Aftermath

‘….the colonial secretary, Lord Milner, pointed out that many of the black men attacked in the riots had served in the army, navy and merchant service during the war and bitterly resented the ingratitude shown in the attacks. He feared the effect their return to the colonies would have on attitudes to white minorities there. His fears were soon justified.'  (Peter Fryer, 1984)


In the aftermath of the riots much debate and government wrangling ensued regarding the possible forced deportation or repatriation of people from the colonies resident in Liverpool. While a repatriation scheme came into effect prior to the riots in Feb 1919, take up was poor as men were unwilling to go home penniless or to leave white wives and partners behind.

Following the riots the Chief Constable of Liverpool called upon the Home Office to forcibly intern Liverpool’s black population on board ships or in military camps, in preparation for their expulsion from the UK. Local government and central government departments were initially unwilling to take any responsibility for the ‘coloured labour’ problem. The Home Office claimed the men where outside of their jurisdiction because those concerned were subjects of the empire and therefore citizens rather than ‘aliens’. The War Office would accept no responsibility as the men were now civilians.

The Colonial Office, nervous about repercussions that the riots may cause in the colonies, eventually offered subsidised repatriation as an inducement. A resettlement allowance of £5 was introduced, with a further £1 voyage allowance. Though the Elder Dempster Shipping Line did deport around 600 of its employees to West Africa, the majority of black colonials in Liverpool chose to stay for a variety of reasons. For most, the amount offered was not seen as enough to resettle, not even enough to cover the cost of retrieving their belongings from the pawn shops. Many did not want to transplant their families, while some who had agreed to go changed their minds upon seeing the poor conditions of the ship on which they were to sail.

With repatriation providing no real solution to the perceived threat posed by black workers in Liverpool and the seaports of the UK, the authorities employed other strategies to make it more difficult for black workers to gain entry and secure employment. In Liverpool, a new measure was introduced that required black workers to provide documentary proof of British nationality, a requirement that was impossible for thousands of seafarers born in British colonial Africa, the Caribbean, Middle East, India and Malaysia. This practice was subsequently incorporated into the Special Restriction (Coloured Seaman) Order in 1925. Described as the ‘white-washing’ of Britain, the order set the policy direction of the British government with regard to black workers far beyond the post war period.

A full understanding of the race riots of 1919 has to be considered in the context of general social unrest in Britain and across the empire, unrest that can be attributed to raised and unmet expectations following the end of the First World War. Strikes broke out across the country. Between 1918 and 1922 there were strikes and demonstrations across Liverpool led by unemployed seafarers and soldiers. In August 1919, a national police strike had its largest support in Liverpool, with the resulting looting and vandalism costing the public purse far more than the earlier race riots of that year in which the damage was directed more at people, rather than property. The role of racism in the port cities served to divide and rule a more radicalised working class and to divert attention away from the tactics of the employers.

Dissatisfaction was felt across the colonial territories, accompanied by an upsurge in black consciousness and the emergence of independence movements. News and first-hand accounts of the 1919 race riots, and the treatment of citizens in the ‘mother land’, many of whom had fought for Britain in the Great War, undoubtedly helped to fuel that dissatisfaction.