132. Griots of the Windrush Generation
Author: Adekeye Adebajo
Date: 9 April 2021
Publication: The Gleaner (Jamaica)
Image courtesy of: Michael A. W. Griffin via commons.wikimedia.org
In 2008, Jamaican-British historian, Colin Grant, published the most comprehensive contemporary biography of Jamaica’s most famous Pan-African prophet, Marcus Garvey: the magisterial, meticulously researched Negro in A Hat. Last year, Grant’s new oral history, Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation, was published. It is based on more than 100 interviews, archival recordings, and memoirs of Caribbean immigrants in Britain. The anthology gives voice to the hopes, achievements, and struggles of Caribbean immigrants who came to Britain as part of the “Windrush generation”. These exiles are collectively named after the ship, HMT Empire Windrush, which transported many of them in the first year of migration in 1948.
Grant is a griot of his people’s trials and tribulations in a foreign land that many Caribbeans had previously naively considered the “Mother Country”. Between 1948 and 1963, an estimated 300,000 Caribbean immigrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, St Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, and other islands, arrived in Britain. Jamaicans constituted 75% of these immigrants. Grant has interviewed teachers in Croydon; welders in Leeds; nurses in Manchester; bus drivers in Bristol; motor workers in Luton; seamstresses in Birmingham; seamen in Ipswich; slum landlords in Notting Hill; and Carnival Queens in Chapeltown. These are all people who have been largely invisible to their British hosts, whose lives have never been properly documented, whose significant contributions to the making of contemporary Britain never properly recognised. Grant notes that Caribbeans have partly contributed to their own anonymity, through secretiveness and an obsession with maintaining a low profile, borne of not wanting to attract attention to themselves.
Great Expectations: Anglophilia and A Clash of Cultures
Britain had introduced slavery into, and colonised, 20 Caribbean countries for three centuries. Many Caribbean citizens thus grew up on a staple diet of British education and culture. They embraced the Mother Country and were told that they were members of the Commonwealth, entitled to carry British passports. They thus wore their Sunday best, sang “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia”, and unfurled the Union flag every Empire Day on 24 May. They read Shakespeare, Dickens, Kipling, and Wordsworth; their history was about how Churchill had vanquished Hitler; their geography about British seas and shires; and their economics about Bristol iron and Sheffield steel. West Indians also played cricket, football, rugby, tennis, and bridge; they attended churches with British priests; and they admired English gentlemen in bowler hats and umbrellas.
Many Caribbeans, however, never made the connection between the widespread destitution and poverty on their islands and British slavery and colonialism. Indeed, many adopted deferential and subservient attitudes to white people. Many anglophile Caribbean citizens thus wholeheartedly imbibed British culture, despite the widespread professional and social discrimination baked into British colonial rule on their islands. As Waveney Bushell, a Guyanese immigrant, noted: “We were indoctrinated into feeling that Britain was the place in the world… I felt everything English was the best.”
Bleak House: From Slavery to Contemporary Racial Discrimination
Trinidadian scholar-politician, Eric Williams, demonstrated in his seminal 1944 study, Capitalism and Slavery, that the main beneficiaries of the Transatlantic slave trade had been the “plantocracy” of British merchants and planters in the Caribbean. Between 1680 and 1786, over two million African slaves were shipped to British colonies in the Caribbean. This trade laid the foundations of contemporary British industry and banking. For all this, propaganda on the islands covered up Britain’s major, two-century role in the slave trade, convincing West Indians instead to focus on a narrative of the Mother Country as an Abolitionist power. British textbooks in the Caribbean reinforced negative stereotypes of Africa, and Bert Williams, a Jamaican immigrant, notes, “We always thought we weren’t Africans; we were better than the Africans and they were actually really slaves”.
After the Second World War (1939-1945), huge labour shortages in the British health and transport services forced officials from London to set up offices in Jamaica and Barbados to entice West Indians to move to their country. Many Caribbeans thus left their small islands of widespread joblessness in search of a better life and adventure. These voyages often amounted to improvised journeys without maps, with many immigrants failing to plan carefully. Some did not even have details of where they would be staying when they arrived. Many had sacrificed enormously to save up the small fortune required to make the trip. Families were often broken up, children were sometimes left behind, and many exiles often never saw their parents again. Many felt powerless and trapped in a cold and unfriendly land: able neither to settle nor to return home.
The West Indians soon felt the hostility of British society. Within a decade, they were greeted with headlines such as “Our Jamaica Problem”, and “Racial Troubles in Notting Hill”. Nativist British politicians started talking about controlling the “influx” of West Indians, fanning the flames of anti-immigrant xenophobia. Many British citizens disparaged the immigrants as “savages”, “monkeys” and “coons”. Official government reports described West Indian workers as “unsuitable for heavy manual work” and “slow mentally”.
Previous Caribbean notions of a British paradise flowing with milk and honey were quickly dispelled. Many found conditions worse than those they had left behind, in addition to the cold weather and bad food. They faced open discrimination in employment, housing, and accessing loans and mortgages. Many thus held on to low-paying, unskilled, menial jobs as if their lives depended on it. Having been denied employment opportunities in most sectors, the exiles then endured the double indignity of being derided as lazy spongers off the British welfare system. West Indians in Britain, however, showed resourcefulness in setting up self-help associations and communal funding schemes that helped pay for rent, mortgages, and cars.
In reaction to racial riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham in 1958, visionary Caribbean civic leaders sought to counter negative stereotypes of their cultures by fostering a more positive image. These festivals in London’s Notting Hill and Leeds’s Chapeltown from 1959 and 1967 respectively, were an act of nostalgia and self-assertion by homesick West Indians. They unabashedly celebrated Caribbean culture, heritage, and arts with marching steel bands, colourful dance troupes, and Carnival Queens.
Britain’s 21st Century Shame: The Windrush Scandal
At the beginning of his book, Grant bemoans the “reprehensible treatment” of the Windrush generation by the British government, but does not really expand on the 2014–2018 scandal. The British Home Office – acting like a Dickensian “Circumlocution Office” – required that Caribbean arrivals from half a century ago prove that they had not left Britain for two consecutive years, and produce four pieces of documentary evidence for every year that they had resided in Britain. Meanwhile, the mandarins also maliciously destroyed an archive of old landing slips that could have proved the arrival of many of these migrants. Many West Indians who had travelled as infants on their parents’ passports clearly never had travel documents, as British authorities well knew.
As Home Secretary, Theresa May – buttressed by draconian immigration acts in 2014 and 2016 – set out deliberately to create a hostile environment for immigrants. In a reversion to Nazi-style tactics, her administration turned employers, landlords, banks, schools, and hospitals into border guards, required to check the papers of immigrants under the threat of hefty fines or even jail terms. A brutal “deport first, appeal later” policy was adopted and, in an action more befitting a banana republic than an established democracy, the government dispatched vans into immigrant areas bearing billboards that read, “GO HOME OR FACE ARREST”. May spoke, in xenophobic tones, about “citizens of nowhere”. Her policies have had a devastating impact on the lives of over 5,000 law-abiding Caribbean immigrants who have lived in Britain for decades. May’s successor, Boris Johnson, had complained in 2008 that Caribbean people in Britain were “multiplying like flies”.
The immense contributions of Caribbean citizens to British life have rarely been properly acknowledged. Furthermore, little thought has been given to the huge educational and training investments in the first-generation Windrush émigrés by island governments, who lost their citizens to the efforts to build up post-war Britain. Intellectuals like Andrea Levy and Stuart Hall; broadcasters like Barbara Blake Hannah and Trevor Mcdonald; musicians like Eddy Grant and Lady Saw; film director Steve McQueen; and sports stars like Viv Richards and John Barnes have all had a tremendous impact on British life.
In closing, the author quotes the late St. Lucian Nobel literature laureate, Derek Walcott’s famous “Homecoming” poem: “..never guessed you’d come to know there are homecomings without home,” to encapsulate the Windrush experience. The West Indian immigrants to Britain discovered that they kept journeying, but somehow never arrived. Never accepted as full citizens, they found themselves permanent exiles in a strange land, and yet still managed to contribute significantly to their adopted home.
Professor Adekeye Adebajo is Director of the University of Johannesburg’s Institute for Global African Affairs in South Africa, a joint initiative with the University of the West Indies.