We congratulate Dan Hancox, and the family campaigners who helped him, for bringing into the open at last the story of the Chinese seamen secretly rounded up and forcibly deported from Liverpool as soon as their services were no longer required for the war effort (The secret deportations: how Britain betrayed the Chinese men who served the country in the war, 25 May). Nothing can compensate for the suffering inflicted on them, and on the wives and children from whom they were so cruelly separated with neither explanation nor farewell.
Truth and contrition are the least that can be expected. It is sad but revealing that even now ministers cannot bring themselves to apologise to the victims’ descendants for this shameful episode in our history. The institutional racism with which we continue to struggle in our country has deep roots.
It came as no surprise to us to learn that Sir Alfred Holt of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line was an exploitative employer as well as a racist one. Our grandfather, Edward Ashton, was head gardener at his family estate, Sudley House, in the 1920s. At the height of the Great Depression, the Holts announced that they were withdrawing the allowance of garden produce that had hitherto gone with their jobs, and on which they now depended more than ever in order to feed their families. The Holts – among the wealthiest families in northern England – explained that it was time for everyone to tighten their belts.
Edward protested on behalf of the staff, but to no avail. After a blazing row with Lady Holt, he stormed out, proudly requesting that the family never reveal to anyone that he had worked for them. Their response was to have him blacklisted, in those days a terrible fate. From then on he could only get occasional work as a jobbing gardener in municipal parks, and our fathers grew up sharing a mattress with their brother. Edward was on the right side of history; but he paid a high price.
Although I have long since become inured to horrific stories of the behaviour of the Home Office towards migrants, Dan Hancox’s long read still has the ability to make me ashamed of this country. The forced repatriation of Chinese seamen shortly after the second world war, many of whose colleagues had been killed below decks during the battle of the Atlantic, was neither the first nor the last time that people characterised as “non-desirable aliens” (ie Black and Asian people) have been written out of the history of the UK by the policy and practice of the Home Office.
The same story was played out at the end of the first world war when the state, often supported by local trade unionists, campaigned for the removal of Chinese and Arab seamen who, it was claimed, “had taken their jobs”; Black and Asian soldiers fought in both world wars but were excluded from official accounts and often given no recognition for their bravery; and then there was the Windrush generation, who helped rebuild Britain from the 1950s onwards; and so on and so on.
For more than 300 years, Black and Asian people built not just the British empire but Britain itself. This in itself is a justification for Black history being part of the national curriculum. Despite the honeyed words of the Home Office’s permanent secretary on your letters page two weeks ago (We can be proud of the Home office I lead, 14 May), it is clear that, for the present home secretary and her department, this invisibilisation of the contribution of minorities will continue.
Prof Gary Craig
I was reduced to tears by the callous and unforgivable treatment meted out to Chinese seamen and others who helped to keep the country fed during the second world war, recorded in your long read. The lasting and most atrocious damage was to the wives and families of the ones who had married British women. They were entitled to stay, but that fact was kept hidden and they were bundled off secretly, with no word to the families who thought they’d been deserted.
If I was a person of any standing who could speak for the nation, I would be falling over myself to apologise to these people for the treatment meted out. To Yvonne Foley, Judy Kinnin and Peter Foo, just three mentioned of the many there must be, I offer my personal heartfelt horror and sympathy along with my disgust at how my fellow countrymen behaved and how some still do with their ignorant, racist attitudes.
I felt shame for my country when I read the long read. To think that in 1945 a Labour government was responsible for the forcible deportation of Chinese seamen who had served in the merchant navy during the second world war.
During the Battle of the Atlantic, merchant seamen kept open the lifeline to Britain, supplying arms, raw materials, fuel and food to a country that otherwise would have been starved into submission. They sustained a casualty rate higher than almost every branch of the armed services, and an estimated 27% of merchant seamen died through enemy action. Until May 1941, merchant seamen sailing aboard British ships attacked by enemy action received no pay from the time that their ship sank.
For Chinese seamen to have survived this wartime experience in the merchant navy, only to be deported immediately after the war, is unconscionable. As stated in the article, many of these men were married to English women and had children from that marriage. In most cases, the wives were never to see their husbands again.
To add insult to historical injury, when Kim Johnson, the MP for Liverpool Riverside, asked Boris Johnson to acknowledge the forced repatriations of these Chinese seamen, he “breezily fobbed her off” as your article says. With all the talk of statues being taken down, isn’t there a case to put up a statue in Liverpool to honour these men, their wives and their families? At the very least, our prime minister should apologise for the past actions of the British government, albeit – to its lasting shame – a Labour one.
Mike Owen (former merchant seaman)
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