‘Alien Seamen’ or ‘Imperial Family’? Race, Belonging and British Sailors of Colour in the Royal Navy, 1939–47

Houghton, Frances (2023). ‘Alien Seamen’ or ‘Imperial Family’? Race, Belonging and British Sailors of Colour in the Royal Navy, 1939–47. The English Historical Review (Early Access).

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/ehr/ceac216


In October 1939, the British Government lifted a formal ‘colour bar’ to military service for the duration of hostilities. Yet despite the state’s rhetoric of a multi-racial, multi-ethnic ‘People’s War’, racial discrimination continued to pervade Britain’s wartime armed forces. In particular, the Royal Navy (RN) fiercely resisted opening up naval service to eligible British men of colour. Providing a fresh critical perspective on wartime Admiralty records, this article establishes that the Second World War catalysed a significant shift from a codified de jure structure of racial exclusion in the Navy, to a more informal system that was rooted in a complex and diffuse web of de facto racist recruiting practices. It demonstrates the ways in which, between the temporary removal of the formal ‘colour bar’ to naval service in 1939 and its permanent abolition in 1947, the RN enacted a series of complicated covert mechanisms that were designed to shut out men of colour by stealth as far as possible. The article also scrutinises a number of letters of protest that were written to the Admiralty on behalf of Black West Indian, Maltese and Anglo-Indian individuals who were denied entry to the Service. These letter-writers collectively sought to expose the Navy’s hidden racial discrimination and to challenge, with varying degrees of individual success, the naval institution’s continued practices of racial exclusion. Overall, this article ascertains how complex and contested meanings of ‘race’, national ‘belonging’ and ‘Britishness’ were invested in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

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