Woven Together

A brief history of ethnic diversity in Dundee

By Matthew Jarron, Curator of Museum Services, University of Dundee

As a maritime town, Dundee has always been shaped by immigration, including Danish settlers in the 11th century and Flemish in the 12th and 13th. Later, the needs of industry and conflict brought Irish immigrants in the 19th century and Polish during and after the Second World War.

The harbour and docks area were a cultural melting pot, with ships bringing sailors from across the world. Speaking in 1911, the artist John Duncan recalled visits to the harbour as a child: "Strange ships from many strange places… full of foreign folk; swarthy creatures like pirates from the Spanish Main; Chinamen and Hindoos [sic], and an occasional Lapp; lanky blue-eyed Scandinavians talking together an unintelligible tongue."

Dundee’s first Black residents would have come not through immigration but as a result of Empire and slavery. The street name Sugarhouse Wynd is one of the physical reminders of the wealth that was generated in Dundee as a result of trade with the slave-dependent plantations of the Caribbean.

The UCL Slavery database lists 16 individuals or families from Dundee or nearby who profited directly from slavery, but there will undoubtedly have been many more. The most famous case is that of John Wedderburn of Ballindean, who brought the enslaved Joseph Knight back home with him in 1769. Wedderburn was sued by Knight in a freedom suit, establishing the principle that Scots law would not uphold the institution of slavery.

Following the abolition of the Transatlantic slave trade, Dundee continued to benefit from slavery in the USA. The linen industry was the staple trade of Dundee before jute took over in the 1850s, and an important source of income came from selling linen to clothe enslaved people on cotton plantations in USA. Even after the decline of the linen industry, the USA continued to be an important market. During the American Civil War, Dundee merchants cannily sold jute to both sides for tents and sandbags, and as the west opened up to new settlers, Dundee businessmen invested heavily in cattle and railway companies, both of which doubtless involved the exploitation and displacement of native Americans. Today’s Alliance Trust in Dundee arose from this era. 

It is worth noting that Dundee also played a notable role in the anti-slavery movement. Dundonian Frances Wright moved to the USA where she founded the Nashoba Commune, a model farming community in Tennessee where enslaved people could work to earn money to purchase their own freedom and receive an education.

Back home, other active campaigners against slavery in the 19th century included J C Smith of Newport and the Rev George Gilfillan. In 1846, the famous orator and former slave Frederick Douglass visited Dundee and gave one of his most celebrated speeches protesting against the Free Church of Scotland accepting donations from slave-owning American states. Other notable anti-slavery campaigners also came from the USA to speak in Dundee, including William Wells Brown and William and Ellen Craft (all formerly enslaved) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Some of these events were hosted by the Dundee Ladies Anti-Slavery Society, a popular organisation in the 1850s. 

The growth of the jute industry led to strong links being established in India. As well as importing the raw jute from India, Dundee mill managers and mechanics began to develop the industry in Bengal, the first mill opening there as early as 1855. Ultimately, of course, this led to the decline of the industry in Dundee, but brought many jute workers from India to Dundee to study at the Technical College.

It was the city’s higher education institutions that were largely responsible for stimulating ethnic diversity in the local population. The University of Dundee was founded in 1881 as University College, Dundee (UCD). Its main founder Mary Ann Baxter made two important stipulations in her deed of endowment. One was that education be offered equally to “persons of both sexes” and the other (which she placed more stress on) was “the fundamental condition that no student, professor, teacher or other officer… shall be required to make any declaration as to his or her religious opinions”. Thus it could be argued that the University was founded on fundamental principles of non-discrimination. 

Although the majority of students in the early years of UCD came from the immediate area, overseas students began arriving as early as 1896. In the 1910s there was a notable increase in the number of Indian students coming to study Medicine, and after the Great War many more overseas students arrived, mostly from parts of the British Empire. In the 1922-23 session, for example, there were 17 students from India as well as two from Singapore and one from Egypt, all studying Medicine or Science. Among the Indian students was Jainti Dass Saggar, later a popular GP and celebrated as Scotland’s first Asian councillor when he joined Dundee Town Council in 1936. He was later commemorated by the naming of Saggar Street in Dundee.

In 1927 an Islamic Society was formed at UCD, with the stated aims: "1. To remove misconceptions about this religion by arranging intercourse with similar bodies in the University College, Dundee. 2. And generally as a help to co-religionists coming for studies in University College." Before that time there were only a handful of BAME residents in Dundee. The census for 1911 records 71 Indians living in Dundee, but most of these would have been sailors who happened to be in port at the time, rather than permanent residents. In the 1920s and 30s, we know of a number of Indian pedlars, mostly Sikhs and Muslims from the Punjab. Some of these settled permanently, opening market stalls or small shops, but most moved on to larger cities. The 1947 Partition forced Sikhs in Pakistan to move to India. Many left the country instead and a few came to Dundee, again becoming salesmen.  

Partition also meant that most of the jute mills (centred in west Bengal) now belonged to India. East Pakistan (formerly east Bengal) was keen to capitalise on the jute grown there and soon opened its own mills. This led to a large influx of Pakistani students also coming to Dundee Technical College. The war against India in 1971 split the country, with East Pakistan becoming the independent Bangladesh. Many Bangladeshi students in Dundee decided not to return to their war-torn home but instead settled permanently in Dundee.

Some found work in Dundee’s remaining jute mills, which were then suffering a labour shortage due to poor wages and the better employment opportunities available elsewhere. Bowbridge Works in particular became known for employing Indian and Pakistani workers, apparently because one of the foremen had lived for a while in Lahore. This encouraged family and friends of the new workers to move to Dundee as well, and permanent Asian communities developed in the city.   

The late 1960s also saw a growing population of Asian Muslims from Malawi in Africa, which had gained independence in 1964. There was also a growing Chinese community, mostly begun by entrepreneurs from London who recognised the increasing popularity of Chinese restaurants – the first opened c.1960 and there were at least three in Dundee by the end of the decade.

By that time, UCD had become the independent University of Dundee. Staff and student numbers expanded considerably with an increasing emphasis, particularly from the 1990s, on international recruitment. In 1969, the Zimbabwean lawyer Walter Kamba was appointed to the Faculty of Law to teach Jurisprudence & Comparative Law – possibly the first Black academic at the University. He was promoted to Dean of the Faculty in 1977 – the University’s first (and so far only) Black Dean, and probably the first in Scotland.

Another notable appointment was Trinidad-born Sam Selvon as the Arts Council-funded Writer-in-Residence at the University 1973-5 – it was around this time that he co-wrote Pressure, hailed as the UK’s first Black feature film.

Since 1967 there have been many notable Black and minority ethnic graduates and alumni of the University, including:

Gradually, the needs of the growing ethnic minority populations were recognised within the city. In 1969 the Dundee International Women’s Centre was founded as part of an Urban Aid programme in the Hilltown. Its initial focus was to visit immigrant families and to offer help in integrating them into the community, particularly by teaching English. Over the years, its remit has broadened to include numerous cultural and social activities. Originally based in Church Street, it later moved to Lyon Street and since 2006 has been based in Manhattan Works. It now has over 500 members.

The first mosque in Dundee was opened by what became the Dundee Islamic Society on Erskine Street in 1969, soon moving to larger premises on Hilltown. The current mosque on Miln Street / Brown Street opened in 2000, on a site chosen because of its proximity to both universities. Dundee now has four mosques around the city.

In 1973, the Dundee (later Tayside) Community Relations Council was founded. In 1987 it published a landmark report into racism in the city, which proved highly controversial but played a vital part in making both the police and local politicians aware of the scale of the problem. In 1989 they helped to organise a Racism Awareness Day School in the Steps Theatre. The organisation was renamed Tayside Racial Equality Council in c.1994 and continued until 2002 when its funding was withdrawn.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a notable increase in the number and visibility of BAME organisations. The Tayside Asian Cultural Association was formed in 1987 and received funding from the Scottish Arts Council for several years in the early 1990s. It organised various cultural events and courses in both Dudhope Arts Centre and Bonar Hall.

In 1989 an Asian Action Group for Tayside was formed, mostly by local businessmen. It seems to have continued until the early 2000s. The Bangladeshi Association (which still exists today) had also been formed by this time. Around 1990 an Anti-Racist Forum was formed for the city, involving representatives of several organisations.

In 1988, Dundee Art Galleries & Museums began a major project to research and document the immigrant populations in the city, leading to a landmark exhibition at the McManus Galleries in 1990 called The Miles Tae Dundee.

In 1995, the Bharatiya Ashram was founded as a charity by the local Indian community. It opened its first premises in Russell Place the following year, aimed particularly at activities for the over-50s. It later took over the Dudhope Arts Centre and has redeveloped it into a Multicultural Centre. A major refurbishment of the centre took place in 2008. Members of their popular Indian dance classes regularly perform across Scotland.

Sadly, the increasing public visibility of ethnic minorities in the city led to an equally visible increase in racism. In 1990 the BNP held its first rally in Dundee, though in response a much larger group gathered under the banner of Dundee Anti-Fascist Committee. That same year the local council’s Equal Opportunities Unit in South Tay Street was covered with extreme right-wing posters. In 1993 the police recorded a 50% rise in reports of racial harassment, particularly in the Hilltown area – this led to Dundee being dubbed “the Scottish capital for racial harassment”. Thankfully, figures fell after that but worryingly have been increasing again in recent years.

The 1991 census was the first to record ethnicity. It revealed that 2% of the Dundee population was made up of ethnic minorities. By 2011 that had grown to 6%, and the 2021 census is likely to reveal a further increase.

Several new organisations have been formed since the Millennium. The Al-Maktoum Institute for Arabic & Islamic Studies was established in 2001. Now renamed Al-Maktoum College of Higher Education, it has recently built amosque on its campus for the local Muslim population.

The Yusuf Youth Initiative was set up in 2004 by a group of young enthusiasts keen to improve their society. The group has since undertaken a number of community projects on a local and national scale.

Dundee also benefits from local branches of national organisations, including the One World Centre and Amina (the Muslim Women’s Resource Centre).

In 2021-22, the University of Dundee Museums are working with the Abertay Historical Society and Dundee City Council to run a community research project exploring more of this diverse history. Book here for the launch event and find out more about the project here.

 

With thanks to Ajit Trivedi and Kenneth Baxter for additional information

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