“Britain’s history is everyone’s history and it’s all the stronger for it”
True words, but not my own. They are David Olusoga’s. He wrote Black and British: A Forgotten History which I have finally finished. I’ve never felt like I had achieved something when finishing a book until I read this one. It’s a long read but an essential one. I shared my thoughts of the first half of the book here.
It was difficult. I’m a commute reader and the book often had me squirming in my seat from rage, fear and a bit of heartbreak. There were also plenty of pleasant surprises too,which kept me from putting it down.
I couldn’t have read it at a more relevant time, with the Windrush scandal unfolding all around us. Getting a truer picture of Black British history made reading the news headlines all the more painful. It’s a book that will make you see the diaspora and the world differently. He answered a question I always struggled with but never got a solid answer to…
The Windrush Myth
This is the idea, held consciously or subconsciously among the British public, that the first black person to set foot in the UK was during the Windrush migration.
There were black people here in the 1600, 1700 and 1800’s, which I touched on in my previous article. The 1900’s too.
Britain was the central part of the triangular slave trade and many slaves did end up on British shores. Unlike the plantation slavery of North and South America, slaves in Britain were mainly forced to work on ships and shipyards or as personal or domestic servants. Runaway slaves and those who had acquired freedom slowly populated the streets of London. These people were called ‘the black poor’. After the abolishment of the slave trade, then slavery, and then the rise of the British Empire, many people from the British colonies in Africa and the Caribbean came to England or ‘the mother country’ for a variety of reasons.
However, the Black population in 17th-20th century paled in comparison the current levels. (In 2011, the Black UK population was at 1.9 million and counting…) Over time, many of the black population, who were majority male, intermarried into working class White families and dispersed over the years, becoming less ‘visibly’ black. Many died off. Most were sent off to Sierra Leone to start the settlement of Freetown from 1787 onwards.
In that period, black people did not have an established community in the way we do today. Regardless, many achieved amazing things for their time, well before Windrush.
Even from outside of the British borders, Commonwealth citizens were eager to contribute. In both World Wars, many African and Caribbean men were determined to enlist even though the government were repelled by the idea of arming black men and having them fight side by side – so as to not ‘undermine white superiority’.
In both wars, courageous black men struggled for their right to fight. Many were denied.
Some did succeed. Men like Walter Tull. The son of an enslaved man- and a popular pro footballer for Northampton FC. Despite his growing success on the field, he enlisted and fought on the Western front in WWII with the 1st Footballers Battalion, formed of football players and fans.
Many more unknown and unnamed people of the Commonwealth made massive contributions to the war effort. Yet those who made it home found that they had not earned the respect they thought they would.
The citizens of the Black Commonwealth were proud of their contributions and felt more connected than ever to the ‘Mother Country’ and the world in general.
Here in the UK, public services and infrastructure were strained. Key services needed to be rebuilt. After the deaths of thousands of soldiers there were large labour shortages. Caribbean people had access to British newspapers and read them intently. They observed that Britain had a shortage of labour and the Caribbean had a shortage of jobs and opportunities. Clearly, they could help and they were keen to.
The story is often told as if Commonwealth Caribbeans were called to the UK with warm and inviting arms but this is mostly untrue. There was a dire need to rebuild the UK post-war. However, a large section of both the political world and the general public thought they should be a last resort or shouldn’t be allowed to stay in the UK at all. They preferred immigration from white countries nearby. But they just couldn’t fill those shortages fast enough.
Around that time, the British Nationality Act was passed, which made anyone from the Commonwealth an automatic citizen of Great Britain. The law had citizens from white Commonwealth countries such as Australia, and Canada in mind. Technically, it couldn’t stop Caribbeans from coming and settling. And so, they did.
THE HMT EMPIRE WINDRUSH
The ship named the Empire Windrush started out with a different name. Originally a German troop ship, it was called the Monte Rosa. Britain acquired it as a prize of war after World War 2. It was renamed HMT Empire Windrush and used similarly as a troopship. In 1948, the ship was travelling from Australia to London and made a stop at Kingston to pick up servicemen on leave. The Windrush was going to set sail from Kingston with lots of empty space, and so an ad was put out in the Jamaican press, promoting the sale of one way tickets for anyone who wanted to see or to stay in the ‘Mother Country’.
The ad placements worked and many took up the offer. For £28, hundreds of Caribbeans bought a ticket to a country they heard of but had never been too, leaving their homes and loved ones behind.
When the Empire Windrush arrived in the London on that trip in June 1948, of the 1027 passengers who disembarked, 802 of them were Caribbean residents. They arrived as British subjects and 5 weeks later, the British Nationality Act was passed.
In the years following, many other Caribbeans took that same route on different ships, and eventually planes. Those people and their children are named after that very first trip on that ship and are called ‘the Windrush generation’.
In 1954, the Empire Windrush caught fire and sank near the coast of Algeria. But the legacy of that one trip it made will live on forever in British history.
Though there had been a black presence in the UK before, the impact of that one ship was revolutionary. It had an unexpected impact on the makeup of British society. The Empire Windrush led to the establishment of modern Black Britain and its hybrid, ever evolving culture.
The decades following there was an influx of Caribbean,and some African and Asian people. These decades were challenging for them at best. Poverty, abuse and discrimination befell many. There were tensions, frustrations and riots in the 50’s, and 70’s and 80’s. And even more recently. ‘Keep Britain White’ campaigns challenged Britain’s perception of itself, a country that had always seen itself as a pillar of civilisation, tolerance and a moral authority.
But many amazing things also happened:
The idea of ‘Black Britishness’ was born.
People kicked down barriers and paving the way for the generations after them by becoming ‘firsts’; first black policeman, bus driver, newsreader,school teacher, MP.
Genres were born; Dubstep, Grime, Garage. Black British fashion. Black British television.
This formation of new culture was and continues to be so exciting.
THE WINDRUSH SCANDAL
The children and grandchildren of these people now call Britain home. And it is.
But the rug has been pulled from under many people’s feet.
New immigration laws were implemented in the early 70’s- a tightening of immigration rules. But Windrush citizens were ‘safe’.They maintained the rights they already had, to remain and to come and go as they wished. In theory, anyway.
Many came in on parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents because they never needed to. After all their parents or grandparents were Citizens and they were born here.
Suddenly their citizenship status has been called into question.
People who have lived here their whole lives have lost their jobs, their homes and even been denied access to NHS. The hypocrisy in this is hard to ignore. Many Windrushers became nurses, acting as the backbone of the National Health Service, the UK’s national treasure, which was established in the same year as the Windrush.
It’s come to light that tragically, in 2010, landing cards were intentionally destroyed.The present and future Caribbean community lost a treasure trove of historical artefacts. But the government also ‘lost’ a way to prove whose relatives came in the Windrush era.
The government are now scrambling to fix the issue but the damage has already been done. For many, there has been a breakdown in trust in a community that, 70 years on, has contributed so much but is being protected so little.
The Millennium Windrush?
Will there be another Windrush? There was a large second wave of migration in the 80’s and 90’s from African commonwealth countries. There could be a 3.0. I’m guessing so.
According to the Office of National Statistics, over 70% of UK population growth between 2014 and 2039 will be in the over 60 age group. This country is aging quickly and that comes with a lot of complications and things to consider.
Conversely, the median age in the African continent is 19.4 years old….
Just like with the labour shortages post war, we have Brexit and an aging population and soon many care and non-care related roles that need to be filled. Immigration laws with time have become stricter but how long will that last?
The health and social care needs in this country are going to explode and Britain could be short of manpower. With a population that young, some of this could come from the African continent. What would happen in this next wave of immigration? Will the UK learn from the past? What laws will be put into place to ensure that the arrangement is mutually beneficial?
Any future waves of black immigration will not face the same obstacles the first ones did.
Before long we will be reaching the 100th anniversary of the start of modern Black British society. We would hope that it would be smooth sailing for new immigrants. But looking at the social and political world in the last several years, the unexpected has become a reality. Humans often don’t learn from the past.
But still we reflect and we hope.
As David Olusoga says, “Our history is global, transnational, triangular and much of it is still to be written.” So, who knows what could happen next?