When Butetown was being built up, as it hoisted itself up on steel, flexed its muscles on the back of coal, and dipped its toes into the sea, it took pride in a population formed from over fifty foreign nations. This was certainly the case by the time Archduke Ferdinand took the bullet, blasting us into World War One.
The cutting of the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, had connected the lip of the Red Sea in a Mediterranean kiss across Egypt’s heart, cutting the journey time between Britain and Asia, and bringing Somalian sailors to the coal-quick port of Cardiff. Some came, some went. Some never went home, feeling, as it happened, quite at home in Cardiff, settling in between the Greeks and the Arabs, the Chinese and French, the Yemense and Irish and dozens more besides. In a sea port, significant throughout the world, with imports and exports, pubs a foot apart, cultures were crammed together, rubbed shoulders, held hands.
Religions worked it out between themselves, laying foundations in the soil and in society. The first Mosque in Wales first peeped its head onto Peel Street, a make-shift mosque made from a trio of houses. Bombed during the next World War, a new Mosque took shape in 1947 only to be replaced in 1988 by the Mosque of today. Across the way in a now non-existent East Terrace, the Jewish shopkeepers and pawnbrokers of Bute Street brought the first synagogue to Cardiff in 1858, having outgrown the rented rooms of Trinity Street.
There were Welsh speaking chapels and Huguenot churches churned out by French exiles, and the beautiful byzantine Greek Orthodox Church, breathing in the air since 1906, boasting the name of Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors. At the head of West Bute Dock was St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, crowded by Irish immigrants, slowly squeezing out the Welsh speaking Anglican Church of All Saints all the way across the bridge to Adamsdown. It was, for a while, a daughter church of St Mary’s whose own memory had been resurrected in 1843, and which stands, twin towered, at the top lip of Bute Street.
Race relations weren’t always rosy. In the sailors strike of 1911, Chinese laundries and lodging houses were set ablaze, and some white people felt their living threatened by ‘blackleg’ labourers who stepped across the picket line. There are always cracks.
Life was different then, of course, and much the same. Different times, but the same stubborn human nature, naturally inclined to difference, yet inquisitive, open minded, fascinating, frightening. It’s not the same Butetown that some people speak of today, that some seem to remember. But what kind of community worth its weight stands still, stands back?
The “immigration question” juggled about today, and which has become Referendum rife, wasn’t so much a question then, it seems, but a statement of fact, an answer to the need, a natural response to the way things were, the way things were going, the way things needed to be in order for a community to grow, for a town to become a city, for a city to become the capital of a country which is surrounded by sea on three sides, and shares a border which hasn’t itself always experienced a happy coming and going. The UK, for a while, appears to be divided. There is nothing new under the sun. Not whilst we all live under the same sun.