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Windrush @ 75 : Time for Celebration and Reflection

Updated: Jun 23, 2023

When HMT Empire Windrush dropped anchor in Tilbury, Essex in the United Kingdom on June 21, 1948, 1,027 passengers and two stowaways were on board. The passengers did not disembark onto British soil until the next day June 22, 1948.

Most of them came from Jamaica (539 people) according to official records. The rest were from Bermuda, Trinidad, what was then known as British Guiana and other Caribbean and non-Caribbean countries.

119 were from England while 66 displaced Polish refugees granted British citizenship on account of the Second World War had joined the party in Mexico. Quite a number gave their last countries of residence as “somewhere in the Caribbean.”

The arrival of that ship with a large number of West Indians and the many other ships that would berth in the UK between 1948 and 1971 gave us the name the “Windrush Generation” and this year, we celebrate the 75th anniversary of that historic landing in Tilbury.

King Charles has already hosted an anniversary do, a commemorative postage stamp and a coin have been issued and a slew of literary, musical and cinematic events have been scheduled to commemorate the watershed historical moment.

Historian David Olusoga has, however, written that the HMT Empire Windrush was not the first ship to transport large numbers of West Indians to the UK. In a piece commemorating the 70th anniversary, he wrote, "In March 1947, the SS Ormonde transported 108 migrants from Jamaica to Liverpool. In December that year the Almanzora, carrying around 200 people from the West Indies, docked at Southampton."

Olusoga goes ahead to write that “...the new arrivals from the Windrush were depicted as plucky pioneers, victims of economic difficulties in their home islands, who had come to Britain to help the ‘mother country’ in its hour of need. Their misfortune was to be Britain’s gain, but the stress was firmly on the message that they had come here to work, as indeed they had.”

Their arrival was celebrated in the press as Olusoga notes. Many of the newly arrived had fought as citizens of the Commonwealth during the 2nd World War so coming to Britain was akin to a “homecoming” for many of them. The British establishment also needed workers to help rebuild and recover from the effects of the war just as Germany had welcomed Turkish Gastarbeiter (guest workers between 1955 and 1973). It was meant to be a symbiotic relationship.

In fact in a famous clip from Pathe Press, Lord Kitchener, a Calypso singer is seen performing a song he had composed on the journey over. The song, “London is the Place for Me”, seems now, in hindsight, like a reverse negro spiritual from the Middle Passage.

But the warm welcome did not last too long. A mere two days after the HMT Empire Windrush's docking, a group of 11 Labour MPs wrote Prime Minister Clement Attlee requesting him to halt the "influx of coloured people".

The “segregation” had begun, and much ink has been spilled in chronicling the racism that those early arrivals and subsequent others would face in the days to come. Housing was hard and difficult to find because many whites would not rent to blacks and it was the same with jobs. Those who found jobs found mostly menial employment.

Those inequalities have persisted through the ages and even though progress has been made, the fact remains that 75 years after the landing, Black and Minoritised British citizens are still disproportionately impacted when it comes to employment and home ownership.

The Poet and activist Linton Kwesi Johnson, one of the many writers of Caribbean origin who have enlivened British literature, in reacting to the inequalities, noted in an interview that the mass arrival of blacks especially from the Caribbean was made up of two generations; the heroic and the rebel generations.

The early arrivals were reticent and condoned the racism they encountered but “...the so-called second generation of Black youth had begun to emerge, and they were the rebel generation;...Well, by rebel generation, I mean the generation of youth who were not prepared to be as reticent about the racism that we were experiencing, and were not prepared to be as passive.”

To contextualise the Windrush generation with regard to these inequalities, one must reference the 2010 destruction of the cards of individual passengers by the Home Office under Theresa May which caused a huge row and scandal.

According to the BBC, “The Windrush row erupted after it emerged that some children of Caribbean migrants who settled in the UK from the late 1940s to the 1970s had been declared illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation.”

As we commemorate and celebrate the 75th anniversary of a watershed moment in British history vis-a-vis the mass arrival of blacks, the dawn of a truly multicultural society, and what has been framed as “putting the Great in Britain” we must pause to reflect how our forebears dealt with these inequalities, how we are dealing with it and how our children will deal with it.

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