Racial tolerance on a wartime ration

June 30, 2000

Britain stood alone against the Nazis in 1940, but as Sonya Rose explains, the thousands of blacks who came to its aid discovered racism and injustice and that the cliffs at Dover were very, very white

Images of little boats venturing out on the English Channel filled the media early this month to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Dunkirk. These images recalled heroic times when Britain and its "island people" faced the Nazi enemy alone. They were quietly rather than bombastically brave, civic-minded rather than militaristic.

But this legendary account neglects to mention that Britain was never alone. It possessed a gigantic empire. While the empire may seem to have been at some remove from Britain's wartime national identity as it fought the "people's war", in fact it was intricately linked. Britain was not only dependent on the military, industrial and diplomatic support of the dominions, colonies and dependencies, it was reliant on them for its self-image as a virtuous imperial power.

The British perceived themselves as a benevolent and democratic imperial nation. But this idea was challenged by racial divisiveness in both the parent nation and its colonies. Throughout the war, government officials were involved in repairing Britain's reputation with its imperial subjects and non-white citizens "at home".

Britain's Colonial Office favoured importing workers to aid the war effort. The ministry hoped that when they returned they would speak positively of their experiences, thereby strengthening the bond between Britain and its colonies. What threatened this was the existence of informal "colour bars" in a nation supposedly characterised by tolerance.

There were about 7,000 permanent non-white residents in the port cities of the United Kingdom during the second world war. More than 10,000 men and a small number of women from the West Indies were volunteers in the armed services. Almost all the men were in the Royal Air Force; most were from Jamaica; the women enlisted in the Auxiliary Territorial Services. During the war, about 700 Indians were also brought for training and then sent back to India to boost munitions production. About 1,000 skilled technicians and trainees from the West Indies were employed in ordnance factories, and the same number of men from British Honduras were brought to work in the forests of Scotland.

Initially, officials in the Ministry of Labour and the Colonial Office were preoccupied with the difficulties of settling immigrant workers in lodgings and jobs. But these problems were as nothing compared with those officials confronted once US troops were in the country. Discrimination against black Britons either by or in connection with the presence of American troops persisted throughout the war. Some restaurants and dance halls in Liverpool were actually closed to people of colour.

The most notorious incident involved Learie Constantine, the famous West Indian cricketer, who was denied a room at a prominent London hotel while on Ministry of Labour business, by a manager who claimed that the presence of blacks bothered American officers. The episode caused major protests, earning exactly the sort of notoriety that Colonial Office officials had hoped to avoid. Britain's dependence on colonial contributions to the war effort, coupled with restiveness on the part of people in the West Indies and Africa, not to mention India, concerning their political and economic status made such incidents especially troublesome.

From spring 1942, several government ministries were also trying to deal with difficulties arising from the presence of both black and white GIs in the country. British authorities were simultaneously reluctant to support US-style segregation, and extremely uncomfortable with the likelihood of sexual relations between African-American soldiers and white British women. They wished to promote an image of Britain as a racially tolerant society, but officials were concerned that ordinary citizens were insufficiently "race conscious", and as a result would be overly friendly to black Americans, encouraging them to become romantically involved with young British women.

The British government wanted the US military to take "the colour problem" back to the States after the war. The authorities and many members of the British public hoped to return to the prewar state of affairs in which most areas of Britain did not confront the issue of racial difference in their daily lives. Interracial sexual relations and the potential for "mixed offspring" threatened that hope.

There was never any desire or expectation on the part of the British government that non-white colonial people who came to Britain would stay either. In fact, as far as the Colonial Office was concerned, the idea was that they would return as "goodwill ambassadors" to their places of origin. Being British in Britain at that time meant being white. It also meant being tolerant, at least more tolerant than white Americans and less racist than the Nazis; it meant a paternalist stance that helped people of colour to "develop" and eventually to "earn" their independence. But that independence was always seen as involving political ties to Britain. In a war where Britain was dependent on the colonies for loyalty and support, these aspects worked against one another.

Although the Learie Constantine case caused widespread criticism and open antagonism towards white Americans for their racist behaviour, "indigenous" racial discrimination in employment, housing and hotel accommodation in the UK preceded the Americans' arrival. Colour bars were the subject of significant protest by non-whites residing in Britain during the 1930s, and these protests continued throughout the war. Colour bars existed in the colonies as well. News travelled, for example, about non-white journalists bound for London from the Caribbean who were denied hotel accommodation in Bermuda when their aeroplane was grounded, and about policies barring Africans from cinema houses in Nairobi.

White officials in the colonies generally opposed any propaganda that would openly advocate dismantling colour bars. White colonials were also threatened by wartime rhetoric emphasising the merits of freedom and liberty. There was, for example, colonial opposition to the distribution of an anthology of Anglo-American writings on the virtues of democracy. The book was compiled by Alan Nevins, professor of American history at Oxford, and Josiah Wedgwood MP, and was sponsored by the Ministry of Information. Officials in several colonies feared that the book would foster discontent on the part of non-whites.

The British believed that they were benevolent rulers who would assist the colonies to modernise and to prepare for independence. This paternalist stance was fragile because at its core was an unequal power relationship: the more powerful figure was actually dependent on the weaker one. This dependence was economic, but the relationship was also necessary to Britain for its national image of doing "good in the world". Furthermore, Britain was dependent on the loyalty of its colonial dependencies and dominions, both for its existence as an empire and for the war effort. Fear of racial mixing and the importance of securing the UK as a white nation subverted its imperial project. The war undoubtedly contributed to the decolonisation movements that followed.

Eventually Britain lost its empire, while many of its former colonial subjects came "home" to the UK, transforming it from being an imperial power to a powerfully multi-cultural nation. But new kinds of racism, combined, perhaps, with nostalgia for that island nation with its imperial past, persist in foiling its potential for true equality.

Sonya O. Rose is professor of history and sociology at the University of Michigan.

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