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How live-tweeting Cardiff’s 1919 race riots helped us uncover a forgotten part of Welsh history

26 Jul 2019 5 minute read
The Western Mail account of the riots

Yasmin Begum

One hundred years ago, Cardiff was home to some of the most vicious race riots ever seen in the history of the United Kingdom. In June 1919, race riots gripped the nation’s capital over four days which saw three deaths, thousands of pounds worth of property damage and segregation strengthen in the city’s streets.

On Wednesday 11th June 1919, a group of black and minority ethnic men were returning to Cardiff after a picnic with their partners. Their partners were white women, which caused a tremendous amount of outcry from a white mob in the centre of the city who saw them pass on a vehicle.

Within half an hour or so, the groups were squaring up to each other after the white group verbally abused those on the vehicle. It escalated, and stones were thrown. Finally, a fight broke out.

Dispersed by police walking by, this displaced and scattered the fights around the city centre like the seeds of a dandelion blown by a child. Canal Parade, the Hayes, Custom House Street, Caroline Street. A man was killed – allegedly by a man of colour- but there is no evidence that any men of colour were located near the Hayes at the time.

More people would die over the next three days and many more injured. Revellers came to gawp at the ruins in Butetown, taking photographs. Cardiff saw unspeakable amounts of violence which has deeply scarred the city ever since with dozens arrested and hundreds deported. In fact, the violence was so deep that we are unaware of the number of those dead. Jacqueline Jeneikson says six people died, but most official records say three.

Men deported were sent to the Caribbean and Africa, but lascars, South Asian sailors, were given preferential status under the British Empire and were allowed to stay in Cardiff. In “Sugar and Slate” by Charlotte Williams (published by Planet), she writes that the returning seamen sent to the Caribbean were pivotal in agitating against the Empire in protest at their treatment. These demonstrations were key to decolonisation processes in their own countries against the British.

The repatriation committees at the time decided that deportation of men who had settled with white women and had families could cause a disturbance to the social orders in their country of origin if to be deported. It suggests those without children or wives (or with children, but without wives, perhaps) didn’t have as much of a tie to somewhere that they, like hundreds of thousands of Cardiffians throughout time, had called home.

The conflict began at East Canal Wharf near Custom House Street.

100 years

No full account exists of the 1919 race riots. The 1919 Race Riots collective (of which I am a part) decided to live-tweet the details of the riots after it was casually suggested by our elder, Kyle Legall. Between over twenty sources, one google document, a week’s subscription to Buffer (turns out we could have done it all on Tweetdeck!) and a stack of coffee, we live-tweeted those accounts of the race riots to the best to our ability.

If British history is anglocentric, and BAME history focuses overwhelmingly on groups in England, the location of Welsh people of colour in history is a relatively barren field to both negotiate and manage. Our resources were in Somali, English and Welsh, found in multiple sets of archives written over the past 100 years and located in half a dozen countries.

The live-tweeting account however allowed followers to get in touch, revealing the stories of their own ancestors’ involvement during the disturbances. Someone’s grandfather’s boarding house on Bute Street, south Cardiff, was attacked during the race riots. Another person’s grandmother lived through the Newport riots of 1919, leading the BBC to get in touch and write an article on her experiences. People interacted with us.

The knowledge that people were reading and connecting our work to the heritage of their parents consolidated and demonstrated the need for broader public discussions on Welsh history, and on the history of Welsh people of colour.

That’s what led us to create an open-access curriculum online with resources about the 1919 race riots. A number of considerations fed into the style of this resource, keeping in mind various accessibility requirements members of the public might have around different learning styles. It allowed us to bold and innovative – our curriculum isn’t just journals or academic texts. It’s videos, photo galleries and online articles, too.

100 years isn’t a long time. While there is nobody alive who remembers the riots (in Cardiff, at least) there are many for whom these riots are remembered as cultural history passed down between families.

If you would like to stay in touch with the 1919 Race Riots collective, follow them on @1919RaceRiots or email them on [email protected].

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