At one time, 60 different cultures inhabited a small quarter of Cardiff
The 1950s British suspense film Tiger Bay offers a momentary but tantalising glimpse of the multiracial Cardiff dockland district of the same name as a lively Caribbean wedding party spills out into the street, briefly lifting the gloom of post-war Britain.
For outsiders, the area’s associations with race continued with local girl Shirley Bassey, the daughter of a Nigerian seaman and English woman, whose belting voice found her fame and fortune.
Tiger Bay, part of a wider district known as Butetown, is the most cosmopolitan part of Wales thanks to Cardiff’s growth as Britain’s largest coal exporting port towards the end of the 19th century.
The expansion of the port and ancillary industries attracted immigrants from all over the world and by the 1960s, when the docks were beginning to go into decline, there was a well established multiracial community with a flavour all of its own.
‘Within the one square mile of Tiger Bay there were more than 50 different cultures, including Inuit and Apache,’ explains Nicky Delgado, a local writer.
Among the largest communities were Somalians, West Africans, Yemenis and Chinese, mostly seaman who had decided to settle in the city.
‘Cardiff has the oldest racially integrated community in Europe,’ says Delgado, who belongs to a well known local family.
‘There was a huge intermixing of people and you would get two or three nationaliies in a single family, not to mention more than one religion.’
Delgado, 58, has been researching the area’s facinating history for some time, using his own West African background as a starting point.
‘My grandfather came over from Cape Verde in the 1900s as a seaman and set up a boarding house,’ he explains.
‘He met my grandmother in a cafe in Barry. She’s also from Cape Verde and they eventually set up home together.’
He believes that seafarers from Cape Verde, a group of islands off the West African coast, were the first immigrants to settle in Tiger Bay, arriving in Cardiff in the 1800s and even earlier.
Apart from the jobs bounty that the Welsh capital once offered, he believes it was the friendliness of the local people themselves that persuaded seafarers to stay on.
That may be so, but the wider society historically regarded Tiger Bay as a den of iniquity, where crime and prostitution flourished. After World War l, the seamen were additonally accused of stealing local jobs, and three black people were killed in Cardiff during five days of rioting.
A number of official reports in the 1920s and ‘30s berated ‘coloured pests’ for their laziness, lack of hygene and propensity for general badness, claims that were gleefully seized upon by the Western Mail newspaper. ‘Half-caste’ children inheriting the ‘vicious hereditary taint of their parents’ were also a popular target.
According to the book Black Wales by Alan Llywd, such hostility encouraged the people of Butetown to begin working together to establish a true community: ‘This…was the beginning of the legendary Tiger Bay of multiracial harmony and tolerance: a defensive inner world to safeguard against an offensive outside world.’
In the 1960s, Cardiff City Council began a slum clearance programme that was to change Tiger Bay forever.
‘Elderly people were moved out and two large tower blocks were built to replace street housing,’ recalls Delgado.
‘You would no longer walk down the road and bump into your neighbours or chat on the doorstep. The whole social structure started to be changed.’
Now with the disappearance of industry, Butetown has gone the way of other dockland areas to become a trendy enclave of the city, full of luxury flats, trendy shops and smart offices.
‘Local people were not able to put up enough of an organised resistance to redevopment and the change around here has been fundamental,’ adds Delgado.
But while the original Tiger Bay community has shrunk it has reinvented itself in other neighbourhoods that were once ‘white’, like nearby Grangetown.
In the meantime, cultural activists like Delgado are working hard to sustain what’s left of Tiger Bay, as well as create a living history of an area that is unique in Britain.
Black History 365/October 2007/ www.black-history-month.co.uk