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Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-Century Liverpool

April 13, 2015

Originally posted on the OUPblog on 10th April, 2014. By John Belchem, Pro-Vice Chancellor and Professor of History at the University of Liverpool. He is the author of Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-Century Liverpool, which is now available on Liverpool Scholarship Online.

Before the Windrush

As I approached retirement, it seemed appropriate that I should tackle one of the most controversial aspects of Liverpool history: race relations. Since there is outstanding scholarship on the operation, legacy, and memorialisation of the heinous slave trade, I chose to concentrate on later developments, particularly the growth of a large ‘black’ population from the late 19th century, primarily composed of ‘seamen’ who dropped anchor in ‘sailortown’ Liverpool. The gateway of the British Empire and the commercial and human entrepôt linking the old world and the new, the great seaport of Liverpool had a particularly boisterous waterfront area, replete with pubs, boarding houses, brothels, and street markets. Here was a vibrant (if not always harmonious) contact zone between different ethnic groups with differing needs and intentions as transients, sojourners, or settlers. Although not without problems, this ‘cosmopolitan’ profile became a matter of pride and distinction as Liverpool, a world seaport city, sought to rebrand its image after the abolition of the slave trade.

However, by the time of Ramsay Muir’s 1907 History of Liverpool, which marked the 700th anniversary of the first letters patent granted to the borough, the tensions and contradictions within this vaunted cosmopolitanism were laid bare. Decades ahead of other cities, Liverpool, the gateway of empire, was already grappling with the intractable problem of ‘British coloureds’ from the colonies; black and Asian people were seen as belonging out in the empire, not in Britain.  Their legal status as British subjects notwithstanding, these pioneer ‘coloured’ colonials in Liverpool soon discovered that ‘There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack.’ By the time I came to edit the 800th anniversary history of Liverpool, cosmopolitanism was a distant memory. As census figures confirmed, Liverpool in 2007 had become one of the least ethnically varied cities in the country, with numbers of ‘new Commonwealth’ migrants well below the national average. Reflecting on this, I asked myself a number of crucial questions.

Why have historians paid so little attention to the substantial ‘black’ presence in Liverpool in the decades before the fabled arrival of the Empire Windrush in June 1948, regarded as ‘year zero for mass black immigration?’  I began to realise that my research was not just an exercise in local history recovery. Properly understood, the ‘black struggle for historical recognition in Liverpool’ serves as foundation narrative in the making of the black British, an identity obscured by post-Windrush concentration on immigration.

Why was Liverpool shunned by ‘new Commonwealth’ migrants in the decades following the Second World War? Economic factors were obviously a deterrent as recession-blighted Liverpool, once the proud ‘second city of Empire’, found itself in free fall down the urban hierarchy, a seemingly unstoppable descent into the ‘shock city’ of post-industrial, post-colonial Britain.  But was there also a cultural dimension?  How important was the unhappy legacy of the city’s pioneer approach to race relations?  Initial response to the riots of 1981, the greatest outbreak of civil unrest in mainland Britain since the Second World War, took the form of headline-grabbing initiatives to tackle urban deprivation, not the deep-seated problem of institutional racism. Adopting due historical and cultural perspectives, subsequent inquiry into the riots categorised racism in Liverpool as ‘uniquely horrific.’

As I was due research leave in 2011-2012, I planned to conclude my research with an examination of the official records relating to the 1981 riots which, by happy coincidence, would be available for public consultation under the 30 year rule. Alas, when I presented myself at the National Archives, Kew, I found that all the files had been recalled by the Home Office following the ‘riots’ of August 2011, a summer outbreak of opportunistic and indiscriminate looting (rather than targeted rioting) in a number of urban areas.  Fortunately, while waiting several months for the files to become available, I was able to spend my time researching in the Liverpool Record Office, temporarily relocated in an anonymous warehouse in north Liverpool while the Central Library was being refurbished. After it reopened, it was particularly fitting that guests had to cross a newly engraved poem by Levi Tefari on the floor, a welcome corrective to earlier accounts of the city: ‘spot the African presence the true source of her history.’


If objective moral reasoning is possible, how does it get started?  Sidgwick’s answer is, in brief, that it starts with a self-evident intuition. He does not mean by this, however, the intuitions of what he calls “common sense morality.”  To see what he does mean, we must draw a distinction between intuitions that are self-evident truths of reason, and a very different kind of intuition. This distinction will become clearer if we look at an objection to the idea of moral intuition as a source of moral truth.

Sidgwick was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, so it is not surprising that already in his time the objection was raised that an evolutionary view of the origins of our moral judgments would completely discredit them. Sidgwick denied that any theory of the origins of our capacity for making moral judgments could discredit the very idea of morality, because he thought that no matter what the origin of our moral judgments, we will still have to decide what we ought to do, and answering that question is a worthwhile enterprise.

On the other hand, he agreed that some accounts of the origins of particular moral judgments might suggest that they are unlikely to be true, and therefore discredit them. We defend this important insight, and press it further. Many of our common and widely shared moral intuitions are the outcome of evolutionary selection, but the fact that they helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce does not show them to be true.

This might be taken as a ground for skepticism about morality as a whole, but our capacity for reasoning saves morality from this skeptical critique. The ability to reason has, of course, evolved, and clearly confers evolutionary advantages on those who possess it, but it does so by making it possible for us to discover the truth about our world, and this includes the discovery of some non-natural moral truths.

Sidgwick thought that his greatest work was a failure because it concluded by accepting that both egoism and universal benevolence were rational. Yet they pointed to different conclusions about what we ought to do. We argue that the evolutionary critique of some moral intuitions can be applied to egoism, but not to universal benevolence. The principle of universal benevolence can be seen as self-evident, once we understand that our own good is, from “the point of view of the universe” of no more importance than the similar good of anyone else. This is a rational insight, not an evolved moral intuition.

In this way, we resolve the so-called “dualism of practical reason.” This leaves us  with a utilitarian reason for action that can be presented in the form of a utilitarian principle: we ought to maximize the good generally.

What  is this good thing that we should maximize? Is my having a positive attitude towards something enough to make bringing it about good for me? Preference utilitarians have argued that it is, and one of us has, for many years, been well-known as a representative of that view.

Sidgwick, however, rejected such theories, arguing that the good must be, not what I actually desire but what I would desire if I were thinking rationally. He then develops the view that the only things that it is rational to desire for themselves are desirable mental states, or pleasure, and the absence of pain.

For those who hold that practical reasoning must start from desires, it is hard to understand the idea of what it would be rational to desire – or at least, that idea can be understood only in relation to other desires that the agent may have, so as to produce a greater harmony of desire.

This leads to a desire-based theory of the good.

One of us, for many years, became well-known as a defender of one such desire-based theory, namely preference utilitarianism. But if reason can take us to a more universal perspective, then we can understand the claim that it would be rational for us to desire some goods, even if we have no present desire for them. On that basis, it becomes more plausible to argue for the view that the good consists in having certain mental states, rather than in the satisfaction of desires or preferences.

- See more at: http://blog.oup.com/2014/06/the-point-of-view-of-the-universe/#sthash.LhtDta11.dpuf



Discover more: the chapter 'The Most Disturbing Case of Racial Disadvantage in the United Kingdom' in Before the Windrush is now free and available to read until the end of May. Get access to the full text of this book, as well as over 100 Liverpool History titles, by recommending UPSO to your librarian today.