This article was first published in the July 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
On the day that Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks in late June 1948, a contingent of newspaper reporters and a film crew from Pathé News were on hand to film, photograph and interview the hundreds of men and women from the Caribbean who disembarked. Among the press pack was Peter Fryer, a journalist at the Daily Worker who would later write the book Staying Power, the first encyclopedic history of the black presence in Britain. His report, entitled Five Hundred Pairs of Willing Hands, was largely in step with the upbeat and positive tone that characterised how the day’s events were presented to the British public. The film crew from Pathé sought out one of the celebrities on board, the Trinidadian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts, who performed under the stage name Lord Kitchener. He provided the day with a soundtrack: an impromptu a cappella performance of a song he had composed on the voyage across the Atlantic, ‘London Is the Place for Me’.
Both newsreels and newspapers portrayed the unexpected arrival of the West Indians as something of a novelty, but were careful also to frame it within the bigger story of Britain’s slow journey towards economic recovery. The incessantly forward-looking positivity, which was an inescapable feature of news reportage during those less-cynical years, reflected the fact that maintaining public morale in 1948 was almost as essential as it had been during the war. Thus, 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.
What few people in the drab, war-ravaged Britain of 1948 could have imagined is that 70 years later the events of that day would be regarded as a landmark in 20th-century British history – the symbolic beginning of a wave of migration that was to last for decades and change Britain in multiple ways. Nor would those who read the newspapers the next day, or watched Pathé’s newsreel report in their local cinema, have dreamed that, by the time their own baby-boom infants were in their sixties and seventies, the obscure troopship moored at Tilbury would have given its name to a public square in Brixton – then a poor, white, working-class district. The notion that in the same square would stand a Black Cultural Archives, an institution dedicated to the celebration and research of something called black British history, would have sounded preposterous. Yet today there is not only a Windrush Square and a Black Cultural Archives but also a Windrush Foundation, and there have been calls for a Windrush day to be established.
It’s even less likely that the Britons of 1948 could have conceived that, 70 years later, the government would be rocked by a public outcry over the news that some of the so-called ‘Windrush generation’ had been asked to prove their rights to UK citizenship, with some denied benefits or medical treatment, even deported.
Why has the story of the Windrush, and the journey it made in the summer of 1948, been so embraced and latterly inducted into the British national story? The ship was not even the first to bring West Indian migrants to Britain. 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.
In the media glare
Part of the answer lies in the fact that the Windrush’s arrival was so well recorded by the men from Pathé and journalists such as Peter Fryer. But it was also an event ideally suited to mythologisation: the ship that carried to England the hopeful and the industrious, the empire’s own “huddled masses”. That the Windrush sailed to Tilbury, the Thames port from which Elizabeth I gave her speech in defiance of the approaching Spanish Armada, adds to the potency of the symbolism. Today, in another very British gesture, a heritage plaque marks where the Windrush landed.
But if there was any single moment in which the Windrush’s place within mainstream British history was confirmed, it was during the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. In that great pageant of national celebration, a miniature replica of the Windrush was paraded around the track of the shiny new Olympic stadium built on former industrial land that had been heavily bombed during the Blitz.
The miniature Windrush was presented to the crowds alongside other symbolic representations of pivotal events in British history: the industrial revolution, the First World War, the campaigns of the suffragettes, the Jarrow march, and the creation of the NHS in 1948 – the same year that the Windrush arrived. That evening, the place of the Windrush in the British national story was affirmed and made almost sacrosanct.
The importance of the Windrush in postwar British history is all the more surprising given the vessel’s forgotten backstory. The ship we know as the Empire Windrush was built in the early 1930s and originally fitted out as a passenger liner, then converted into a cruise ship. But she was constructed not in one of the shipyards that then lined the Clyde and the Tyne but in Hamburg, by the German firm Blohm & Voss. The name the ship was given at her launch was MV Monte Rosa, and between 1933 and 1939 she carried German families on holiday cruises. These jaunts were organised and subsidised by Strength Through Joy, a Nazi party organisation created to promote public health and break down class barriers. According to Nazi doctrine, the only distinctions that mattered in the Third Reich were those of blood and race.
In 1939, the MV Monte Rosa was requisitioned and became a troopship, landing the grey phalanxes of Hitler’s Wehrmacht on the shores of Norway during the one-sided invasion of that vulnerable nation. Among the passengers she carried on a return trip from Norway were Norwegian Jews – men, women and children who were then deported to Auschwitz, where most died.
The Monte Rosa herself, having survived attempts by both the RAF and Norwegian resistance to sink her, was finally captured by British forces and claimed as a prize of war. The fact that a ship once operated by a regime built upon notions of racial purity should, by random chance, have become the most potent symbol of Britain’s post-war transformation into a multicultural and multiracial society is loaded with irony.
A right to travel
Among those who travelled on the Windrush in 1948 were men and women from Jamaica, Trinidad, British Guiana (now Guyana), some of the smaller Caribbean islands, and the Atlantic island of Bermuda. Officially, their journey was not so much a migration as a relocation, and in the strict sense they were not immigrants. Rather, they were British citizens moving from one part of their empire to another, as so many of those on board had done during the war years. By making the same journey in peacetime, they were merely exercising rights they shared with all citizens of the British empire, and with the 49 million inhabitants of the United Kingdom itself.
That same year, British parliamentarians debated a new act intended to reaffirm exactly those rights. The 1948 British Nationality Act was passed in order to maintain and enhance the bonds between Britain and what were then called the ‘white dominions’ – Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. It was the white people of those lands that MPs hoped would feel the warm embrace of the empire, and whom those MPs imagined would exercise rights of residence.
Thousands of men and women from other parts of the empire had served Britain in wartime. What British politicians of all parties had failed to appreciate was that, by dint of that transformative experience, these people had come to understand how the empire worked, and how it might be made to work for them. These were people unafraid of travelling huge distances, who had, in many cases, already spent time in Britain, in the forces or in the factories. Having fought or laboured for king and empire, they now sought work in the mother country in peacetime. A significant reduction in the costs of international travel in the postwar years removed the last barrier that had prevented earlier generations of West Indians, Africans and Indians from exercising their rights to live in Britain.
Even as MPs sat across from one another on the benches of parliament, debating the new nationality act, the ship that was to become the symbol of postwar migration was already at sea. The migrants no one expected, the nucleus of the Windrush generation, had already found their berths, intent on exercising their rights of citizenship and residence. Windrush happened by accident. The idea that, in the aftermath of the Second World War, Britain introduced an open-door immigration policy is a misreading of history. The door had long been open; all that was different is that, after the war, black people as well as white people passed through it.
In one telling of the Windrush story, opposition to black settlement in Britain came only from the bottom up – from working-class people: boarding-house keepers who put “No Blacks, No Irish” signs in their front windows, or trade unionists who opposed black workers being given jobs alongside whites. What has been lost in this version of the past is the level of official opposition to what was then called new Commonwealth immigration.
Having failed to foresee that educated, worldly West Indians would seek to use their rights of residence, the government sought other ways to keep them out. Even before the Windrush had set sail from Jamaica, Prime Minister Clement Attlee had sought to find some pretext to prevent it from leaving Kingston. When that failed, the government enquired as to whether the Windrush might be diverted to east Africa where the black migrants – engineers, welders, students, academics, mechanics, tailors, electricians, civil servants, machinists, boxers, and musicians such as Lord Kitchener – might be offered agricultural work in the fields of Kenya.
The day after the Empire Windrush reached Tilbury, Attlee received a letter from 11 Labour MPs demanding immediate actions be taken to prevent black British citizens from exercising the rights they held equally with other subjects of the empire. “The British people,” they wrote, “fortunately enjoy a profound unity without uniformity in their way of life, and are blest by the absence of a colour racial problem. An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.”
Three decades before Windrush, the then secretary of the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines’ Protection Society, John Hobbis Harris, remarked that what “the British public does not realise adequately is that we are a coloured empire… We are an empire of 435,000,000, and 350,000,000 are coloured… You cannot prevent the black man from coming here, because this is the centre of his empire. You could no more tell him that he must not come to London, Liverpool or Cardiff than he has the right to tell you that you must not go to Lagos or Durban or Johannesburg.”
One of the great ironies of British history is that it was at the very moment the empire began to disintegrate that its black and brown citizens began to settle in the mother country in large numbers. As Britain’s global power ebbed away, her colonial subjects flocked to her shores, and only in the final act of the imperial story did the faces on the streets of London, Liverpool and Cardiff remind the onlooker that the nation had for centuries stood at the centre of a “coloured empire”.
David Olusoga is an award-winning historian, broadcaster and author of Black and British: A Forgotten History (Macmillan, 2016).
Television: Black and British: A Forgotten History, presented by David Olusoga and shown on BBC Four, is currently available online at BBC iPlayer.