In 1957, Sydney Collins’s academic study of ‘Moslems, Negroes and Chinese’ communities in Tyneside, Wales and Lancashire was published as ‘Coloured Minorities in Britain’. The research is notable not only for being one of the first to focus on Muslim as well as black groups in early post-Second World War Britain, but also due to the balanced, even sympathetic approach Collins took to the many mixed race couples and families he came across during his study. Collins himself was also one of very few black scholars working in British universities at this time.
Collins commenced his career in the University of Edinburgh’s Department of Anthropology at the time of Ralph O’Reilly Piddington and was already in post when Kenneth Little arrived in 1950. His PhD Thesis, awarded by the University of Edinburgh in 1952, was titled ‘“Moslem” and “negro” groupings on Tyneside: a comparative study of social integration in terms of intra-group and inter-group relations’. The following year he is recorded as being an ‘Assistant in Race Relations’ in the University’s Department, then in 1954 a Lecturer in Social Anthropology. Indeed, under the directorship of Professor Kenneth Little, teaching and research in race relations became a key area of study in the department from 1950. During that decade a number of field studies were made by its members, the majority of which discussed the mixed race relationships and populations who were part of the local communities: Michael Banton’s The Coloured Quarter (1955) and White and Coloured (1959), AT Carey’s Colonial Students (1956), Sydney Collins’ Coloured Communities in Britain (1957) and Sheila Patterson’s Dark Strangers ( 1963). Kenneth Little had himself published a study of the black community in Cardiff in 1948 under the title Negroes in Britain (1948).
At the time Collins commenced his research in 1949-51, the Muslim communities in Britain remained to be investigated. The Muslim community in Tyneside then comprised around 1000 persons (including wives) around the dockland area, including a core settlement of 60 families. Male members were immigrants from Aden, Yemen, Somaliland, Egypt, Malaya, and Pakistan. The black group was more scattered and comprised about 150 people. Of the 60 families with Muslim husbands and 39 families with black husbands, the wives of 51 and 32, respectively, were white. Most of the remainder were described as ‘half-caste women of the second generation’. This ethnographic study, according to Searle, ’pioneered many of the traditions of the now more established sociology of ‘race’-relations and even ethnic-relations’, and was widely reviewed at the time in such journals as Man, American Anthropologist, International Affairs, Population, and American Sociological Review.
In Coloured Communities in Britain, Collins devotes much space to discussing mixed marriages and families. What is striking to a modern reader is the complexity and balance with which he discusses their everyday lives, noting the problems, joys and ordinariness they encounter – there are fascinating discussions about the mix of foods eaten at home, alongside more serious examinations of racism, gender and class. Unlike the majority of his contemporaries who seem to view racial mixing largely as problematic, at both an individual and social level, Collins draws attention to the complex set of attitudes experienced and faced by mixed couples, families and people. He notes how prejudice about such relationships, though typical, is not always inevitable, and how attitudes can shift or change or even be non-existent depending on time and place and the individuals involved: ‘However, white parents may not show prejudice towards the coloured man, as is observed from cases in which the coloured man resides at the home of his father-in-law […] Some members of the girl’s family may condone or even support the mixed relationship. These individuals will visit, spend a holiday or live with the couple’. Above all, he highlights the hitherto overlooked ordinary, human face of mixed race couples as simply people falling in love and living their lives: ‘Mixed cohabitation may occur from a number of causes, one being premarital pregnancy […] But more often mutual affection may bring the couple together’.
In addition to this main research, Collins also spent around six months in Jamaica where he was engaged on an intensive study into social mobility in a local community. He was also an active reviewer for journals. His work was funded by Edinburgh University’s Social Science Research Committee, Outlook Tower Association (Stevenson Foundation), and the Carnegie Trust for Scotland. Collins left his post in Edinburgh quite suddenly sometime around 1960 and his subsequent career is not well documented, though it is known that he was working as an adjunct professor at the University of Miami’s Center for Advanced International Studies in the 1980s.
‘The many cases of very happy marriages I found during these enquiries – some so touching in their demonstrations of affection and intimacy that I should never care to describe them in a report – are another example of man’s ability to find for himself a corner of happiness in the midst of an environment so often unfavourable to him’