Race in Britain

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

A reader’s letter in Reader’s Forum recently asked why I had not written about the race riots in London (Notting Hill) and Nottingham. Accepting this letter as a challenge, I intend to devote this week’s article to the question of colour in England and Wales.

The big difference between the colour question in the UK and the colour question in Mauritius is this. In the UK there is no group of persons, racially constituted, which sets itself up as being superior to all other racially-constituted groups of persons. The English do not proclaim themselves as superior to the Welsh, the Irish, the Scots, the colonial immigrants, simply and merely on account of being English. The Welsh do not say that because they are Welsh, they are therefore superior to all the other races of the British Islands. So also with the Scots, the Irish, the Manx, the Channel Islanders, and so on.

London street scene. Pic – Getty Images

But in Mauritius you have a racial group which sets itself up to be superior to all other racial groups simply and solely on account of its race. I refer of course to those who claim that because they are white they are therefore superior to all the other people of Mauritius. They set up the possession of a white skin as the criterion of social acceptability; and such has been the pernicious influence of this racial myth that in the past Mauritian society has intended to become stratified according the degree of whiteness of the skin. See for example Alan Wood’s, The Groundnut Affair, at page 171: “There are seven separate grades of Mauritian society, according to the degree of whiteness in the skin, and they all complained bitterly when they were expected to share the same mess in kongwa” — “they” being the Mauritian carpenters employed by the Overseas Food Corporation).

Although there is no comparable body of Britons pursuing a policy similar to that pursued by the Mauritian whites, that is not to say that racial feelings do not influence some people. The riots in Notting Hill are proof that some people are deeply affected by racial considerations. But by and large the Briton has no racial prejudice. The riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham were exceptional; it is notable that although these riots occurred, there were no demonstrations against the coloured communities in other parts of London, e.g. Brixton and Lewisham, where large numbers have congregated. Nor were there outbreaks against coloured people in Earl’s Court.

Two small incidents in London in the last four weeks demonstrate the real feelings of the British public as regards this matter of race. Recently there was a by-election in a local government election in St Pancras, a part of London with a very mixed population including a large body of Cypriots. One candidate, the licensee of a public house, announced that his programme included racial discrimination. The brewers who owned the public house promptly gave him notice to quit.

More recently there was another local government by-election in Islington, another London borough with a considerable coloured population. Four candidates fought the by-election –  Labour, Liberal, Independent and Union Movement. This last is the post-war successor to Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists; its candidate’s programme in Islington included the phrase: “Not one coloured or other immigrant should be housed while British-born people are homeless.” The result of the by-election gave Labour 818 votes, a majority of 561 over all the other candidates combined. The Liberal polled 115, the Independent 103, and the Union Movement candidate only 39. Not much evidence of racial antagonism among the British there!

Two Tory MPs made significant speeches on racial discrimination during the debate on the Queen’s Speech in the last days of October. The first was Mr Cyril Osborne, Member for Louth. He attacked the immigration of coloured people into England; he included Cypriots, Maltese and Irish with the coloureds. He said that there were about 210,000 coloured persons in Britain of whom 110,000 were West Indians; 55,000 Indians and Pakistanis: and 45,000 Africans, Cypriots and Maltese. These figures had doubled since 1954 and if this rate of progress continued, there would be six millions inside 20 years. Unless there were control of immigration soon, the country would have its Notting Hills over again.

In July there were 17,000 coloured people unemployed. He suggested that coloured immigrants should have to show that they had a job to come to. In July, 16,000 were drawing public assistance. If unemployment were temporarily to rise this coming winter, he said, Englishmen should have the jobs that were going, and immigration should cease until the coloured men at present out of work obtained employment.

The second speech was that of Mr Fisher, Tory MP for the London dormitory suburb of Surbiton. Speeches like Mr Osborn’s, he said, would cause concern and misunderstanding in the colonies, especially in the West Indies. Mr Osborn did not represent the views of either the Government or the Conservative Party. Restrictions on immigration were opposed by the Conservative Party and by the Labour Party as well. None the less, Mr Fisher regretted the emergence of racial antagonism among a small section of the population which had suddenly erupted with ugly, frightening, primitive emotions, deplorable in Britain, hitherto regarded as the cradle of liberty and tolerance.

And apart from these ugly, primitive emotional few, Britons are a people given to racial tolerance and understanding. We do not, as a race, care what colour a man’s skin is. A British worker is interested not in what colour his mate is, but in whether his mate can do his job. I have West Indian children in my class at school; other teachers have not only West Indians but Pakistanis and Cypriots as well.We aren’t interested, when it comes to teacher-pupil relationships, in the different colours of our pupils’ skins; we are interested in their ability to work and to profit from the courses of instruction offered. Nor are the children themselves bothered by the different coloured skins. We had an American boy who was quite happy to sit next to, and play with, and be friends with, a West Indian from Dominica as well as with a couple of Jamaicans and a British Guianese. But that little American has now returned to the USA, to a southern state, Kentucky, where he will be taught to regard black people as beyond the pale, as lesser breeds, as inferior by nature to God’s chosen whites.

That difference in attitude is the difference between the UK and the USA, between the UK and Mauritius too. Here in the UK, we accept a man as a man, not as someone coloured, a particular colour. We pay attention to a man’s personality, not his race.There is a small, but insignificant, minority who do peddle racial propaganda, but they are largely impelled by political reasons; they are such groups as the Union Movement and the extreme right-wing “lunatic fringe” of the Conservative Party. These small but vociferous groups play upon the emotions of semi-literate excitable under-informed teenagers who were the mainspring of the Notting Hill riots; and by so doing make it appear that race hatred is more widespread in the UK than it actually is.

In Mauritius, on the other hand, we have one community which is founded upon white supremacy, upon exclusiveness, upon separatism, upon apartheid. It is not mere political prejudice which impels that white block  to foster racial supremacy and eschew true inter-racial co operation. It is the arrogance of the master-race, of the herrenvolk; it is the prejudice, the blind unthinking prejudice, of those who think that because their skins are white, they are necessarily superior to chose whose skins are of a different colour.

The correspondent to whose letter I referred at the beginning of this article can be assured that I disapprove of all forms of racial antagonism no matter where or by whom practised. I disapprove of the racial hatred of the minority groups who foster it in the UK. I disapprove of the racial hatred practised in the semi-Facist southern states of the USA. I disapprove of the racial policies practised against the non-white Africans by the more-than-semi-Fascist government in South Africa.

I disapprove of the racial antagonisms displayed throughout the French empire by the French against the coloured people, whether in Madagascar, Guadeloupe, Algeria, or French Africa. (This racial animosity of the French is epitomised by de Gaulle’s treatment of French Guinea, the only colony to vote non in the recent referendum). I disapprove of the racial animosity displayed now and in the past by the whites towards the other people of Mauritius; and my disapproval of racial intolerance, wherever it occurs, has the support of the Roman Catholic Church (as of all other Christian churches except the Dutch Reformed in South Africa).

In La Doctrine Sociale de L’Eglise, by Mgr Émile Guerry, Archbishop of Cambrai, weread on page 59, “Le principe de l’égalite fondamentale des hommes et le texte de Saint Paul (“ni juifs, ni grecs”) condamnent la ségrégation raciale dans certains pays du monde à l’heure actuelle, ainsi que la thèse du nazisme sur la supériorité de la race aryenne.”

This book, as a matter of fact, I would particularly recommend to those who are at all interested in the social policy of the Catholic Church, because, for one reason, the Parti Mauricien claims that it is following in its policies and programmes the Catholic Church’s social teachings. In point of fact,as a perusal of Mgr Guerry’sbook will show, the Parti Mauricien is acting contrary to the Church’s social teachings in many particulars; and not least in this matter of racial discrimination.

I will discuss in another article more about this matter of colour in Britain.

5th Year – No 223
Friday 14th November, 1958

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