|Mixed Race Britannia: Wedding Bells (episode 1 of 3): 1910-1939
Mad Scientess Jane Expat
Last night I watched Part 1 of 3 episodes on the history of mixed race people in Britain. Behind the cut are the notes I wrote while watching it.
Opens with a wedding between Nicholas Tegg and Nicky Mehta, one of thousands of mixed-race couples that marry in Britain every year. Framed in the context of blending cultures. Mixed-race people are one of the fastest-growing minority groups in the country.
Then older people talk about how white women couldn’t dance with black men, and how they had their heads measured & eye colour (eugenics).
George Alagiah & his wife didn’t really think too much about the implications of their mixed-race marriage. They have two sons.
Now we start with the history lesson. Industrial revolution brought people in from around the world (the Empire) to work. Put into lodgings when ashore run by the shipping companies. Dr Lucy Bland (Women's Studies, London Metropolitan Univeristy) talks. Didn’t live separately on purpose – they weren’t allowed to mix. Couldn’t go into English tea shops or cafes. Lots of single men! Yahi Ahmed speaks: the community feel of all the boarding houses and cafes made it feel like home. At first the groups were so small they didn’t have much influence. This changed with the first World War. The British navy needed sailors for the merchant ships, so they pulled them from the empires. It couldn’t prevent mingling, and because women were working in the factories and in the airfields, they were now much more independent and couldn’t be sheltered. The white men were off fighting in the war – and there were lots of attractive men of colour with money and sweet words about! Lots of men stay after the war in the port cities. 20,000 men from the Middle East, the Caribbeans and Asia.
In 1919, rioting broke out in Glasgow & spread to Cardiff & other port cities, because the returning white men were finding their women intractable and no jobs available (but unemployment was higher among black men). A number of the foreign men left because of it. Neil Sinclair talks about his mixed-race grandparents – his grandfather had to hide from the mobs during the Cardiff riots. His grandmother was beaten and their home was wrecked by the mob. The police told her afterward that it was her fault for marrying a black man. Nasty Daily Mail type letter read out by George Alagiah. The foreigners were blamed for the riots.
Doreen & Lynne Ah Foo have a Chinese father. “Dad was a marvellous coook.” They talk about their happy childhood with their fun dad. Stanley Ah Foo had to be registered with the police and carry and ID card. His wife lost her British nationality !!! WHAT. She became an alien after marrying. Liverpool had a curfew – Doreen & Lynne remember having to leave a Shirley Temple film so their dad could get home for 8 PM.
Maureen Kaier (husband Norman Kaier also mixed Yemeni) talks about her Yemeni grandfather & his Geordie wife. The Yemeni men all tried to be very smart to blend in. Women were spat on in the street and called prostitutes if they were in mixed marriages.
Connie Hoe talks about growing up in Limehouse in London. She talks about looking for opium dens and gaming houses in her Chinatown and never seeing them after reading a lot of lurid stories. Talking about “Broken Blossom”, a film showing a romance between a Chinese man & white girl. Villain is the girl’s father. Connie says she is amused by the shock & horror expressed in angry letters to newpapers by some viewers of the film – she thought this sort of relationship was quite commonplace.
Uh oh, now we’re on to eugenics. Let’s talk all the poor people and people of colour out of breeding! “Racial Hygiene Society” (Germany) “British Eugenics Society”. Banning of sexual relationships & marriages between white and coloured people (in the US and Rhodesia). Experimenting on mixed-race children to see if the products of these “matings” produced “inferior stock”/degeneracy. Had their physiognomy thoroughly measured. Relationship between physical appearance and intelligence? Connie Hoe had her intelligence tested. The conclusions of the tests were that mixed-race children could never be “properly English”. Also that mixed-race black/white children were less intelligent, though the eugenicists were annoyed to find that by their metrics the Asian/white children seemed to be smarter.
Roaring Twenties. Nancy Cunard, socialite & heiress, scandalised everyone by carrying on with black men. In 1930 The Sultan of Jahore married a Scottish lady (Helen Wilson). She became Sultana. Paul Robeson (black American, son of a slave) playing Othello in 1930 opposite Peggy Ashcroft (Desdemona). They were a hit. He kissed her on stage – one newspaper editor walked out of the performance. But in the States he (Robeson) would never have dared to do this. Ho ho, their private relationship was very romantic, which no one knew til much later. Peggy Ashcroft talked about how it changed her perception of race.
Mid-1930s, Tiger Bay, Cardiff, about 3000 Arab men. Daoud Salaman, son of Ali Salaman (café owner & chef) and Olive Salaman (nurse) speaks. His parents fell in love when she asked him for directions. Married when she was 16! Had 10 children. Olive talks – there was quite a stir at home; priest warned her she was marrying a heathen. In the back of the café was a school. Community: celebrations of Eid across different Arab communities in native dress. Everyone part of it (Neil Sinclair talks about this – he’s mixed black/white & participated in the Eid celebrations). Mmm, free food – curry and rice. Multiculturalism before anyone thought of such a phrase.
Maureen & Norman Kaier talk about how their mums secretly ate pork when their Muslim husbands were out.
The chief constable in Cardiff, James Wilson, describes mixed-race children and the Tiger Bay area in general as degenerate and vicious in temperament. Although there was some gambling & prostitution – Cardiff being a port – this was not quite fair, durr. All the women in mixed-race marriages must be women of ill repute/prostitutes, he claimed. Anti-miscegenation law pushed by him. Fortunately most of Britain ignored him.
By the mid-1930s, mixed-race communities firmly established in Britain. Now George Alagiah talks about Germany and the children of French African soldiers who were secretly sterilised. Why so different in Germany v UK? In UK, the persons of colour were in smaller numbers and were not viewed as much of a threat to white culture. JB Priestley on a school in Liverpool “all the races of mankind were there, wonderfully mixed”. “All the shades of Asia and Africa peering from their eyes.” 1946 propaganda film (anti-Nazi) about how wonderful West Indian cricketers are and how that Aryan superiority nonsense just isn’t true. When the horrors of the Holocaust became known, eugenics quickly fell out of favour.
George Alagiah talks about how brave the women who first fell in love with and married non-white men were. Maureen Kaier talks about how she classes herself as Geordie with an Arab heart – uses “half-caste” to describe herself.
James Wilson changed his tune after WWII. He said Tiger Bay was a wonderful example of the mixing of cultures.
Next episode, next Thursday: Fighting for Britain (1940 – 1965). Black American GIs in Britain, interracial relationship portrayals on television – the first kiss.
I have long wondered why Britain, especially in the cities, seemed to be better racially integrated than a lot of the US. Britain is still majority white, while the US is much more diverse. From this programme I inferred that, at least in the early twentieth century, it was because the first group of persons of colour to arrive in Britain were pretty much all male, and their numbers tiny in comparison to the overall population. When they decided to settle, they had to integrate. The only ladies around for them to date/have sexy tiems with/marry were white girls. So the second generation were pretty much immediately mixed-race, and immersed into both cultures directly through their family. Since the proportion of persons of colour was small enough to be fairly non-threatening, integration was a good deal smoother than in countries where communities were larger and already organised into families. Those tended to stay segregated for longer.