Somali Seafarers in Wales

bute town

Recent Somali migration to the UK has been widely documented but much less is known about the ‘first wave’ of migrants in Britain. Due to the historical importance of Britain’s maritime trade, Somali seafarers have been have been living and working in the country since the mid 1800s. Young Somali men – as well as large numbers of Arabs (from the Yemen in particular) – worked from ports such as Cardiff, South Shields and Liverpool and many eventually settled down and raised families locally.

Aiming to document some of this history, I recently completed a project based at the Islam-UK Centre at Cardiff University, researching the history of Muslims in South Wales. Focussing on Yemeni and Somali seafarers, Dr Gilliat-Ray and I examined the photographic and documentary evidence from the Butetown History and Arts Centre.

We collaborated with the Somali Integration Society, based in Cardiff, working on the “Four Generations Project” (2009–2010), which added to the research base. Most significantly, we conducted indepth interviews with elders who have been living and working in the city for at least two generations. We chatted to the men about their experiences of living in South Wales, their work on the ships and their experiences of practicing Islam. We were lucky enough to interview Sheikh Said, one of the longest-serving Imams in the UK. Over the course of a year I spoke to Sheikh Saeed Ismail – a British Yemeni – several times about his important religious work in Cardiff and about the strong relationships within the Yemeni community in South Wales. Sadly Sheikh Saeed passed away in 2011, after five decades of serving his community.

Throughout the course of the research it became apparent that Somali and Yemeni communities enjoyed particularly close-knit bonds, a relationship that was based upon a shared religious and minority ethnic position. Another significant finding was the establishment of Islam within the communities, particularly in relation to the mosques and Maktabs (Islamic schools for children). There was a number of conversions among the local Welsh community, notably the women who became romantically attached to the seafarers.

Further information on the history of Somalis and Yemenis in Cardiff is documented by the Butetown History and Arts Centre

and at the National History Museum of Wales

The publications from our research project are listed below:

Gilliat-Ray, S. and Mellor, J. (2010) ‘Bilad al-Welsh (Land of the Welsh): Muslims in Cardiff, South Wales – past, present, and future’, The Muslim World, 100 (4): 452-475

Gilliat-Ray, S (2010) ‘The First Registered Mosque in the UK, Cardiff, 1860’: the evolution of a myth. Contemporary Islam, 4 (2): 179-193

Mellor, J. and Gilliat-Ray, S. (forthcoming) ‘The early history of migration and settlement of Yemenis in Cardiff, 1939 to 1970: Religion and ethnicity as social capital’, Ethnic and Racial Studies.

Piece by Jody Mellor

I’m a research assistant working on the Paired Peers Project at the University of Bristol and am mummy of two children under two years old.

Jody Mellor’s Blog

5 thoughts on “Somali Seafarers in Wales

  • 12th October 2012 at 11:29 am

    There is some info on the British Somali Society and the Somali Youth League in my artricle, ‘Racism and Resistance: Cardiff in the 1930s and 1940s’, Llafur, 8/4, 1991, pp.51-70.

    Readers might also be interested in Richard Lawless, From Ta’Izz to Tyneside: an Arab Communiy in the North-East of England During the Early Twentieth Century, University of Exeter Press, 1995

    • 15th March 2016 at 9:45 pm

      I bought Richard Lawless ‘s book but for what ever reason I didn’t finish reading it. Some of my books are still in storage, namely in a shed,after a house move and marriage. I will read it, as a sort out my library. My family were Liverpool Welsh seafarers, even so both my grandfather and father sailed for NE companies. Dad was a marine engineer and sailed with Hunting tankers, that had South Shields based Yemeni seafarers. South Shields is a fascinating place, very diverse, with many Bengali residents to.

  • 8th January 2013 at 2:35 am

    It’s vital to record African Diaspora events considering the way its often said that there were extremely minute numbers of Blacks of any nationality in the UK
    prior to WWII.

    • 15th January 2013 at 1:16 pm

      I completely agree. Often it’s down to ignorance. When I was at school it was taught that black people arrived in Britain after WW2. We now know that was not the case, although “mass immigration from the caribbean did take place after the end of the Second world war. People just parrot these so called facts, undermining Black British History.

  • 15th March 2016 at 9:32 pm

    Sounds a very interesting project, re Somali community in Cardiff. Googled the subject as I’ve just seen the last programme of three on the River Taff. The presenter met retired Somali seamen, wonderful listening to the old guys. My family were Liverpool Welsh seafarers, dad was a chief engineer and his father was in deep sea sail. So I was brought up with the fact that seafarers were from all over the world. I’m very aware of the Somali community in Liverpool and the fact that the black community in Liverpool existed, more than a hundred years before 1945. A neurologist, Andrew Lees, has produced a history of Liverpool…The Hurricane Port. It is very cutting in its analysis on how the long standing black community in Liverpool was viewed and treated. For example, the post Toxteth disturbance police reports are embarrassing for their racism and stereotyping.


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