- Race as a Separate Sphere in British GovernmentFrom the Colonial Office to Municipal Anti-racism
Recent scholarship on the history of Black and Asian communities in Britain has emphasized that this history does not begin with the much-discussed arrival of the HMS Windrush into Britain in 1948. It is true that communities of Asian, Arab, African, and West Indian origin, comprising settled workers, itinerant merchant seamen, students, and professionals, were present in Britain in the pre-war years. Port cities, like Liverpool, Cardiff, and London, had Black populations numbering in the thousands in this period, though the size of the community nationwide remained under 15,000 (Ramdin 72, 126; Matera 22). Aside from transnational organization on issues that rippled through the entirety of the Black diaspora, this period also witnessed attempts to mobilize politically and to make welfare provisions both by and on behalf of black students and seamen. In their attempts to resist the color bar, counter negative portrayals of black people in Britain, and secure adequate welfare provisions for the communities they served, organizations like the West African Students Union (WASU), League of Coloured Peoples (LCP), and Coloured Colonial Seamen’s Union (CCSU) demonstrated concerns that would remain salient in the ethnic politics of post-war Britain. Racist violence, aimed at seamen and other workers, was also witnessed in this early period, with riots and attacks taking place in London, Cardiff, and Liverpool in 1919 (Hiro 38; Visram 198–99; Tabili 72). This violence was often attached to demands for restrictions to be placed on foreign labor, and large numbers of lascars (black, Asian, and Arab seamen) were repatriated in the early 1920s. Later, a racially discriminatory piece of immigration/nationality law, the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, was passed, institutionalizing existing practices that provided lascars with unequal pay, conditions, and labor mobility (Talibi 66–69).
As well as extending backwards into at least the inter-war period, the story of Black and Asian immigration clearly fits into a broader narrative concerning the movement of peoples into and out of Britain in the post-war period. A substantial aspect of this story is the net emigration of around 440,000 white Britons to the “Old Dominions” (Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand) in 1946–1951.1 The need for labor created by the war’s depletion of Britain’s working-age male population and ravaging of its built environment led in this period to active recruitment by the national government of “alien” labor (i.e. labor from outside the Empire). This recruitment occurred through a variety of schemes aimed at former prisoners of war, displaced persons, and Poles who had served in aid of the war effort in Britain. The number of European workers recruited under these [End Page 185] various schemes approached 500,000 (Miles 429–31; Paul, “Politics” 64–69). In addition to this, migration from Ireland, a longstanding feature of British population dynamics, continued unrestricted in the post-war period at a rate of 20–30,000 people per year up until 1950, though much of this labor was likely to be temporary or seasonal (Isaac 196).
Compared to these movements, black and Asian migration to Britain did not become large in scale until the mid-1950s. The number of migrants arriving in Britain from the “New Commonwealth” did not reach 2,000 until 1953. In the years 1955–1960, this number totaled 241,000, an average of a little over 40,100 per year (Layton-Henry 13). Coming after the main period of “alien” migration from Europe and at a time when emigration to the Dominions remained voluminous, this level of immigration was not large enough to result in a net in-flow of migrants to Britain in any of the years 1953–1957. Only in 1958 did Britain begin to experience a net in-migration, amounting to around 45,000, and then 44,000 in the following year (Allen 45). In the early 1960s, with legislation to restrict immigration from the Empire to Britain appearing inevitable, a rush of “beat the ban” migration occurred, with over 230,000 migrants arriving from the New Commonwealth to...