YEMENI IN BRITAIN
The Race Riots
"Don't go in men. Don't let the scabs sign on" (1)
The alleged 'race - riots', setting the record straight
Most people who have heard of the South Shields Yemeni community know something of the 'race riots' which occurred in 1919 and again in August 1930.
No website on this community could be considered complete without touching on this topic However, the truth of the matter is that these riots were not an overspill of racial animosity between co-existing communities but a product of economic depression and desperation for employment. The National Union of Seamen took issue with the employment of Yemenis making it difficult for Englishmen to find work. "The Seaman (the NUS newspaper) published a number of articles in an attempt to discredit Arabs and praise the superiority of white crews.(2)"
In response, "Ali Said, one of the leading Arab boarding-house masters in South Shields, appealed to the Secretary of State for India against the attitude taken by the National Union of Seamen towards Arab and coloured seamen". The problem wasn't unique to South Shields but a group of English seamen, waiting at the Mill Dam decided to take action on the 2nd of August 1930.(3)
"South Shields must be the storm centre. All the other ports are using us an example" (4)
The introduction of a rota system in 1930 only for Yemenis and Somalis to register and report for work on the ships further sought to intensify relations and the situation. The Yemeni men, many of whom were British citizens were unwilling to subscribe to a prejudicial system aimed only at singling them out and making employment more difficult. Many mentioned in letters to the Shields Gazette that they did not seek preferencial treatment and had this system been for all seamen including white seamen they would have complied.
All parties to the situation suffered in some way as violence ensued. The police were also victims of this riot and suffered fatalities as officers tried to control the situation as it escalated on both sides. The 1930's police report quotes PC Wilson saying to Ali Said (a prominent Arab figure and one of the first Yemenis in South Shields).
"Look here Said, you had better stop going amongst those Arabs inciting them. You have quite sufficient to do looking after your boarding house"(5)
To which he replied:
"I (did) not say anything" (6)
A common theme in the quotes taken from Yemeni men in the police report of the 1930's riot is that of not having wanted trouble.
"I do nothing at all. Waiting for chance of job" - Arab seaman during the 1930's riots. (7)
"I not looking for trouble - just waiting for chance of a living" - Mohamed Yusuf (8)
There were in fact, Yemenis who helped the police during the riots including Mohamed Muckble who acted as a translator.
As a result of events in August 15 Arabs were jailed and deported whilst, somewhat disproportionately, 6 English men were taken to court.
There were a few factors which contributed to the overspill of animosity that resulted in these riots. Firstly there was the fact that Britain was depleated of its resources after the war and at a time without welfare, people needed money to survive. Additionally, British ship-owners would undercut English sailors by employing Yemeni men who would do the most difficult jobs for less pay. Consequently, animosity brewed as work became harder to obtain and many English seamen, understandably, grew angry at the harsh conditions.
Unfortunately, with some help from the NUS, this anger was directed at the Yemeni seamen instead of the ship owners many of whom were exploiting the situation for cheap labour.
As you can see by the photographs in this section of the website, history seems to only have recorded only Yemeni men getting arrested in court and the term 'Arab' put with the word 'riot' gives an instant and misleading connotation. For the most part, Englishmen and Yemenis worked 'like brothers', side by side on both ship and land. If that wasn't true, there's no way the Yemeni community could have survived in South Shields in the first place.
"I came to believe that earlier attempts to tell The Yemeni community's story had been manipulated by those who had little knowledge of or sympathy for the British-Arab community in South Shields. For example, there has been an on-going repetition of the false claim that South Shields had the first race riots in the UK (as if this were a good thing)."
Fortunately, we are now in a position to set the record straight and ensure the British-Yemeni community are remembered for what they have contributed: successful integration and proof that Muslim culture can live successfully in harmony with modern British society." - Tina Gharavi (9)
(1) (4) (5) (6) (7) and (8) - Original document held by Tyne & Wear Archives (TWAM ref. T95/152)
(2) and (3) Richard I. Lawless, 1995. From Ta'izz To Tyneside: An Arab Community In The North-East Of England During The Early Twentieth Century (ARABIC AND ISLAMIC STUDIES). P. 114 Edition. University of Exeter Press.
(9) Tina Gharavi, 2014. Last Of The Dictionary Men: Stories from the South Shields Yemeni Sailors. P.13-14 Edition. Gilgamesh Publishing.