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Multiculturalism and Racism in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales: Background information when reading The Fortune Men

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The Fortune Men

A novel

by Nadifa Mohamed

The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed X
The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed
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  • First Published:
    Dec 2021, 320 pages

    Paperback:
    Nov 2022, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Chloe Pfeiffer
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About this Book

Multiculturalism and Racism in Tiger Bay, Cardiff, Wales

This article relates to The Fortune Men

Print Review

A bronze statue of a couple and dog symbolizing the arrival of immigrants to Tiger Bay Nadifa Mohamed's novel The Fortune Men takes place in Tiger Bay, the dockland district of the city of Cardiff, Wales. According to the BBC, Tiger Bay, now known as Butetown, is considered Wales' oldest multi-ethnic community and people from over 50 countries have settled there. While she was working on her novel, Mohamed explained in an article for The Guardian that she had become fascinated with the area's diversity: It "nurtured 'multiculturalism' before the word even existed," she wrote. In the 1950s, when The Fortune Men takes place, Bute Road featured "Cypriot barbers, Somali cafes, Jewish pawnbrokers" and "Sam On Wen's Chinese restaurant."

This multiculturalism originated in the early 20th century, when Cardiff was a big global coal producer; at its peak, the docks in the city were exporting around 11 million tons of coal per year. Such an industrial boom created a demand for labor and was a draw for those seeking work. Ships left Wales and came back with sailors and other workers recruited from all over the world.

A lot of articles about Tiger Bay describe the multicultural harmony and interracial marriage in the area. One describes it as a "truly amicable melting pot." But it has a history of racism as well. The Fortune Men may be fiction, but it is based on true events—a Black man falsely accused of murder and even referred to in his trial by his own lawyer as "half child of nature, a half semi-civilised savage." Decades earlier, "race riots," often started by groups of white men targeting Black immigrants with violence, had erupted throughout much of Britain—beginning in Glasgow in January of 1919, moving into parts of England and eventually occurring in Wales in June of the same year.

Riots in Cardiff were largely sparked by the actions of white British soldiers returning home after World War I, who had found a dearth of housing and jobs along with an increased number of immigrants in the neighborhood. The Cardiff riots began on June 11, when white men started attacking the residents of Tiger Bay. Families were forced to stay indoors and arm themselves with stones. Houses were looted and ransacked—a report in the Western Mail said that at one point, a small piano was "dragged out and was hopelessly smashed." The riots lasted four days, and only stopped after local police called in military support; Welsh Regiment troops were sent in on June 14th. According to official reports, three men were killed—one Black man and two white men—and hundreds injured. Of the 30 people arrested, 27 were Black. Those who had initially been attacked in the riots were generally blamed for causing them, and the unrest was followed with deportations of foreign-born residents (some of them Black men who had served in the military during the war alongside their white counterparts).

Today, the race riots perhaps aren't as widely known or taught as part of Wales' history as they ought to be. In 2019, the 100th anniversary of the riots, Shaheen Sutton wrote for the Wales Arts Review that "despite the increasing focus on the diversity of modern Welsh identity…you will struggle to find anything commemorating this historic, important and violent chapter in Welsh social history." There are no "official memorials, no remaining plaque…no public events" to remind people of what happened. As Peter Bradbury, a cabinet member in Cardiff, put it, "Cardiff's diversity is one of its strengths, but you ignore history at your peril."

Immigrant Statues, Cardiff Bay by Philip Halling (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

Article by Chloe Pfeiffer

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Fortune Men. It originally ran in January 2022 and has been updated for the November 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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