Battle of George Square



Newspaper Clippings
Street, Hillhead, Glasgow.

Alarming Street Scene.
Thirty Coloured Men before Police Court.
During a fierce race riot in Glasgow yesterday afternoon between white and coloured seamen passions were roused to a danger point.

Our Glasgow correspondent having interviewed several eyewitnesses, states that the trouble arose over blacks being given the preference in signing on for a ship about to sail. The whites resented this, especially as the blacks accept lower wages. A scuffle began in a court adjoining the Merchant Marine Office, where seamen sign on, and then became general in James Watt Street.

One big black fired a revolver, and injured a Glasgow seaman in the neck. This infuriated the whites, and they charged. The blacks fled, and took refuge in a close leading to a lodging-house where they reside. The police followed, and arrested the black with the revolver, and conveyed to the lock-up amid considerable hostility.

The whites in some cases had revolvers. Others got bottles and stones. These were hurled into the close where blacks were and also at the windows of the lodging- house.
When police reinforcement arrived the whites were pushed back, and the police, entering the close, arrested all the blacks, the latter offering no opposition.

At the Central Police Court, Glasgow, today thirty blacks appeared, and were remanded until tomorrow. Three injured men - two whites and one black - were removed to the Western Infirmary. They are reported to be making satisfactory progress. None of them are is in danger.

-Evening Telegraph and Post, Friday, January 24, 1919


Employment Condemned by Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union

The members of the National Sailors’ and Fireman’s Union are meantime up in arms against the employment of Lascars instead of white seamen.

This important question was discussed at a special meeting of the East of Scotland Branch of the Union in Dundee yesterday, when a strong protest was made against the manning of the Berlin, an ex-German vessel at present located at Rosyth, by coolies. The Berlin is the property of the Ministry of Shipping, but is being handed over for management to the P. and O. Shipping Co., and it seems probable that the crew will be made up of Lascars.

The union state that there are at present hundreds of white seamen unemployed and who are drawing unemployment benefits , and contend that it would be in the interests of the of the country as a whole that white sailors should be employed on the Berlin…

The members of the union decided to a step further, and unanimously passed a resolution, in view of the large number of sailors and firemen at present unemployed, strongly protesting against the employment of Lascars in the Berlin.

-The Courier, Friday, February 13, 1920


The 40 Hour Strike in Glasgow is often talked about in terms of the ‘progressive’ left-wing labour movement ‘Red Clydeside’. The campaign advocated for a 40-hour week, with improved conditions for the workers, took hold of organised labour. On 31 January 1919, a massive rally, organised by the trade unions, took place on George Square in the city centre of Glasgow. It is estimated that 20,000-60,000 workers went on strike and congregated in George Square.

It had only been fourteen months since the Russian Revolution and the Coalition government feared a possible Bolshevik-style insurrection. In response 12,000 troops were deployed and remained in Glasgow and its surrounding areas till mid-February.


The ‘Race Riot’ that occurred at Glasgow Harbour on the 23 January, 1919 is often overshadowed by the 40 Hour Strike. The newspapers of the time rarely referred to the riots as being ‘race’ related. However the Glasgow Harbour riot was the event that sparked the subsequent strike. Leaders of the labour movement such as Emmanuel Shinwell, who was at both events used the ‘labour for whites’ rhetoric of Glasgow Harbour riot to incite the 40-Hour strike and address even broader labour issues. The 40 Hour strike is often hailed as an act of heroism, but it was built on the back of racist ideology and while it may have led to improvement in labour conditions for white Scots, it heralded the disenfranchisement of many colonial workers in Scotland.

The organised sailors’ campaign against the employment of ‘cheaper’ colonial and overseas labour evident at the time of the harbour riot was longstanding. The merchant naval service consisted of low pay, lengthy periods of overseas service, poor working conditions, disrupted lifestyle, contract work and intervals of unemployment. Since the 1890s some trade unions excluded Chinese sailors in an attempt to maintain white membership. Black British sailors were often grouped together with ‘Asiatic’ sailors as potential threats to the livelihood of white British workers in the industry.

After the successful 1911 seamen’s strike a national wage rate for sailors hired in Britain was established. White seamen and black British sailors sailed on fixed contracts, i.e. ‘standard articles’ (and received equivalent pay rates). However, those hired overseas could still be contracted for lower wages and ship owners increasingly looked to augment this pool of workers. For example, lascar or south Asian sailors - and other colonial sailors employed directly by shipping companies under specific guidelines received wage rates 20%-50% less than the standard rate. Although Black sailors hired in Britain were paid comparative wage they had to deal with the perception among white local port dwellers that they were part of a lower paid overseas workforce which, it appeared, was depriving British workers of their livelihood.

A clipping from the Evening Telegraph and Post gives a description of the event of the race riot and the cause. In the aftermath of the riot 30 black sailors were arrested and charged with riot and weapon offences, but none of the white rioters faced prosecution. Tom Johnson, a black Sierra Leonean seaman had been stabbed, but unlike the two injured white men, he was imprisoned instead of being sent to the hospital.

Following the riot, the National Seaman and Fireman Union (Glasgow Branch) placed a post-war ban on the employment of black sailors from Glasgow ports and the British Seaman Union (Glasgow) denied membership to blacks. The unemployment rates among black people in Britian soared and by February, 1919 the Board of Trade was offering repatriation to black colonials (most who had served or worked in the war) and by 1921, approximately 2000 black people had been repatriated from Britain. The British government offered a £5 inducement for anyone person of colour willing to leave the country and a £7 voyage allowance. This repatriation scheme was seen by the government as a solution to the growing race riots. The government set up repatriation committees in cities such as Hull, South Shields, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, London and Salford; their main functions to:

  1. To collect information as to the numbers, nationality and countries of origin of the coloured men in the port, together with information as to the state of employment and the numbers desiring to be repatriated.
  2. To arrange for publicity to be given to any Government schemes of repatriation; to explain such schemes to representatives and other local individuals and bodies concerned, in the interests of good government and the coloured men themselves.
  3. To endeavour to secure that any coloured men who have genuine claim to reside in this country should be given reasonable opportunity of obtaining work.
  4. To interview individual men and urge them on the advisability of accepting repatriation and point out the difficulties that they are likely to experience in obtaining work if they remain in this country.

The committee was comprised of white Britons excluding people of colour and created a system where repatriation was the favoured outcome.
However, the following letter from the Glasgow Mercantile Marine Office to the Ministry of shipping elucidates the various issues surrounding repatriation;

Sir, I beg to report that on the receipt of your telegram I interviewed (189) about thirty West Africans and that only one is willing to go home per S.S. Batanga from Cardiff, sailing about noon on the 20th instant, I explained to them very fully the difficulty in arranging for their transport and urged them to accept your offer. I informed those receiving maintenance from me that it would be stopped on their refusal. I have also given the Labour Exchange the names of those receiving out of work donation through them. Many of the men are married and have wives and children in this country. A few have clothes in pawn in Liverpool and Glasgow and refuse to go home destitute and insist on their right to get work here. A few say they would go if they got more time to make their arrangements and got money to take their clothes out of pawn and some money to take their wives and children.

The letter reveals that the repatriation of colonials was not widely accepted by black people in Britain, as it would separate them from their families and leave them in worse positons. The lack of financial support offered to the black seamen suggest that the Colonial Office’s first priority was to appease white workers with the deportation of non-white working force rather than the betterment of the black colonial situation.

The riots did not only affect black and Chinese works but also the South Asian seamen referred to as Lascars. By the 1920s public opinion of the Lascars began to change to reflect the same sentiment that sparked the Glasgow Harbour riot. Based on newspaper articles in the 19th to early 20th century Lascars were viewed as curiosities and their poor working conditions reported in a sympathetic manner. However, articles of the 20th century discuss Lascars as taking employment from white Britons due to their lower wages and even attached their manner, appearance, hygiene and behaviour. In 1920, SAFU (Dundee Branch) barred Lascars from joining the union.


Indian Not to Enter Glasgow!

In 1916 India-born missionary Aziz Ahmad was accused of abusing his position by preaching sedition to the Lascars docked at the Clyde and supposedly distributing pamphlets. The accusation occurred in the height of WWI, when the Glasgow-Clyde area being important munitions base, suggesting that tensions were already high in the region. Ahmad was ordered by the military to leave the city of Glasgow and not return until the military said. His whereabouts were subject to military knowledge. Ahmad moved to Lanark, but then moved to Rutherglen without permission from the military, which once again landed him in the local newspapers.

Ahmad founded the Mission to Lascars in November, 1897 at the Indian Christian House, 36 Bank Street, Hillhead. Ahmad stated that the aim of the mission was not conversion but “making Lascars better men. We do not interfere with Islam or Roman Catholicism. As a layman I try to give the best advice to Indian seafaring men, for the good of their souls, minds and bodies.”

The following was recorded in the about the mission;

“It is the only mission doing work among the lascar sailors in Scotland. There is only one collecting-book in connection with this mission, which is possessed by Mr. Aziz Ahmad, the authorised collector, who will be pleased to receive subscriptions from parties interested in the work.

Many thousand Lascars visit Glasgow every year. The barriers of race, religion, customs, and language make them extremely difficult to access by European missionaries. Mr. Aziz Ahmad, assisted by his wife and family devotes their whole time to the work of preaching the Gospel to these Lascars and leaching them to read the Holy Scriptures, helping them and brightening their lives by entertaining them as far as the means at disposal will permit… The greatest majority of the Lascars are British Indians. Left to themselves, they can only take home unfavourable impressions. This mission, by introducing them to beautiful sights and kind friends, aims to foster friendliness between Indians.”

Aziz Ahmad had a very interesting journey to Scotland. According to the Aberdeen Free Press, he was ‘imported’ to the island of Trinidad as an indentured ‘coolie’ at the age of 15. With the emancipation of slaves and the end of the apprenticeship period in 1838, West Indian plantation owners imported indentured labourers from China and India to fill the void left by the now freed blacks. Between 1838-1917 about half a million people were sent to the West Indies from colonial India. The term ‘coolie’ developed during this period as a racial derogatory term for unskilled labour. The terms of indentured servitude meant that these workers ostensibly would be sent home after their period of indenture was done, however, many planters did not fulfil these terms and many Indians remained in the West Indies becoming part of the culture.

Ahmad’s indenture was cancelled and he was sent to school. A now converted Ahmad left Trinidad on bad terms with the Reverend from the Trinidad Mission, due to Ahmad speaking against the way the coolie trade in the West Indies was conducted. Ahmad first appears in Scottish newspapers in 1881, giving lectures throughout Scotland on various topics such as Egypt, India & Burma, and Turks & Armenians. He attracted crowds as he wore an ‘Easter costume’ and spoke some Gaelic that astounded his audience. He stated that he was lecturing in order to raise funds to pursue his missionary studies.

Ahmad’s case is interesting because it illustrates how the non-white British members were under great suspicion during the war period. It also shows the various ways that people of Asian descent found their way to Glasgow.

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