Scottish Trade Unionists in the Diaspora

Today is May Day – an opportune moment to think about some of the contributions Scottish trade unionists have made in the diaspora. To South Africa, for example, some Scots brought with them their ideas of trade unionism and the organisation of labour, becoming heavily involved in the South African labour movement, as well as the syndicalist movement. The most notable of the syndicalists was James Thompson Bain. Born in Dundee in 1860, Bain had joined the British Army at an early age and was sent to Pretoria in the late 1870s, fighting alongside Boer soldiers against the Zulus. Bain went on to serve in India in the early 1880s, before returning to Scotland for a while. It was there that his interest in the labour movement was first honed. It was in South Africa, however, where Bain’s socialist ethos would leave its most lasting imprint. After his arrival in the Rand in 1890, Bain was involved, for instance, in setting up the Witwatersrand Mine Employees’ and Mechanics’ Union. Bain was also among those welcoming James Keir Hardie to the Rand in 1908. So involved did Bain become that he was actually deported shortly before WWI for fear of his acting as agitator and leader of a miners’ strike. Bain eventually returned to South Africa in 1914. Yet while Bain was fighting for workers’ rights, he was never concerned with the rights of black labour. As Jonathan Hyslop has argued, the history of Scots in Africa is closely ‘entwined with the history of racial domination in Empire.’ That said, there was also a strong representation of Scots among a non-racialist movement, including for instance Alexander Seaton Raitt and John Reid.

For more details on Bain, see: Jonathan Hyslop, The Notorious Syndicalist: J.T. Bain: A Scottish Rebel in Colonial South Africa (Johannesburg, 2004).

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