In autumn 1854, a Jamaican woman arrived in London: Mary Seacole. She hoped to travel to Crimea as an army nurse supporting British troops, but her applications at the War Office were rejected, so she paid her own way. Once in Crimea, she set up a hotel near Sevastopol that became popular with British soldiers, many of whom called her ‘Mother Seacole’.


The mixed-race nurse who tended to wounded troops during the Crimean War is now familiar to many. What’s less well known is that this wasn’t her first visit to the imperial metropole, nor even her second.

Mary Seacole
Mary Seacole, pictured in c1850, was one of the many West Indians to be drawn to Britain in the century before the arrival of the Empire Windrush. (Picture by Alamy)

An avid traveller, Seacole had spent her teenage years imagining what it might be like to visit London. As she wrote in her famous autobiography The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands: “I was never weary of tracing upon an old map the route to England; and never followed within my gaze the stately ships homeward bound without longing to be in them.”

In her memoir, she’s cagey about what took her to London the first time – indeed, she does not share when she went, though it seems to have been in the early 1820s – but she travelled with relatives and stayed for about a year. Shortly after returning to Jamaica, she ventured to London once more, this time spying a business opportunity. She took with her “a large stock of West Indian preserves and pickles for sale”.

These two trips are not as well-known as her third, but they do hint at an important and often neglected point. The arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex on 22 June 1948, carrying 1,207 passengers – of which more than 800 gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean – is often cited as the start of a wave of migration to Britain from the region. Yet, in fact, Black West Indians descended from formerly enslaved people had felt the pull of Britain for at least the preceding century – many of them following that lure and travelling to the “mother country”, as the calypsonian Lord Kitchener famously sang on arrival in 1948.

To the extent that a prehistory of the Empire Windrush is told, that story often extends only as far back as the Second World War, or occasionally the 1930s. It rarely connects the historical forces that made possible Mary Seacole’s journey to Britain and then Crimea with those that shaped the arrival of the Windrush.

It’s easy to speculate why. Perhaps the continuing reluctance in Britain to discuss Britain’s slavery history beyond the work of British abolitionists has created a tendency to separate the story of the Windrush generation from the centuries of history that preceded it. It’s also true that historians studying Britain’s connections to the Caribbean have tended to end their interest in the mid-19th century – turning instead to the growing empire in India, Africa and the Pacific – rather than carrying it through into the 20th. Whatever the reason, the artificial separation has been unfortunate, because perhaps one of the most interesting ways to think about the Empire Windrush is as an end of an emancipation history rather than the beginning of a more modern story.

The cost of freedom

A 19th-century depiction of missionary buildings in Antigua, which was the only sugar colony in the Caribbean to enjoy legal freedom immediately following the abolition of slavery.
A 19th-century depiction of missionary buildings in Antigua, which was the only sugar colony in the Caribbean to enjoy legal freedom immediately following the abolition of slavery. (Picture by Bonhams, London, UK)

Slavery ended in the British Caribbean in 1834, but Antigua was the only sugar colony that chose to proceed immediately to legal freedom. In the rest of the British West Indies, apprenticeship – an Abolition Act provision – followed slavery.

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Formerly enslaved people were required to work where they had been enslaved, no longer as slaves but not as free people, either. Now they were apprentices, though not in the traditional sense. They were not learning trades under the aegis of a master ushering them into a guild. Instead, apprenticeship required that formerly enslaved people work for 40.5 hours a week without pay. Any work beyond that would be compensated.

Apprenticeship’s other provision was that punishment would ostensibly be taken out of the hands of masters. A new class of British officials called stipendiary magistrates travelled around each colony in circuits, meting out punishments. In the words of James Williams, an 18-year-old Jamaican whose story was published in an abolitionist pamphlet, “I have been very ill treated by Mr Senior and the magistrates since the new law come in. Apprentices get a great deal more punishment now than they did when they was slaves; the master take spite, and do all he can to hurt them before the free comes.”

As a slow doling out of freedom, apprenticeship signalled that the British architects of emancipation saw freedom as something for which Black people in the Caribbean were not ready. It was also an attempt to ensure that the Caribbean colonies still served their purpose within a growing empire. For the first decades after emancipation, imperial officials in Britain and the Caribbean colonies were desperate to keep the plantation economies thriving. Apprenticeship tried to acclimatise apprentices into wage work – though without paying them.

Apprentices such as James Williams and, eventually, abolitionists saw this punitive system for what it was, “slavery by another name”. Another round of campaigning led to the abolition of the apprenticeship system in 1838. At one event in Jamaica, participants buried a ‘colonial slavery’ coffin. For them, slavery was not at an end until apprenticeship was.

Britain, of course, wanted to keep the Caribbean colonies producing prodigious quantities of plantation goods, and plantation estate owners tried to force freedpeople to stay on the sites of their enslavement.

For freedpeople, however, their autonomy was paramount. In Jamaica, enslaved people had been given small plots of land known as provision grounds where they grew their own food. This system did not spring from enslavers’ largesse but was, rather, a sign of their ruthless calculations. The more food enslaved people produced for their own sustenance, the less planters had to spend on provisions. After emancipation, many plantation owners tried to use these plots as leverage to keep freedpeople working. In addition to stingy wages, they often insisted that freedpeople could keep their provision grounds only if they worked on the plantation full-time.

But land ownership was a critical part of the autonomy Black people were cultivating. Under the right arrangements, many would have been willing to keep working on plantations, though perhaps not full-time. But as plantation owners refused to budge, Jamaican freedpeople fled plantations and created their own free villages, sometimes with the help of British Protestant missionaries who had been in the region since the early 19th century. Versions of this transition happened across Britain’s colonies in the region, though the Jamaican economy was hit the hardest.

Demographic change

Tens of thousands of Chinese indentured labourers – like those shown here, on a sugar plantation in Louisiana – were brought to the Caribbean and the United States from the 1830s. (Picture by Alamy)
Tens of thousands of Chinese indentured labourers – like those shown here, on a sugar plantation in Louisiana – were brought to the Caribbean and the United States from the 1830s. (Picture by Alamy)

Colonial officials and planters in British Guiana and Trinidad then took advantage of a new source of bonded labour. Beginning in 1838, these two colonies imported hundreds of thousands of indentured labourers from India, as well as tens of thousands of Chinese workers, transforming the demographics of both countries over time.

Other colonies in the region took smaller numbers of Chinese and Indian indentured workers. Nor was this a phenomenon restricted to the British Caribbean. Chinese indentured workers wChinese labourers on a plantatiere also sent to Cuba and the US. (Here is another important connection to the Windrush era, because some of the Caribbean arrivals to Britain from the 1940s were of Indian and Chinese descent.)

There followed decades of clashes, pitting the British officials and Caribbean planters (who used wages, indentured immigration and the law to keep plantation economies running) against Black West Indians who would not be so forced. Black people constantly rejected British expectations of how they should organise their lives. Where they could, they fled to places estate owners couldn’t reach them.

Vagrancy and squatting

Black people participated in protests and riots, and found meaning in community rituals such as Jonkonnu – now celebrated around the region as Junkanoo, commonly around Christmas – and Carnival. Several were active members of churches and, though some of these were run by British missionaries largely in accordance with European doctrine, others melded European Christianity with African-derived practices. Vagrancy and squatting were common, especially as plummeting land values forced British estate owners to either sell their land for far less than they believed it was worth or abandon it altogether.

This all culminated in the Morant Bay Rebellion in October 1865. Led by farmer and deacon Paul Bogle, a crowd of people descended on a courthouse in Morant Bay, an important town in south-eastern Jamaica. Protesting the conviction of a man for squatting on an abandoned estate, they killed nearly two dozen people. The governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, responded by declaring martial law; government forces then killed hundreds of Black Jamaicans, and sham trials of many others followed swiftly. Among those tried was George William Gordon, a mixed-race businessman and legislator who represented the parish where the rebellion took place, and who was also one of Eyre’s political rivals. Gordon was hastily tried and executed.

Attack on the Court-House during the Morant Bay rebellion
Attack on the Court-House during the Morant Bay rebellion. (Picture by Culture Club/Getty Images)

Even within an imperial system comfortable with violence, and prone to accepting without question arguments about the savagery of subject peoples, Eyre’s actions were widely considered extreme. He was recalled to London and, for the next few years, Britain’s intelligentsia debated whether his actions had been justified. Some leading writers, including Charles Dickens, Thomas Carlyle and Alfred Lord Tennyson, defended him fiercely. Others, such as John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin, wanted him tried. Eyre never again worked in colonial service, but plans to try him in court also never came to fruition.

Back in the Caribbean, the rebellion transformed the very nature of colonial rule. Islands including Jamaica – but not Barbados, where the legislature resisted its own dissolution – were placed under Crown Colony rule: direct governance from London.

Cultural imperialism

By refusing to work on plantations at the same intensity as they had been forced to during slavery, freedpeople had made it impossible for British officials to keep the plantation economies running at the peak levels of productivity seen during the slavery era. However, British imperial power still shaped Caribbean life in other ways.

A key facet of British imperialism in the region during the late 19th and early 20th century was cultural – what we would today classify as ‘soft power’. Schools taught an English curriculum, and churches run by British missionaries tried to keep other spiritual traditions at bay. Nonconformist clergy pushed their congregants to adopt monogamous Christian marriages validated by the state (rather than the common practice of longterm cohabitation) and Caribbean residents were encouraged to play a host of British games – none of them more important than cricket. In Beyond a Boundary, a cricket-focused memoir and one of the great works of sports writing, Trinidadian intellectual CLR James described being taught to adhere to “the English public-school code”. There were also intense efforts to bind Caribbean people to Britain by cultivating a reference for royal ritual and ceremony.

Yet as much as cultural imperialism succeeded in making many in the Caribbean feel British – even if few in Britain would have recognised their claim – the worsening economic situation in the region led many to look elsewhere for opportunity. Hundreds of people left Barbados for Liberia in 1865. Others took advantage of opportunities in Latin America. By the late 19th century, West Indians were travelling to Trinidad, Venezuela, Cuba and Central America, where they worked on fruit farms and oil fields, in goldmines and on the Panama Canal.

London was another popular destination, especially in the first few decades of the 20th century. Some of those who ended up in the British capital became important political figures, coalescing in various ways around the ideology of Pan-Africanism – a broad church, comprising many intellectual strands and political approaches.

Una Marson, the Jamaican compere of the BBC programme Calling the West Indies, December 1941.
Una Marson, the Jamaican compere of the BBC programme Calling the West Indies. (Picture by Alamy)

At its heart, Pan-Africanism was a movement through which people of African descent fought for the liberation of all Africans and African-descended peoples around the world. London was a major hub, where key figures in the movement lived, worked and wrote. These included CLR James and Jamaican journalist Una Marson who, during the Second World War, was hired by the BBC and, in 1942, began producing the ground-breaking radio programme Caribbean Voices. The Jamaican physician Harold Moody also moved to Britain, setting up his own practice in Peckham. In 1931, he founded the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought racial discrimination, known as the colour bar, across the UK.

Like all histories, this prologue to the arrival in Britain of the Empire Windrush is selective. There are surely other ways of telling this story, but this one offers at least a partial explanation of how, in the decades after emancipation, Black people across the Caribbean fought British attempts to keep their lives in service of the plantation economy, all while coming to understand themselves as British.

As opportunities decreased for social advancement and economic stability, Black people began looking elsewhere for work and education. While many migrated to other parts of the Americas, the cultural connections that white officials and missionaries had encouraged them to make to Britain also made it an appealing destination for some, even though it was much further away.

With social and economic conditions becoming progressively worse in the first half of the 20th century, this dynamic only continued. And as West Indians continued to look for opportunities outside the region, they saw Britain in ways that British officials had both hoped for and not intended: as a place where they had the right to be.


This article was first published in the July 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine. You can read more articles about black history here.


Christienna Fryar is a historian, writer and broadcaster