LONG READ: The Alternative History Behind the Windrush Scandal
Having grown up in close proximity to the Windrush Generation as a grandchild and great-grandchild of Jamaican and Grenadian migrants, watching the crisis unravel since 2018 struck a nerve. Before my paternal Jamaican grandparents moved from Staffs to Spain, I once upon a time would have been roaming around their house to see photographs harking back to their lives in the 1960s and 1970s. But today, I can only easily visit my maternal grandparents to see such photos of Black Northants in this era, in the years that followed numbers of Caribbean arrivals by air and sea.
In this response to the Windrush Scandal, I hope to shed some light from a perspective the national press did not, one that includes a violent British history of anti-Blackness dating back to the 17th century. Moreover, I hope to thread parts of my family story through this narrative to show a face of the Windrush Generation outside of the more known narratives of Britain’s major cities. However, through the pandemic, the work NorFAMtoN have done with the doorstep scheme has acted as a lifeline to local communities. When I joined the team later on, the sentiment echoed that of what we saw earlier during the pandemic: that whilst this work is needed, the labour of volunteers, physical and emotional, is unsustainable.
And much alike Marcus Rashford’s campaigning for free school children’s meals vouchers— the existence of this service, also seeks to fill a gap in labour that should have been filled by local authority bodies, showing their failure to act for the communities they serve.
Nonetheless, despite the toil and trauma of Coronavirus, it was a blessing to see the smiles and laughter of my grandparents and their generation due to the work NorFAMtoN have done as this scheme has been a lifeline — a physical lifeline to some, an emotional and social lifeline to others. Yet, whilst they gave us their thanks for their hampers, it is us that really should be thanking them for their years of service, so we can have some of the privileges that we second and third-generation Black Caribbeans enjoy today, COVID or not.
‘Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack’
This would be a relevant time to echo the late great author and critic Toni Morrison in saying “the function … of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work.” The ear-splitting, shattering and discordant clamour that arrived at the peak of the 2018 crisis is no different, when people that had in some cases been here since just after the Second World War were being gaslighted by the Government on their right to belong. Literally overnight — many lost jobs, pensions, homes, and right to healthcare. Those who were detained in immigration prisons, we the public were sheltered from the trauma of this ordeal that no number of news articles could recreate. I do not even know myself, I think sometimes you just have to be there.
Windrush victims Antony Bryan and Northampton’s Ivan Anglin might be more fortunate, they are still alive. Windrush campaigner Sarah O’Connor was dead at 57 years old, and Windrush activist Paulette Wilson that faced deportation, was dead at 64 last July. Anyone would have a hard job trying to convince me that the racism and stress of this crisis did not help these two pioneers into an early grave. Since the Coronavirus, as Black people we know that high levels of stress compromise the immune system. How about being Black in 21st century Britain? That though I have grown up seeing the smiles and laughter of members of my family and our friends, there is so much pain and loss behind their eyes. There, I can see the sorrow of not just the Windrush but also their children and their grandchildren where racism has become normalised. Socialised into our being. That’s how multigenerational trauma continues. A young Black boy dies to knife crime: he is remembered, mourned and forgotten in a matter of seconds. He is remembered by the families but forgotten by the media. And then there are stories of traumatised and abused Black mothers in healthcare where they are up to four times more likely to die in childbirth or from complications than their White colleagues. Before they decide to have children, there is a legitimate fear that as Black women, they won’t be taken seriously because of rampant misogynoir in the British healthcare system.
What about disproportionate stop and searches of Black males? Going back to the 1970s and 1980s when men like my father were being stopped as boys, the trauma that occurs after these boys and men are being routinely stopped by police officers across British towns and cities continues, and thus compromises their immune systems.
When MP David Lammy gave his address in 2018, I knew the Windrush Scandal was here to stay. It was here to make roots. These roots were as well-planted as my great-grandparents when they came here in hope of a better life. Herein, thinking about future generations that would fare better because of their choices, my maternal great-grandparents Toiley and Edison Noel were playing a game of chess over fifty years in the making. Just the same as my paternal Jamaican great-grandparents Ken and Jessica Parks did, along with James and Esther Griffiths. However, the British didn’t come with swords and mortar fire like they did before, but the pen. Though, bloodless violence is still violent and it came to roost in all Black and Brown homes across Britain.
If the Windrush were not safe, this threw all immigrants into question, postcolonial citizens or not. First colonised, then enslaved, now repatriated to countries they had not seen since childhood … to die of their wounds.
The Return of ‘Race Science’
In her book Superior, science journalist Angela Saini investigates the origins of race. In the present day we are in a time where so many have new obsessions with DNA ancestry tests. Even in my own circles, I have witnessed an increase in this interest of knowing our ancestry — from people of varied ethnic groups and backgrounds. However, in the rise of ‘culture wars’, the resurgence of the far-right, and fake news, there are many people with a belief in race as biological. Race is a social construct, where in fact everyone on the planet shares 99% of their DNA with everyone else on the planet. Yet, in the early days of the British Empire, these so-called ‘scientists’ produced racial hierachies that firmly placed Black people of African descent at the bottom.
These ‘scientists’ viewed Black people to be less than human where Angela Saini writes “… Arthur de Gobineau … proposed there were three races [where] ‘the negroid variety is the lowest and stands at the foot of the ladder’” (p53). Our primary understanding of race is because of colonialism and thus so is our understandings of the creation of the White-Black binary born in the mid-17th century — as author Emma Dabiri states: “where from 1661, in colonial Barbados … the English invented and codified into law the idea of a White race and a Black race” — as an initial precursor and justification for the enslavement of Black Africans, and thus elevation of White superiority.
The fact the Windrush are still being treated in the way they are is a reflection on the rest of British society, where Black people are still on the lowest rungs of the ‘unwritten’ so-called social order in a similar way as the 17th century.
Hear Our Ancestors’ Call
Stories about colonialism were common at home. When I say home, I am referring to my maternal grandparents’ house. My mom and dad’s was not home, it was just where my house was. Whether we were going to Grandma’s for a family get-together or dinner, or anything at all, I remember as a child hearing stories about enslavement and slave plantations in Grenada. Today, when I hear discussions on ‘how young is to young?’ to teach (White) children about racism, colonialism and enslavement, I often remember back to watching Roots for the first time with my late great Auntie Luisa when I was six or seven years old. At family functions like parties, weddings, christenings and even at funerals or wakes, these conversations were electric and the stuff of pure drama, very common amongst members of the Windrush elders.
As a boy, I loved to sit and listen to this history that embodied African oral storytelling traditions and these go back centuries. So, hearing these debates now and discussions around ‘how young is to young’ for (White) children to learn about colonialism — I find it laughable when many Black children grew up around these stories I did. This is what we talked about whilst having dinner. What’s more, when I talk to my colleagues of South Asian heritage, they tell me they grew up talking to family members about British colonialism on the Indian subcontinent, including the 1947 partition of India.
Additonally, talking about their heritage which in some cases charts Indian migration into Uganda and Kenya, other British colonies — it makes it even more shocking to hear these debates when there has been research showing White children have a predisposed racial bias in favour of White children over Black and Brown children. Whilst these tales about colonialism from the Windrush may have taken on embellishments over time, I believe the wildest narratives like Robin Hood (I think) were inspired by some fact somewhere.
What I couldn’t do with these stories at the time is put them into a context linking those slave-trading exploits with the trajectory of anti-Blackness we still see today that started in the early 1600s (in a manner of speaking).
To my knowledge, to chart this history of anti-Blackness that so impacted members of the Windrush we must go back to 1627.
Barbados: in the early 17th century, a group of thereabouts fifty settlers from Britain travelled to Barbados. They wanted to change this country into farmland and with them, they brought indentured labourers that sold their labour for usually a period of five years. Indentured labour is not enslavement but this workforce were badly treated. Today, many of us would not tolerate such treatment, especially those of us involved in unions and organising. But back in the 17th century, this was before anyone thought about unionising or picketing, and these workers did suffer abusive work conditions. However, it wasn’t enslavement, but they were badly treated and were not free either.
In Britain’s Forgotten Slave-Owners Prof. David Olusoga tells us these workers were ‘contracted’ to a number of masters, including James Drax and Christopher Codrington (as in Oxford’s Codrington Library), pioneers of the slave trade where in the colony’s early years it farmed cotton, indigo and tobacco. It was later that they began to cultivate sugar, which many of us link the success of British human trafficking expeditions today. Sugarcane was an import into the Caribbean from the Pacific island country New Guinea and it was brought there by the Portuguese. Lead by James Drax, industrialising sugarcane was the beginning of the use of enslaved labour on an industrial scale. David Olusoga also tells us that on their way to Barbados, these early settlers seized a Portuguese ship and ten Africans onboard, and they became the first enslaved African people in what became the British West Indies.
These enslaved Black people were the first of many because of the back-breaking labour required to produce sugar, a time-sensitive task that killed many enslaved during enslavement. The British were not the first to embark on enslavement but they really capitalised on a system that was established in this context by the Dutch and Portuguese. However, the British took that system and perfected it in that ‘triangular trade’ that some of us may have been taught about at school. An indentured labourer belonged to his master for five years where enslaved people were there for life. Though indentured labourers were cheaper, the long-term nature of enslavement made more economic sense to the plantocracy since as Reni Eddo-Lodge writes, “children born into slavery were the default property of slaveowners, and this meant limitless labour at no extra cost. That reproduction was made all the easier by the routine rape of African women slaves by white slave owners” (p5).
David Olusoga continues to show us the time-sensitive nature of harvesting sugarcane since as soon as you cut into the crop, the juice quickly ferments so the moment it is cut, the plant needs “to be rushed to the next part of the process.” To get the best out of the yield, enslaved Black people were forced to work through the night and this was the first industry to use what today we now know as the 24-hour shift system. The advanced nature of the sugarcane industry’s industrial farming endured into the 20th century, but Africans arriving onto the island during the era of enslavement only had a life expectancy of seven years. Following Dabiri’s comments on the White-Black binary, we begin to see the trajectory of White British contempt for the lives of Black people on those islands. So, is it surprising, that the Windrush Scandal happened as it did, where many victims died before they were compensated?
This labour could only be done because of this system of violence. What’s more, that came with the routine rape of enslaved Black women and thus the subjugation of their children, and the cycle continues. This plantation model was then reproduced on other islands under British rule, including my own family’s islands, Grenada and Jamaica where my own ancestors’ lives were consumed in this system of domination. When we look at remenants of enslavement, we cannot argue with Olusoga’s assessment where he claims this system was “medieval in its brutality.” Those of us educated in the UK will have learned about medieval tools and implements of torture, and enslavement was no different — where like-tools were systems of White terrorism, and moral objections did not supersede the vast wealth generated for those with vested interest. Barbados in particular, was the world’s first slave society and this society is very different to a society that happened to have enslaved people.
It was an entirely ruthless society built to be completely dependent on the labour of enslaved people “with no alternative sources of economic development” as West Indian historian Hilary Beckles states. Much akin to what I talked about earlier in the context of ‘race scientists’, the Barbados slave codes (1661) describe Black people as ‘heathenish’ and ‘brutish’, and this is early racism that relegated Black people to the lowest rungs of the social order linking Englishness to Whiteness and Blackness to Other.
“The English arrived in the Caribbean already with a fully formed racist and racial view about other people, especially African peoples. But the market conditions enabled an existing … racist mentality to take root in the economic and financial management and so you build an economy that is reflecting your state of mind.” — Hilary Beckles, (Britain’s Forgotten Slaveowners)
Although many claim that enslavement is well in the past, is it? Having spoken to diversities of people on this subject since I was a kid years ago, I cannot help but feel we still have not come to terms with its legacy. We came close to a national conversation in Britain following the Murder of George Floyd, where Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol — a 17th century philanthropist that made his money working for the Royal African Company, headed by James Duke of York later as James II.
The name Ventour comes from my maternal grandfather’s family. He himself was born in St George’s, Grenada in 1943. His father was Cyprian and his father was reportedly a man called Christmas (so my great-great grandfather) named so because he was born on Christmas. I am told that Christmas was more than likely the son of an enslaved person. It’s as direct as that. The people named as beneficiaries on UCL’s Legacies for British Slave-Ownership are Benjamin and Rosiette Ventour and the plantation to which they are attached, is stated to be ‘Fontenoy Estate’ in St George’s. I have not one doubt in my mind that this is the plantation my Ventour family roots grew from.
“…my ‘X’ replaced the white slavemaster name … which some blue-eyed devil named Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears.” — Malcolm X
On the history I was taught at school, we were told to be — detatched; unemotional; distant; logical. I remember doing two classes at the age of fourteen on enslavement, and being told to be impersonal. If we made it personal, wouldn’t we then have to look at family trees of not just Black British people of Caribbean descent, but also White British people that may also have slave-owning ancestors too? We tell ourselves “oh my God, that happened so long ago” so how could it matter now? My names Ventour and Griffiths are not my names; our actual names were taken from us and our European slavenames are part of the legacy we see today. Exploring “White terror… White people as terrorists” (hooks, 1981), naming would be one way to get students engaged in this history of enslavement that has an impact on the modern day, when we call our oppressor’s name to introduce ourselves.
Post-traumatic Slave Syndrome
Speaking from a British perspective in a country with multiple very different Black communities, I do not believe we have truly come to terms with the devestating impact enslavement had on Black people and what it is still doing since we still have not addressed it. The Windrush Scandal is the latest chapter in that story where on American enslavement, Dr. Joy DeGruy cites ‘post-traumatic slave syndrome.’ She calls it “an explanatory theory that looks at multigenerational trauma … talking about people being captured, shipped, sold, beaten, raped, experimented on and then you have to ask the question, did the trauma continue?” Of course it did, but we will get to that later.
Following the emancipation of enslavement, the UK government were forced to compensate the masters and mistresses of the formerly enslaved to the sum of £20m (£17bn in today’s money). There were over 46,000 claims from across the British Empire with 3000 coming from Britain itself. In teaching enslavement as something entirely seperate from our lives, it stops us learning about how horrific it was for the enslaved. It stops us from educating ourselves on people like Thomas Thistlewood who arrived in Jamaica relatively naive as the son of a Lincolnshire clergyman. He soon learns that to survive as an overseer, he must learn to be cruel and he adapts to it almost too perfectly, reminding us of the “corrosive, corrupting affect on slaveowners themselves” where Olusoga claims he committed over 4000 rapes of enslaved women over the course of 37 years in colonial Jamaica. Furthermore, Birmingham City University [BCU] Black Studies professor Kehinde Andrews writes:
“One brutal slaveowner in Jamaica, Thomas Thistlewood, as well as raping hundreds of women, invented a punishment where the slaves would be beaten, and salt pickle, lime juice, and bird pepper would be rubbed into his or her open wounds. Another slave would defecate into the mouth of the miscreant, who would then be gagged for four to five hours. If we truly comprehended the horrors of slavery we would not only be saddened but sickened. We would certainly not do the history the disservice of comparing it to the labour that Europeans experienced in the workhouses. As horrible as it was, Thistlewood’s Derby Dose … was not being practiced on the production line. When Europeans had exhausted the lives of the natives in the Americas they did not enslave poor Whites to produce their commodities. In order to extract maximum wealth they needed to create the Negro, the commodity to be bought and sold” (Back to Black, p188).
After all of this, the enslaved were not compensated for their ordeal, but their masters and mistresses were. At its core, freedom was no different to a property act and the slave-owners felt they were being hard done by with the so-called “confiscation” of their property (people) in 1833/34. The slave-owning class wanted compensation. They got it, and it was paid out of the taxpayers pocket. It was not paid off until 2015 and in reality, the Windrush Generation, through their taxes, were still compensating the families that brutalised their ancestors. And even in 1833/34, the abolitionists, for a moment, had to neglect their most cherished principle. They had to agree to the terms of compensating the slave-owners. In doing so, they acknowledged enslaved people were property (not people), even just for a moment.
However, even ‘post-emancipation’ these people were forced to work for a further 4–6 years for their former-masters in a scheme called apprenticeship, four years for domestic workers and six years for agricultural farmhands.
In dominant media narratives on the Windrush Scandal, we do not get to visit this trauma as an overhang of British colonialism going back centuries in the Caribbean, but as a contained narrative that started seventy-odd years ago with hostility to Caribbean arrival with the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948.
Before the Windrush
With the constant parading of photographs of White European soldiers at school in class, I was disillusioned for years that only White people fought in World War One. However, over four million Black and Brown soldiers, sailors and servicepeople participated in the First World War. Yet, what I later on found is that the treatment of Black soldiers mirrored the colonial racial thinking that we discussed earlier in the context of racial hierachies. And through that, there would have been rifts between Black and White soldiers such as the British West India Regiment revolt at Taranto when they found White soldiers had been granted a payrise and they had not. So, before we discuss what lead to the Windrush Scandal, I want to think about what happened in 1919, thirty or so years before the arrival of the Windrush.
Following the Murder of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 last year, I was then thinking about what happened to Black people living in Britain in 1919 following the War.
The British establishment is very good at marking anniversaries but they did not mark the 100th anniversary of the Liverpool Race Riots in 2019 when Black veteran Charles Wotton was lynched by a White mob. In 1919, Black soldiers returned from fighting in the ‘war to end all wars’ but were excluded from the victory parades. Emma Dabiri says “the army claimed they could not afford to transport foreign soldiers to London for the celebrations, but the reasons ran much deeper than this.” Much akin to the colonial periods between the 1600s and up to the mid-20th century, those high up within European establishments still thought in terms of racial hierachies and did not want to disturb a system that had been in place for centuries. Inviting Black soldiers to London, albeit contributing as much as any White soldier, would have ‘disturbed’ these racial hierachies in place and thus interrupted White supremacy. Sikhs, for example, Emma Dabiri claims in Alt History “were viewed as a race with a higher status than African or Caribbean troops” in a time where the British Army stereotyped ethnic groups very much taking on this concept of ‘martial races’ so Sikh soldiers were allowed to take part in the Victory Parades of 1919.
However, anti-Blackness during the First World War wasn’t specific to the British Army, but was used on both sides, with the Germans using it to criticise the French and British forces for their use of Black colonial troops. In The Employment, Contrary to International Law, of Coloured Troops […], German propaganda claimed colonial soldiers took part in acts of barbarism as supposedly “coloured troops carried war trophies, the severed heads and fingers of German soldiers, wore ears they have cut off as ornaments about their necks” (in: Alt History: White-washing, Emma Dabiri). So, before the Windrush came we have a snapshot of how Black people were treated during the First World War and also during the nearly 300 years of enslavement.
1919 was not just when the British excluded Black people from the parades but also a year of race riots in not just Liverpool but across Britain including Cardiff, Glasgow, London and the Tyneside area.
Whilst at school I was taught about Britain and the Allies winning the war in 1918 ending in Armistice, what I was not taught about were the race riots that followed responding (at least in-part) to economic hardships because of the very same conflict. Soldiers and servicemen returned to Britain to meet not quite a hero’s welcome, but mass unemployment and job shortages. Prior to 1914, Britain’s Black populations were around 10,000 focused in port towns and cities with their lodgings described by media as “distinct foreign colonies, the negro quarter” or even “nigger town” (Alt History, Gaika). Here, Black and Asian populations were scapegoated and this racism had similar rationales to what was used to get people to vote for Brexit on Britain leaving the EU.
Gaika tells us that Black people were sacked in Liverpool because White workers refused to work with them. Furthermore, one journal article by May and Cohen (1974) tells us that parts of Liverpool’s White populations did not like idea of racial mixing. In Stepney (East London) social historian Stephen Bourne writes about the attacks happening on Black men since “… many … who had settled … married local white women and raised families … [causing] resentment from some of the local white populations” (p201).
In Wales, Yasmin Begum tells us that the Cardiff race riots “were the high point of escalating tensions” and prior in 1911, racist abuse against working-class Chinese workers happened during the Seamen’s Strike at Bute Docks.
On a visit to Liverpool in 2019, my cousin Paris and I found ourselves at the final resting place of Charles Wotten. On 5th June 1919 a fight broke out between Black, and White Scandinavian seamen. Gaika goes on to state the police only arrested the Black sailors. Wotten, who was originally not a target of the gathering mob, was hunted through the streets of Liverpool and was lynched at Queen’s Dock. A victim of the 1919 race riots at the port city, Charles Wotton like numerous Black people since was a target of the frankly lethal White racism — from George Floyd and Sarah Reed to George Nchenko, Breonna Taylor and Joy Gardner. Wotten was another Black person in the list of names that have lost their lives to White terror, a story that goes through 1919 all the way back to plantations and the colonisation of the West Indies.
However, these Black men that came to settle here after the First World War were British via their Commonwealth status. But to the local White populations their Blackness and Brownness was a synonym for their non-Britishness, very similar to the coded racist attacks against the Windrush harking back to Dabiri’s comments on the codification of White as English and Black as Other. Regardless of these Black veterans’ status under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914, they were still treated as Other.
They were blamed for the race riots of 1919 and nobody was convicted for the Murder of Charles Wotton.
“Hostility to Caribbean Arrival”
Whilst the national scandal rose to the front of public debate in 2018, members of the Windrush Generation were having their rights curtailed from 2014. People like my grandparents (but not my grandparents), Black British citizens, that had been here legally since the 1950s and 1960s, were being detained and deported despite having been here legally for decades. The onus was put on them to prove they had the right to stay. Many of them faced repatriation to countries they had not seen since childhood — losing their jobs, homes, savings and in some cases, their very lives. What became known as The Windrush Scandal has continued during the Coronavirus pandemic but there was hostility to Caribbean arrival before they even arrived.
In a country that was sermonised outside of Britain with ‘streets paved with gold’, David Olusoga claims this story as “seventy years of political panic”, but I argue this goes back further. As articulated in the previous parts of this post, we can see that British anti-Black racism goes back to the days where the conceptualisation of White and Black were formulated in Barbados, 1661 in the early years of British enslavement. However, this idea was imported into Barbados from Britain. The conditions were there from the 1600s and whilst there was ‘hostility to Caribbean arrival’ before they arrived, that hostility was given chance to make roots in the Caribbean embedded in the relationships between White masters and enslaved Black people. Anti-Blackness in the upper-echelons of the British establishment was imported into the Caribbean because it was something that had been manufactured in Britain already.
The discriminatory Hostile Environment policies were predated by the laws pioneered by some of Britain’s most celebrated leaders such as Winston Churchill. The ‘Hostile Environment’ is a set of policies that were introduced in 2012 by then Home Secretary Theresa May (later Prime Minister) in order to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants that could not produce the right paperwork, or as she said in 2012 — “the aim is to create, … a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” In doing this, the Government cut undocumented migrants off from essential services including the National Health Service [NHS]. They also made it illegal for them to work, or for landlords to rent to them. Additionally, police officers, landlords and teachers were required to check immigration status with this very much fast becoming a debate on who fits White ideals of Britishness and who doesn’t. Last year, my colleague Paul Crofts in a video on White privilege unpacks ideas of patriality stating that “patriality was at the heart of the [UK] immigration system at that time (the 1960s) and related to whether you descended from White people or not” (from 8mins). Yet, these laws were descendants of a UK establishment that had colonised these islands in this violent system of White supremacy with its contempt for the lives of Black people in the over 200 years of enslavement.
Furthermore, in his video, Paul explores ideas of patriality (4mins 30secs onwards) first stating British immigration law “defines the problem of immigration in racial terms … since the 1960s, our immigration laws have been tightened and strengthened to keep Black and Asian people out of the United Kingdom.” Yet, in knowing this, Black Caribbeans were not only invited to Britain to fill in the labour shortages following World War Two by Atlee’s Labour’s Government, but they were also invoking their rights as British subjects as still colonised dominions in the still evident British Empire.
When my great-grandparents and grandparents came to Britain in 1958 and 1960, their rights to be here could not be disputed.
To migrate into Britain from other parts of the British Empire (like Grenada and Jamaica) was relatively simple as “entry documents were minimal, official record-keeping lax” (The Unwanted). However, since my maternal great-grandparents came there have been many changes to UK immigration legislation and their status remained unchallenged until 1994 when they died (six months apart). If they were around now, I know they would be in despair and may even have been caught up in the Windrush Scandal — detained in those prison immigration centres and then deported back to Grenada as they would have been unable to produce the extensive documentary evidence required, one document for every year of their life in the UK (1960–1994).
Yet what Atlee’s government did not expect in their calls for aid was the influx of Black and Brown people from the Empire. What they expected / wanted were people that would help maintain Britain’s “white nation fantasy” (Hage, 1998), not Black and Brown people from initially the Caribbean but also parts of Africa, and the Indian subcontinent in the 1970s. They wanted White colonials, not Black families. So, the arrival of these Black Caribbeans was a source of anxiety in 1948 where there were even notions to divert the ship to East Africa so they could in the words of Clement Atlee, “pick peanuts.”
Whilst 1948 is famous for Labour’s introduction of the National Health Service which is now a staple of British pride (#clapforourcarers), that year is also known for its attempt to write Britishness into British law with the Nationality Act. This piece of legislation sort of reiterated what was kind of stated in the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act 1914, including the right for British subjects to move freely and even live anywhere they chose in the British Commonwealth (Empire). In The Unwanted, David Olusoga tells us that one of the act’s aims was to strenghten relationships between Britain (the imperial mother country) and countries of the Old Commonwealth (large White-majority nations such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand) making the movement between these countries and Britain “as frictionless as possible.” Yet, what nobody in the upper levels of the British establishment and government thought would happen and deeply underestimated, was that people like my grandparents and great-grandparents would choose to make that trip.
Working with NorFAMtoN, these are the same people that we have helped with the Windrush Doorstep Befriending Scheme, people that made that choice to move from countries such as Jamaica, Barbados, St Kitts & Nevis, Trinidad, Grenada and Guyana to what was the imperial mother country, Britain, the so-called Land of Milk and Honey — invoking their rights under the Nationality Act to come to settle and work in Britain — from Luton, and Liverpool to Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Cardiff and the Home Counties.
However, this is exactly what my maternal and paternal grandparents and great-grandparents did, as did so many friends of my family as well. To many Black Caribbeans, migrating to Britain was uncontroversial since it was viewed to them as coming to the Motherland. In a way, it was a homecoming of a sorts. But in the land with ‘streets paved with gold’, the looming arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948 was a source of anxiety, not excitement and in the words of Prime Minister Clement Atlee, who is sometimes argued to be Labour’s greatest leader, an “incursion.” The anxiety to this one boat reflects the anxiety and conditions of 1919 where trepidation and fear to Black immigrants and thus Mixed-Race communities resulted in violence.
In 1947, the Government had initiated a scheme called ‘Westward Ho’ that had brought over 180,000 migrant workers to Britain. Unlike the Windrush Generation, the workers in this operation were not British subjects, and more agreeably to the British government, they were White. They were called ‘European Volunteer Workers’ (EVWs) with many of them displaced from the Balkan Islands, Italy and Yugoslavia — and even ethnic Germans that before the Second World War lived in Central Europe, and also people that were ex-POWs from Germany. But more shocklingly, amongst these workers there were thousands of former members of Waffen SS regiments accused of war crimes on the Eastern Front (The Unwanted). So, rather than have Black ex-servicemen that had fought with White British troops, the British government were more comfortable with war criminals all because they were White.
In the 1984 book Staying Power Peter Fryer writes “there were Africans in Britain before the English came” and in those opening lines, the hostility to Caribbean arrival makes me laugh. In 1951, the British public voted statesman and colonialist Winston Churchill into power as their prime minister. David Olusoga states that by 1951 around 3000 people were making the trip from the Caribbean to settle in Britain with the total Black population being somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 people. One cutting from the Sunday Graphic complains of the “coloured community in Cardiff’s Tiger Bay”, the same place that set the locale for the Cardiff Race Riots in 1919. In 1952, The PM questioned if the Post Office was employing high numbers of Black and Brown workers claiming that “social problems” may occur if it continues.
In this context of employment, a “social problem” was just coded language or double speak for racial problems.
The conclusions drawn allude to what my colleague Paul Crofts mentions in his video, where British immigration laws problematised Black and Brown people from the Commonwealth. As the winds rushed into Tilbury Docks in 1948, by the mid-1950s the Government were looking for ways to curb the immigration boom of Black and Brown subjects from the colonies. With the Nationality Act (1948) and its definitions of Britishness, moving against incoming arrivals from the colonies was an uphill struggle. What the British establishment wanted to do was maintain its image as a White nation, and frankly what started with Atlee’s Labour then was passed on to Churchill’s Conservatives. Seemingly, racism doesn’t care which side of the political spectrum you are on. However, the Conservatives could not undermine ‘British values’ by writing explicitly racist policies, so they wrote implicit ones.
What I like to call ‘professional racism’ or what many call ‘subtle’ is how what David Olusoga called a “story of seventy years of political panic” started — where the Conservatives could not admit in public that they are racist. The Government created the ‘Working Party on Coloured People Seeking Employment in the United Kingdom’ to gather data to problematise Black and Brown immigration into Britain and to prove that immigration controls were required. Here, the conclusions drawn were that these immigrants were “scroungers” and that they wanted to live on benefits given by the Welfare State. When we think about this rhetoric today, this same language can be heard now in the context of Eastern Europeans, and sections of the White working-classes — that some call “white trash” or “chavs.” Out of these unevidenced claims, race surveys were conducted in 1953. What they wanted to find were disproportionate outcomes, in: criminality, unemployment, and employment benefits but none of that was true. Anyone that knows Caribbean people will know that hard work and education is etched into our culture.
My maternal great-grandparents died the year before I was born but I am told they worked hard all their life and enjoyed their free time. They paid their taxes, raised families, and lived on Bostock Avenue in Northampton. I also grew up hearing stories about parties in the front room, as I am sure many Black British people that grew up as I did did. They came here to work but they also lived well, and I think a lot of English people grew to love that about Caribbeans. They contributed to the labour market but they also brought their culture and big smiles with them, and Britain has never recovered!
The children that came after the Windrush have been instrumental in the Britain we see today and whilst my grandparents and great-grandparents are pioneers, my parents and their generation that were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, are part of that diaspora that have helped define what it means to be British with their voices in art, politics and across society shaped by the colonial and postcolonial experience. The Britishness that the Windrush brought is not draped in the union jack, nor is the Britishness of my parents. My recent ancestors taught me the value of education and work ethic because that is something that is etched into the mindset of the Caribbean.
“Keep England White”
Whilst the Government looked for ways to implicity discriminate and keep Black immigrant workers out, businesses needed capable workers and did what they could to bring them in. Famously now, the NHS is known for its racially diverse labour force as we have seen with the racial commentaries through the Coronavirus pandemic. Both in terms of NHS deaths from complications relating to COVID-19 but also those putting their lives on the line. My late great-auntie Rosie was an auxillary nurse in the NHS but like many of her Black colleagues, she was capable of so much more. However, back then, systemic racism had a way of keeping Black and Brown staff in line just as it does now. Following an economic boom in the 1950s, a junior health minister Enoch Powell was sent to Barbados to recruit nurses into the National Health Service [NHS] to fill in a labour shortage that still exists today.
And what the the national press did not really cover in their exposés is the price the Windrush paid when they moved, where many had to leave young children behind.
In 1954 around 10,000 West Indians came to Britain followed by about 15,000 the following year. By the mid-1950s, the Government were still trying to place limits on Black immigration whilst also not halting White immigration into the country trying not to appear racist. In 1955, Winston Churchill showed support for the slogan ‘Keep England White’ as a way for the Conservative Party to fight the next election. And much alike what occured in 1919, in 1958 Britain saw race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill. Now, rumours of a cut-off date were circulating and Black immigration into Britain increased from 15,000 in 1958 to 21,000 in 1959, and then 57,000 in the year my Great-Grandma and Granddad Toiley and Edison Noel came, 1960. By 1962, with the arrival of Harald Macmillan’s Labour Government, like the Conservatives, they were also trying to curb Black immigration without stifling White immigration and discriminating on the basis of skin colour.
Here, they did so on the basis of employment. They introduced three categories of immigrants: skilled workers (A), skilled/unskilled workers with a guarantee of a job on the other side (B), and unskilled workers (C). In The Unwanted, David Olusoga says that “vouchers for categories A and B would be issued according to economic need, vouchers for category C-unskilled workers — would be severely limited.” The underpinning generalisations of this scheme were that workers in groups A and B would be mostly White, and those in group C would not. This scheme would then in principle be racist but it would do so implicitly, without actually mentioning race, or in the language of today, it would discriminate against Black people — ‘disproportionately.’
Following the Immigration Act of 1962, Jamaica and Trinidad would gain independence from British rule. Barbados would follow in 1966. Under new immigration laws, the children of the original Windrush Generation would be able to join their parents in Britain. However, with more countires severing their old imperial attachments to their colonial mother country, the meaning of Britishness became more complex. In 1968, the Wolverhampton politician Enoch Powell delivered his now renowned ‘River of Blood’ speech.
“We must be mad … as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependents, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.” — Enoch Powell (1968)
By the time of Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech, my family were settled in Northampton, my mother would be born in July 1969 and Black Caribbean immigration levels would not be what they were at end of the 1950s. Yet, whilst the spotlight had been lifted somewhat from the Windrush Generation, it shifted to the incoming Asian arrivals from Kenya into the United Kingdom with Harald Wilson’s government ushering in laws to block entry. This 1968 legislation was done in days, and in 1971 the new Conservative government under Edward Heath, set limits on the broad meaning of what it means to be British. Under the 1971 legislation, those like my grandparents that had come before, had what we call ‘deemed leave’ and the right to remain.
However, in Section 3 Paragraph 8 it reads “when any question arises under this Act whether or not a person is patrial, or is entitled to any exemption under this Act, it shall lie on the person asserting it to prove that [they are].”
In essence, if anyone’s right to Britishness was challenged, it would be on the accused to prove that they are British. And this statement refers back to my colleague Paul Crofts and his story in that 1970s airport with that British-Asian family, where being patrial was linked to Whiteness. This clause is the final nail in the coffin that lead to the Windrush Scandal. A ‘culture war’ 70 years in the making built upon the back of colonial rule where originally concepts of Englishness were tied to being White. Writer-journalist Ash Sakar tells us “a culture war is a political conflict that takes place on the terrain of identity” and the Windrush story is one that has been in the national memory since 1948, and prior with other Black immigrant communities.
Whilst monuments to British colonialism can be found across the breadth of the nation, the monument to UK immigration may sit in one tower block in West Croydon named Lunar House, the HQ of the UK Visas and Immigration Service that has been at the nucleus of UK immigration since 1971 and was ever present in 2014 and 2016 during the legislative measures that established the Hostile Environment. From Caribbean migrants to Eastern Europeans, and refugees from Syria and the East, there are many that would argue Britain has felt like a hostile environment since before the 2014 beginnings of the Windrush Scandal. Under the Hostile Environment machine landlords, employers and the National Health Service were ‘required’ to assess their nationality status, employees and patients (whatever that means).
“Anyone without the proper documentation was denied accomodation, employment or treatment, and reported to the Home Office” — Prof. David Olusoga (The Unwanted).
And because these checks did not see people as individuals, the Windrush and their children were deemed “illegal immigrants”, violently caught in the net of a system that was not created to make allowances by seeing each case as an individual. The 1971 Immigration Act placed the onus on the claimant and the 2014 Act under the Conservative Party demanded impossible levels of proof — one document for every year of the claimants’ life in Britain. In some cases, that was over fifty years, so over fifty documents. The Windrush Scandal originated from the minds of British statesmen and politicians in a Britain still in the tenderhooks of the imperial age, and at its core like in the 17th century, there was the belief that Britishness was a racial identity and that identity was White. The idea that people like my great-grandparents, and thus my parents and me, could never be accepted as British because to be British or English means to be racialised as White. These taxonomies of race sit in the ideologies of what lead to secret race surveys and legislative measures to keep Black immigration out and White immigration in. And in also knowing the history of that ‘race science’ we begin to see how Black people were treated on the plantations, during the world wars, and thus in postwar Britain, and now in the Hostile Environment that went on to devestate the lives of many in the 21st century.
The Home Office’s treatment of the Windrush Generation is still nothing less than a national scandal, but the lives of my grandparents’ generation were not all enveloped in trauma. What should have been an uncontroversial move, changed Britain forever. They planted roots and their contributions to British culture and life have been immeasurable. In addition to colonial histories in the Caribbean, I was also told stories by relatives about Lovers Rock and blues dances of the 1970s and 1980s, as represented in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe film. That despite hostility from police to Black communties, I grew up learning the value of education and community organising; and despite the continued racism against Black British people today, my Windrush family friends and relatives continue to pave the way to keep us moving forward.
Bibliography and Further Reading
How live-tweeting Cardiff's 1919 race riots helped us uncover a forgotten part of Welsh history
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Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool
Buy Before the Windrush: Race Relations in 20th-century Liverpool Illustrated by John Belchem (ISBN: 9781781380000)…
Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century by Kehinde Andrews - PDF Drive
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Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War
Buy Black Tommies: British Soldiers of African Descent in the First World War Illustrated by Ray Costello (ISBN…
Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race - PDF Drive
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Britain's Forgotten Slave Owners
Documentary looking at the price of the abolition of slavery in Britain
Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome - PDF Drive
DeGruy, Joy. Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Includes bibliographical…
Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood: The speech that divided a nation
Fifty years ago today, on 20 April 1968, the austere shadow defence secretary Enoch Powell MP made a speech in…
The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman | Waterstones
The full story of Amelia Gentleman's crusading investigation into the shocking Windrush scandal makes for compelling…
White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society
Anthropologist and social critic Ghassan Hage explores one of the most complex and troubling of modern phenomena: the…
Ain't I a Woman: Black Women and Feminism
A classic work of feminist scholarship, Ain't I a Woman has become a must-read for all those interested in the nature…
The Interaction Between Race and Colonialism: A Case Study of the Liverpool Race Riots of 1919 …
If you have access to a journal via a society or association membership, please browse to your society journal, select…
From Cardiff to the Caribbean: The 1919 Race Riots - The National Archives blog
Led by the Outreach Team at The National Archives and several years in the making, the 1919 Race Riots Project is…
Superior: The Return of Race Science
Buy Superior: The Return of Race Science 01 by Saini, Angela (ISBN: 9780008341008) from Amazon's Book Store. Everyday…
Small Axe - Series 1: Lovers Rock
In 1980, black youths find freedom and romance at London house parties.
Staying Power: The History of Black People in Britain by Peter Fryer - PDF Drive
Staying Poweris a panoramic history of black Britons. First published in 1984 amid race riots and police brutality…
The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files
David Olusoga opens secret government files to explore the Windrush scandal.