Let’s take a walk. Beginning at the city-end of Bute Street you see a railway bridge and embankment – this has been the demarcation line of Butetown and ‘the city’ since the nineteenth century. In the small houses of Crichton Street to the right and John Street to the left, you hear the unmistakeable voices of the Greek and Cypriot population. A few yards closer to the sea and the complexion begins to change and the din of Greek replaced by Arabic. You stand on the corner of Maria Street and the heart of Butetown lies before you. Here, along the magnificent stretch of decaying Victoriana, are the Chinese takeaways, the Chinese laundries, opium dens and the late-night cafés run by the Maltese. The latter, complained the city police, employed ‘immoral women as waitresses, and they nefariously commercialise vice’. It was later claimed that 9 of every 10 cases of the clap diagnosed by doctors in the valleys had been caught in a Maltese café on Bute Street. We are at Loudoun Square now and you hear a new set of voices: Caribbean creole. You see children playing on the swings on the little garden at the centre; you see some out of work sailors playing pitch ‘n’ toss on the pavement and group of boys watching them. You move on and come across large buildings flying flags from Argentina to Norway to Venezuela and Japan, you see sailors just off the ships and the well-dressed merchants and clerks heading for the tram. This is the administrative centre of sailortown, the pilotage office, the police station, the sailor’s rest and the exchange buildings are all here, as are the houses of the Spanish and other Europeans who can afford to live in the nicer bit of Butetown. You can see the sea in the distance but below you, as you stand on the pier head, is mud.
The former docklands of Cardiff are home to one of the oldest multi-ethnic communities in Britain and have regularly informed the study of race relations beginning with Kenneth Little’s pioneering book Negroes in Britain (sic) published in the 1940s to more recent examinations of the dangerous and deadly riots of 1919. To contemporaries such as Havelock Wilson, the General Secretary of the Seamen’s Union, this was ‘the dumping ground of Europe’; to historians today, however, this is a window into modern, multicultural Britain. All the facets of a sailortown were there, as one leading priest put it in the 1890s: ‘bad homes, drinking, loose ways, rampant immorality, dancing saloons, temptations all around’. Estimates – not to mention much gossip – of why venereal disease was present in large numbers of people in the coalfield tended to focus on the late-night cafés and chop suey restaurants on Bute Street that were run by the Maltese and Chinese. The former, it was claimed, operated much like the godfathers of sex. Little wonder, then, that the rest of the city of Cardiff chose to ignore Butetown and actively avoid it if possible. The den of vice was the apparently dodgy cousin.
This was, contrary to popular perception, a community of strong religious feeling and community activism – one of Britain’s earliest mosques was built in Butetown. It provided much support for the Labour Party; the leading civil rights body of the inter-war years – the League of Coloured Peoples – had its largest branch in Butetown; and even the Communist Party enjoyed a strong degree of grassroots support in its heyday. Much of this activism was channelled into a single institution: the Coloured International Cricket Club (later the Coloured International Athletic Club) which was founded, without ceremony, in the summer of 1917. Within a year there were 250 members. Whilst much of the early history of the Kayaks is lost, by the late-1920s they were playing in the Cardiff and District League against sides in the city and nearby Barry. Throughout the inter-war years, the club suffered fluctuating fortunes and on occasion did not appear. In the winter months, cricketers often played soccer and a handful of clubs emerged in the district to cater for them including the Cardiff third division side, Trinidad FC.
It was cricket, however, that galvanised the community and it was photographs of cricketers and successive Kayak teams that adorned the walls of homes and barbershops in Butetown. After the Second World War, this older attachment to cricket was challenged by a new passion: rugby football. Younger men, who had learned the game in the armed forces, broke away from the Kayaks and set up their own rugby club. It shattered the previously harmonious and singular channel of local pride and aspiration in the process. Fatefully, the rugby club struggled to secure playing space and they agreed to amalgamate with the cricket club to form the Coloured International Athletic Club. The year was 1946. Out of the Kayaks came justly famous sports stars including the rugby league player Billy Boston. Still today the club holds as its mission the embrace of all races and religions in order to prove that all peoples can live together in harmony as one community. It is an ideal that the rest of Cardiff learned from the people it tried to forget.