Windrush Anniversary Reflections: Hauntings and the Longer View

Joan Anim-Addo, Professor of Caribbean Literature and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, discusses the legacy of the Empire Windrush and the long history of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. 

In Caribbean diasporic history, the ship that came to be known as the Empire Windrush certainly ranks among the top ten for long-term impact in connection with Caribbean lives. Of the many contenders for a place on such a list, the British slave ship Zong comes immediately to mind, famed for its jettisoning of some 130 Africans in the Atlantic for their insurance value. Lord Mansfield’s memorable remark, that ‘the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard’ serves as a reminder of the often implied and only sometimes stated value of black bodies, then and now. In this light, one might count The Jesus of Lubeck, notoriously linked to Admiral Sir John Hawkins’ slave-trading in the name of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I, and the Henrietta Marie, which sailed out of London, once the leading slave trading port in England. However a list is drawn, the Empire Windrush can certainly be counted after Columbus’ Santa Maria which heralded chattel slavery and the enforced transportation of black bodies as items of trade. It should begin to be clear that the ‘hostile environment’ of twenty-first parlance in relation to black bodies in Britain actually claims a long and pernicious history.

The Slave Ship, J.M.W.Turner

The Slave Ship, J.M.W.Turner

Each ship mentioned, above, relates to aspirations of conquest and except for the Empire Windrush, each has played its part in the conquest and colonization of the Americas, including Caribbean islands and territories colonised by the British.  Most importantly, conquest based on the sale of black bodies and their enforced labour afforded Britain (like other European colonisers) the resources – through Atlantic slavery and later, indentured labour – to accelerate the development of capital and modern economic growth.  Sadly for the enslaved and for their offspring who would later travel on the Empire Windrush and other lesser known vessels, a deep reluctance persists to acknowledging their crucial and long-term value to the British economy. More specifically, at a public and political level, there remains little acknowledgement that Atlantic slavery formed the underbelly of modernity and that colonisation together with slavery were indeed profoundly constitutive of modernity.

The Empire Windrush, in 1948, was operating as a cruise ship in Caribbean waters and a passage might be booked for 28 pounds and ten shillings from Kingston. While from the beginning of the 1930s, the ship’s history had included Caribbean crossings, it was its service as a troopship for Nazi Germany that would lead to its capture and English naming, Empire Windrush. Thus the combined ghosts of World War II and Britain’s erstwhile empire – inextricably linked to the transportation of black bodies particularly in the eighteenth century – are important to the history and experience of Caribbean migrants up to seventy years after the Empire Windrush’s landmark docking at Tilbury in June 1948.

‘What manner of men are these the Empire Windrush has brought to Britain? And what has made them leave Jamaica?’ The questions posed by The Guardian’s Special Correspondent following the famed landing are still worth addressing, not the least because over hundreds of years, much has been invested in misrepresenting the identity of the formerly enslaved.  Firstly, Africans were said to be not people but c(h)attle and it should be remembered in relation to such pre-determining of a group’s identity, that great minds such as Mansfield’s reinforced through many learned pronouncements, the c(h)attle view of Africans of the period.  C(h)attle are not expected to be capable of thinking or to have recourse to human emotions and on that basis not only can they, justifiably be denied all human rights, but also they can be routinely punished to ensure compliance with the demands of those considered to be humans, a higher order of being. Laws first placed on the statute Books of Barbados, in the seventeenth century declared black people chattle. As if to cement the hostile environment, they would not be paid for their labour but would rather be subject to draconian and invariably degrading punishment for not immediately providing their labour, a state of affairs that continued for a couple of hundred years. This had to be justified by the creation of a ‘hostile environment’. And it was hostile.

While such was the order of the day on Caribbean plantations, certainly today, no intelligent person could convincingly argue that Africans are not readily recognisable as humans. It remains deeply troubling that – for reasons of profit-making – this view achieved British (and European) consensual status, supported by an elaborate legal apparatus, variously duplicated – until the nineteenth century when British slavery was abolished. I have argued elsewhere that, in effect, this amounts to recognition of black people as humans only in the nineteenth century with the dismantling of Atlantic slavery and its deplorable legal underpinnings.  

In the face of such monumental denial of a common humanity, ‘race thinking’, as Paul Gilroy terms it, required not only intricate elaboration but to be acted upon in a way that ensured black people were kept at the bottom of the chain. Thus each stage of colonialism in the Caribbean was predicated upon race thinking, finessed in some measure, by pseudo-scientific claims. In the first stage, the British coloniser took possession of land and black bodies as c(h)attle in a process that eminent Caribbean historian, Sir Hilary Beckles refers to as founded on principles of ‘plunder and extraction’. People were plundered and taken to the Caribbean so that the entire region became best known as colonies.  The second stage normalised utterly exploitative, brutalised and racialised practices through forced labour, without remuneration, on plantations. By the third stage in the nineteenth century, after Atlantic slavery ended, a more paternalistic colonialism gradually emerged in which the colonised was encouraged to consider the self as subject – with expectations of loyalty – to a distant ‘mother country’.

The Empire Windrush

Some of this shared history is certainly cruel and ugly. Although Britain might have done the right thing by its formerly enslaved peoples at many different occasions, they resolutely did not follow through. Thus, the ‘hostile environment’ did not end two hundred years ago, though Britain’s Abolition of slavery provided just such an opportunity. Did Britain choose to do the right thing by the formerly enslaved? No. Rather, it rewarded the people who plundered and thoroughly abused the human rights of others.  It left the abused – now beginning to think of themselves as Jamaicans, Grenadians, Trinidadians and so on – to more or less rot in the colonies. The Moyne Commission, detailed to investigate this, would find themselves fully able to substantiate the details of it. Yet, this is our shared history. The shared-ness of it explains why the then Secretary of State for the Colonies, Malcolm MacDonald, said in June, 1938 of the unrest reported in British colonies that they are “a protest against the economic distress of the Colonies themselves, a protest against some of the consequences of that economic distress:  uncertainty of employment, low rates of wages, bad housing conditions, in many cases, and so on.”  This shared history deserves to be better known and remembered.

The irony of the Empire Windrush’s homecoming to the mother country is that World War II had forced Britain to break with its practice of keeping its colonised black people at a safe distance away  ­– ‘beyond the seas’ – from the seat of Empire.  Indeed, Britain’s invitation to its West Indian colonies to support the ‘mother country’ at war brought with it the first waves of loyal subjects to serve in both World wars. In many ways they were different again from the miniscule minority of privileged colonials who had been carefully vetted in earlier times for the purposes of study. Britain’s colonial subjects dedicated to ‘service’ to the ‘mother country’ in the 1930s would find themselves effectively opening the gate that had hitherto been carefully manned to keep West Indian subjects.  As many of the new migrants replied when questioned on landing in Tilbury, or arriving later at Victoria Station, the fact was that they were, ‘British subjects’.   

With the benefit of hindsight, it seems clear enough that those ‘subjects’ could not realistically have been kept ‘beyond the seas’ forever. It was only a matter of time before they would seek out the ‘mother country’, much idealised in the propaganda of Empire. In that summer seventy years ago, now memorable for England’s shocked reception of its Empire on its own home turf, so to speak, less than three years after the end of the second World War, the Anglophone Caribbean might be said to have come home to Britain, not in uniforms of recent war service, but in civvies. Those black people arriving had come from ‘British dominions beyond the seas’, that is, British colonies. True, they had most recently been invited to fight on Britain’s behalf only a very few years before Windrush but given the coloniser/ colonised relationship with its passive/ aggressive ‘hostile’ undertones relentlessly simmering, this had never been intended as an open invitation to return at will. Although the hostility that surfaced following the Tilbury docking still continues to ricochet down through the decades, it is useful to attend to why they came.

It is not sufficiently well known that in the face of unrest in Britain’s ‘possessions’, the West Indies had been the subject of intense parliamentary interest and debate just before the Second World War and that a commission of enquiry – the ‘West India Royal Commission 1938 -1939’ – had been sent to the region to investigate ‘the occurrence of public disorder’ of considerable magnitude. The commission lists dates of unrest from 1934 to 1939 involving countries across the region from British Guiana through to Trinidad, Barbados, St Kitts, St Vincent and Jamaica. Together with disturbances on various sugar estates, strikes and riots seemed to be the order of the day, sufficient enough to merit the assigning of a royal enquiry.

The Commission’s findings concerned the ‘very formidable’ extent and ‘effects’ of unemployment ‘in most of the colonies, alongside ‘inadequate’ rates of earnings, and employment that was both seasonal and woefully scarce. These are clearly documented. Concerning Jamaica, the problem of unemployment and under-employment was assessed as among the most acute, in the light of the drift to the island’s urban areas. The Report assessed the crux of the West Indian problem as an ‘increasingly insistent’ demand for better living conditions. Considering that the Report – sometimes referred to as the Moyne Report – was published just three years before the Empire Windrush docked, one might ask, whether British politicians had not been duplicitous in their response to the wider public concerning the Windrush passengers. Did they feign lack of knowledge in order to fuel that particular landmark stage of hostility?

Bristol street art. Image by Paul Townsend (licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0)

For the Windrush generation, this is a special year. It is not just the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush. It is also the year that the British nation has been horribly reminded that Britain has too often denied those black people from its former colonies their rights and would wriggle out of its responsibilities to those same people, when possible. This last refers to the latest scandal leading to the demise of Amber Rudd, former Home Secretary in Theresa May’s government. The debacle should not be forgotten. Nor should it be forgotten that the Windrush generation has faced disproportionate problems in the British education system, the health system, including mental health, the prison system, the system of policing and so on. The list remains instructive of an on-going hostile British experience for the Windrush generation, in the light of which, this is not just the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush. Sadly, the Rudd scandal only serves as a bitter reminder that divisive, discriminatory thinking and action remain not only current but deeply damaging to us all.

It is to be emphasised that this special year is not just the seventieth anniversary of the arrival of some 500 Caribbean migrants. It is a year to take stock of the history of the Windrush generation and to make available the longer view concerning the many elements that contribute to the hostile environment that that generation has continuously encountered in Britain. It is the year to ensure that we take a few minutes to reflect upon our shared history. The Moyne Commission Report referenced the shared values of West Indians and the particularised history within which Britain bears certain clear responsibilities that still only few are concerned to acknowledge.

At the same time, the report underscores the ethos of repression and pre-determination that informed British colonial government in the West Indies and the situation faced by the labouring classes in these colonies. Indeed, above all, colonial practice had sought to create in the region a large labouring class conditioned to minimal remuneration. The end of slavery in the British West Indies had created such an already pre-destined class, largely dispossessed of land and the means to thrive. Travelling from a once wealth-producing but now impoverished West Indies governed by the British crown, the Windrush generation has nonetheless made a remarkable contribution to Britain. The achievements and positive contributions, principally in areas of health, the cultural industries, sport and so on, made by that generation and their offspring are generally well known. There remains much to think about regarding their experience in Britain and our shared British history. Central to this should be a consideration of justice, specifically, I suggest, that of reparative justice.