.