A Home Away from Home: The West Indies House, newcastle 1941-1945
The North East had long been home to a number African and Caribbean men, the majority of whom had arrived aboard ships. These sailors greatly contributed to Britain's maritime power. They maintained ties with other communities throughout the Americas and Africa.
One of the most prominent abolitionists of the late 18th century, Olaudah Equiano, spent most of his life at sea before gaining his freedom. Equiano toured the North East in 1792 while campaigning against slavery and the slave trade.
When steam-powered ships replaced sail in the 1860s and 1870s, Black sailors were often confined to the engine rooms, working in extremely high temperatures for low wages. They often settled in port cities where they had access to employment opportunities other than shipping. They could also ask for higher wages if they set sail from a British port rather than from West Africa or the Caribbean.
Black sailors experienced discrimination and sometimes outright violence. In 1919, in the midst of a severe economic depression, violent attacks erupted across the country. Angry mobs of unemployed returning servicemen targeted boarding houses. In Liverpool, they chased one Afro-Caribbean man, Charles Wootten and pushed him into the water; they pelted him with stones until he drowned.
Essay by Vanessa Mongey
Superintendent Koi O' Larbi standing standing in front of a sign West Indies House - Sailors Hostel © IWM (D 5765)
Following these attacks, the government passed a series of regulations that marginalized seafaring migrants. The 1919 Aliens Restriction Act obliged foreign nationals to register with the police for a fee, This act further restricted the employment rights of foreigners living in Britain. Although West Indians and West Africans were imperial subjects and not formally classified as "aliens," many were harassed because of this hostile legislation. Another act, the Coloured and Alien Seaman Order of 1925 went further and categorized non-white sailors as aliens unless proven otherwise. In practice, it institutionalized a colour bar in the British shipping industry since registering births and issuing passports was not a uniform practice across the British Empire.
Accommodating seafarers and workers during World War II
World War II broke out in September 1939. Britain's colonial subjects served in the armed force, as sailors for the merchant navy, as munition workers, and as foresters. Many lodgers refused to rent to them. About 300 West African and West Indian sailors became stranded in the North East at the outbreak of the war. The British Sailors Society opened a boarding house at 14-16 Lovaine Place in Newcastle in October 1941. a second hostel opened in North Shields in May 1942. This link to another page on the Paths Across the Waters website provides more information).
To convince more sailors to move to Newcastle, a hundred posters were printed and sent over ports in Britain, the Caribbean and West Africa. The Colonial Office took over the administration of the hostel in June 1942. The Colonial Office worried about the treatment of Black sailors,
‘We think it’s about time that the people of this country began to treat the coloured community as
fellow citizens, rather than intruders and aliens, as they have been inclined to do so in the past.’
Shields Daily News, 28 June 1841
Sailors were not the only group facing difficult employment and housing conditions. Between 700 and 900 workers from British Honduras (today’s Belize) volunteered for logging work in Scotland. The workers complained about low wages, threadbare clothing and inadequate cabins. They sometimes travelled to Newcastle while on leave and stayed at the West Indies House. When the British Honduran Forestry Unit dissolved in 1944, about 250 of the foresters remained in Britain. About half of them sought employment in the North East and lived in the West Indies House until they could find more permanent accommodations.
Koi O’ Larbi: barrister, superintendent, and anticolonial advocate
Most hostels of this type employed white supervisors, but the superintendent of the West Indies House was Koi Obuadabang Larbi from the Gold Coast (today’s Ghana). A 28 years old barrister, he had studied law at King’s College (today's Newcastle University). He suspended his career to oversee the West Indies House. He was the first Black man to hold the appointment of missioner in the British Sailor’s Society.
O'Larbi was set on creating a "home away from home." For instance, libraries did not let people of African descent use their facilities so he launched a book donation drive, insisting that "little home life is open to [British Hondurans] because of their colour and a library is an urgent need." He actively worked with students at the nearby university and with Charles Minto in North Shields.
O'Larbi organised concerts. He even convinced the BBC to record some broadcasts in the hostel and highlighted "just how strong the coloured peoples on Tyneside were." The BBC interviewed him and other West Africans and West Indians working or studying in the region.
After a few clashes with the Colonial Office, notably over his salary, O'Larbi left the West Indies House and pushed for the right to self-determination in the British Empire. A member of the Pan-African Federation, he attended the All-Colonial Peoples (or Subject Peoples) Conference in London in 1945 that advocated for "the unconditional and immediate ending of all colonial systems' and the end of 'all racial and discriminatory laws."
With the end of the World War II, many hoped that peace would bring freedom and equality for all, including for those living under colonial rule. Calls for independence grew louder. As the richest and most educated territories in West Africa, the Gold Coast had long experienced manifestations of nationalism and calls for self-government. O'Larbi returned to the Gold Coast and supported the colony gaining its independence in 1957 as the country of Ghana.