Simon Jenkins

As Britain approaches the 2015 general election, debates over immigration are taking shape to play a decisive role. The lifting of migration controls on Bulgaria and Romania has been met by anxieties over large numbers of migrants entering Britain’s shores, echoing responses to eastern European migrants a decade ago. Alongside the lingering eminence of UKIP and the prospect of a referendum on Britain’s role in the EU if the Conservative Party wins the election, a central component of these debates is a perception of migration as having a destructive impact on ‘British’ (often specifically ‘English’) culture and identity. Over the last decade, public debates over migrants have sometimes also held a sexual dimension. In Cardiff, for example, Albanian ‘gangs’ have been connected to ‘sex trafficking’ and co-ordinating sex work, providing salacious material for the local press.

The press and political commentators have frequently cited post-Second World War immigration from the Commonwealth as a precursor to current fears over newcomers, yet such concerns were also prominent earlier in the twentieth century. From an historical perspective, one can view immigration as an almost constant feature of popular and political discourse in modern Britain, with sex featuring significantly in some earlier debates.

The press responds (courtesy of the author).

Sexuality was a dominant aspect in concerns over migrants following the First World War. Through a need to bolster Britain’s shipping industry during wartime, the migrant populations of ports like Cardiff, Liverpool and the dock areas of London increased significantly, and, given the nature of shipping, most migrants were male. These cities experienced race rioting in 1919, and while unemployment and competition for jobs between ‘white’ and ‘coloured’ workers was a clear factor, authorities, the press and rioters also voiced concerns over sexual relations between ‘coloured’ men and ‘white’ women. These objections drew on stereotypical ideas of predatory black masculinity, and highlighted challenges to established definitions of (‘white’) ‘British’ working-class masculinity.

Cardiff had experienced some of the most significant rioting in 1919, and links between immigrant men and sexuality continued into the 1920s. Maltese men were a particular source of concern for the city’s police, as they had opened a number of cafés along the dockland’s main thoroughfare that were seen to operate as sites for ‘illicit carnal intercourse between the white and coloured races’. The Chief Constable felt that this was driven by ‘disreputable vices’ ingrained in the ‘debased and degenerate’ character of the Maltese. Within these cafés Maltese men were seen to lure and exploit ‘young British prostitutes’ in order to cater for the ‘uncurbed sexual passion’ of seamen from West Africa and the West Indies.

The ‘evil’ of the Maltese was set against the ‘moral codes’ of ‘British’ identity, despite them being ‘British’ subjects under colonial rule. In a 1929 report, the Chief Constable claimed that they practiced the ‘disreputable vices ingrained in them from their early environment’, and did ‘not appreciate the British point of view with regard to prostitution. To them it is a commonplace of life and a matter of business.’ For the Chief Constable, ‘coloured’ men in relations with prostitutes and promiscuous ‘amateurs’ were likewise seen to be ‘not imbued with our moral code’. Newspapers like the Daily Herald, Daily Telegraph and The Times relayed these ideas to a national audience in coverage that repeated the Chief Constable’s opinions. Contrasts of identity were equally used in a 1932 Wesleyan-funded ‘Report on the Negro Population in London and Cardiff’, conducted by a social investigator, Nancie Sharpe. Sharpe wrote of ‘coloured’ men lacking the judgment of ‘Englishmen’ when it came to sexual relations. In her view, these men were ‘hot-blooded’, ‘extremely interested in sex’ and ‘[more] desirous of a sexual outlet, and often in their wish for this they make use of a girl of 17, 16, or even 15, whom an Englishman would still consider a child. Th[is is because] people from hot countries mature before people in more temperate climates, and the social customs are different.’

These ideas of ‘moral codes’ that set migrant men apart from the ‘British’/‘Englishman’ were drawn from British imperial assertions of racial and cultural separation from both its colonial subjects and continental mores. Thinking about present-day anti-migrant and anti-EU sentiments in historical perspective can therefore perhaps highlight continuities in the framing of migrant groups and ‘British’ identity. Just like concerns currently voiced over the perceived impact of Bulgarian and Romanian migrants on ‘British’/‘English’ culture and identity, observers of Cardiff’s docklands held anxieties over a perceived lack of ‘moral code’ inherent in Maltese café-owners and black seamen. Sex held a prominent position in these interwar concerns with commentators decrying miscegenation in the district, which was seen to be facilitated by the Maltese cafés. Thinking about immigration in historical perspective therefore highlights the ways in which identities were constructed and mediated by factors like sex and sexuality, and can provide us with a better understanding of the development and nature of debates around immigration that abound today.

Simon Jenkins is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University. His thesis examines prostitution in Cardiff from 1885-1960, and he is particularly interested in how commercial sex was connected to ideas of race, space, and national identities.

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