60 years ago today, the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, bringing 492 men from Jamaica and Trinidad to what they thought of as the “mother land”.
These were not, of course, the first black people in Britain. According to Gretchen Gerzina’s ‘Black England – Life before Emancipation’, “most historians give 1555, when five Africans arrived to learn English and thereby facilitate trade, as the beginning of a continual black presence in Britain. By 1596 there were so many black people in England that Queen Elizabeth issued an edict demanding that they leave.”
What’s significant about the ‘Windrush generation’ is that their arrival marked the beginning of what has become known as “multicultural Britain” (and I have no intention of going into the various arguments about the precise definition of “multiculturalism” here): the idea that non-white people from the old Empire have a right to come to Britain and to be treated as equal citizens, whilst retaining aspects of their previous cultures.
The Guardian‘s ‘Special Correspondant': reported at the time:
“And what made them leave Jamaica? In most cases, lack of work. They spoke independently, but unanimously, of a blight that has come upon the West Indies since those who served America and Britain during the war returned home. The cost of living is high, wages are low. Many can earn no wages. Some have been unemployed foe two years. One of them considered his chances in Britain (he was a builder), and said laconically, ‘If I survive, good; if I don’t survive – so good.’ Another, lacking his philosophy, said with a bitterness unusual in the company, ‘When the situation is desperate you take a chance – you don’t wait until you die.'”
There was plenty of work for the new arrivals (Britain was in the grip of a labour shortage), though almost always the most menial jobs, usually well below their skills and qualifications. They found work in local authorities (refuse collection, etc), the NHS and London Transport. But accomodation was short and this caused conflict as racists stirred up trouble in the areas where the new arrivals settled, especially Brixton and Notting Hill. They found colour bars in clubs, pubs (“No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”) and housing. Racist attacks became more common, culminating in the 1958 Notting Hill riots instigated by organised racist gangs. The Immigration Act of April 1962 began the current process of formal racism – the laws which discriminate against black immigrants, barring almost all immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent, except those joining close family here.
But let’s for now, remember those Windrush arrivals sixty years ago. They were not all heroes or even particularly admirable people. They were just human beings like the rest of us, trying to do the best for themselves and their families. The Guardian‘s man got it about right:
“They are, then, as heterodox a collection of humanity as one might find. Some will be good workers, some bad. Many are ‘serious minded persons’ anxious to succeed. No doubt the folk poets will find fit audiences somewhere. So will the complete dance-band which is journeying to Liverpool at this moment. And the boxer, who is going to meet his manager at Birkenhead, will surely find fights in plenty. Not all intend to settle in Britain; a 40-year-old tailor, for example, hopes to stay here for a year, and then go on and make his home in Liberia.
“Their arrival has added to the worries of Mr. Isaacs and the trade union leaders. But the more worldly-wise among them are conscious of the deeper problem posed. Britain has welcomed displaced persons and has given employment to Poles who cannot go home. ‘This is right,’ said one of the immigrants. ‘Surely then, there is nothing against our coming, for we are British subjects. If there is -is it because we are coloured?”
And just to jolly things up, here’s some calypso from ‘Lord Kitchener’, who was (I believe) on the Windrush:
Acknowledgements: Jeni Bailey (Youth Fightback/Socialist Organiser pamphlet ‘How To Beat The Racists’, 1993), and the late Peter Fryer (‘Staying Power’ , Pluto Press, 1984).