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Unraveling the Windrush myth

June 23, 2023
13 mins read
The British troopship HMT Empire Windrush on fire off the port of Algiers after the evacuation of passengers and crew ( March 1954). Image: Wikicommons

In the twilight hours of June 21, 1948, a weathered five-deck troopship transporting 1,027 passengers moored off Gravesend on the south bank of the river Thames. That evening, immigration officials would begin carefully processing those aboard. The following afternoon, passengers would walk off the gangplank, finally stepping foot on British soil, disembarking at the port of Tilbury in Essex.

The ship that docked in the summer of 1948 was the HMT Empire Windrush. Before arriving in Gravesend, it already had a complicated and disturbing life: it was once a German vessel of war and fascist propaganda and a mode of transport for Holocaust victims. But it was this one post-war journey from the Caribbean to England that would define it.

As a result of this singular crossing, the ship would come to embody impossibly grand tales of empire and migration, and become a seductive symbol for a country – and a dying empire – that desperately wanted to present itself as tolerant and fair-minded.

In the past few years, I have been working on an archival project that investigates the longer, more global, history of the Windrush. The project seeks to unravel what would become the potent mythology surrounding the ship, and to track how government officials reacted to the vessel and its passengers.

The Windrush was not the first post-war vessel to bring Caribbean migrants to the UK, and the number of migrants who disembarked had little impact on the UK’s ethnic makeup at that time (immigration numbers from the Caribbean would increase more significantly in the 1950s and 60s, particularly in response to anticipated immigration controls).

Despite this, the Windrush has taken on mythic proportions, with its name acting as a shorthand means of referring to all Caribbean migrants who came to Britain between 1948 and 1971. Some of this is due to the photographic and filmic archival images we have of the ship’s arrival.

As we commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Windrush’s mooring and pay tribute to the remarkable Windrush pioneers and the centuries-long history of black Britain, it is imperative to interrogate these myths.

Racism in the archives

The political context in which the Windrush arrived is important.

In the immediate post-war years, the British economy was in dire need of labour, and the government began to establish schemes to recruit workers from abroad, particularly from Europe and, in some cases, the colonies.

Industries including hospitality, healthcare and transport would actively reach out to workers throughout the Caribbean to fill much-needed vacancies. The development of these colonial worker schemes can be seen in government memorandums from the 1940s exploring, for example, the possibility of recruiting Barbadian women into the nursing industry.

At the same time, many Caribbean countries suffered from chronic unemployment and low wages (an economic condition created through the crushing legacy of colonial rule and enslavement). Without safety nets such as social security, the incentive for Caribbean workers to migrate to the UK was strong.

The migrants from Britain’s colonies were often ex-servicemen who had fought for Britain in the second world war and, more importantly, subjects of the British empire. Through centuries of colonial rule and education, the cultural imaginary of Britain and Britishness was inculcated into each of the colonies. For better or worse, Britain was known as the “motherland” and migration to the heart of the empire was not controversial. As subjects of the empire, these colonial migrants had every right to travel and settle in Britain.

However, despite the need for labour, even before the Windrush docked, certain government officials were expressing concern about Caribbean migrants aboard another boat, the Ormonde, which had arrived in Liverpool in March of 1947.

In one confidential telegram dated May 1 1947, from the governor of Jamaica to the secretary of state for the colonies in London, it’s clear that these “labourers” are not welcome:

I should be most grateful for any guidance which you feel able to give me in this matter. You may consider that it would be sufficient for the moment to issue a public statement here warning Jamaican labourers not to proceed to the United Kingdom on the ground that employment cannot readily be found for them. [However] the proposal to employ Italian or Polish labour in Great Britain has received wide publicity here, and such a public statement issued on the authority of His Majesty’s Government is [therefore] likely to give rise to political criticism.

This request for guidance is merely a public relations issue. The hypocrisy evident in confidential telegrams such as this mark the contradiction between the legal rights of these migrants and their social acceptance into the British workforce.

The government was, at the time, creating programmes like the European Voluntary Worker (EVW) scheme, which would enable displaced, primarily, Eastern European migrants to fill the labour shortage in the country (such as the Polish labour mentioned in the telegram). Yet, the government was also simultaneously discouraging British subjects in the Caribbean from filling those gaps.

Put simply: here we see an early example of what would become the Windrush scandal, where the rights of British colonial subjects are severely undermined. This is a story about British imperial history that has long been neglected and which has only recently received mainstream media attention through the work of historians such as David Olusoga.

In a later telegram addressed to Miss V. Tavener at the Ministry of Labour and National Service in March 1948, we find another example of the deep racial anxiety around Caribbean migration. This time, it is in response to Jamaican workers who had arrived on the Almanzora six months before the Windrush, docking in December 1947 in Southampton.

The telegram is concerned about their employment. We learn about seven particular stowaways on the ship: after their release from prison, five of them would join the agricultural industry, four in Gloucestershire and one in Wiltshire:

We have submitted one other who is an ex-Merchant Navy man to London and although we cannot place him in Bristol because it is a ‘White’ Port, we are hoping that he will be engaged at Cardiff, or some other ‘Coloured’ Port.

In this telegram, a Caribbean former serviceman who fought for “King and Country” is relegated to a specific geography and labour force according not to his skill but his race. This is not the preamble to anything that resembles a harmonious, multi-racial Britain (as the modern myth of Windrush would later tell us). The admission that such migrants are being dispatched along racial lines explicitly outlines the segregation of black, colonial workers.

The ‘wrong’ kind of worker

By the time the Empire Windrush was scheduled to arrive at Tilbury, the apprehension exhibited by members of the government, colonial or otherwise, had further increased. A month before the ship was due to dock in May 1948, the acting governor of Jamaica sent an urgent telegram, this time via airmail so it would be swiftly received, warning the government about the boat’s arrival:

I regret to inform you that more than 350 troop-deck passages by EMPIRE WINDRUSH … have been booked by men who hope to find employment in the United Kingdom, and that it is likely that this number will be increased by another 100 before the vessel leaves. Most of them have no particular skill and few will have more than a few pounds on their arrival. Public announcements on the difficulty of obtaining work have not discouraged these bookings…

These are sinister words. First, the “facts” in the message are incorrect – we know from archival records that the migrants on board were skilled and trained.

Worst still, we find here another explicit expression of the disconnection between government policy and its enactment, one that nullifies the spirit of fair play and benevolence that was often attached to the popular myth of Windrush. These documents reveal not just an administrative anxiety around these migrants, but an account of how they were actively discouraged from entering the country.

Such exchanges demonstrate that officials were aware of the explosive political repercussions in deterring these migrants. As one government employee put it in his response to the Colonial Office:

It may become extremely embarrassing politically if, at a time of labour shortage, there should be nothing but discouragement for British subjects from the West Indies while we go to great trouble to get foreign workers (i.e. EVWs).

The embarrassment appears to stem not from the fact that these British subjects were being unjustly treated, but that denying them entry would expose the racial logic that secretly underpinned Britain’s search for a revived labour force. In another government note, plans go so far as to suggest outsourcing Caribbean migrant labour and “employ[ing] the Jamaicans in East Africa on the production of ground nuts”.

As the Windrush arrived in June 1948, the crescendo of dissent against these migrants rose to the highest levels of government. Responding to an enquiry regarding Jamaican workers and an ensuing letter signed by ten members of parliament conveying their concern about the ship, then prime minister Clement Attlee sought to quell the rising tide of apprehension:

It is traditional that British subjects, whether of Dominion or Colonial origin (and of whatever race or colour), should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom. That tradition is not, in my view, to be lightly discarded, particularly at a time when we are importing foreign labour in large numbers.

A letter written on a typewriter.
Clement Attlee’s response to MPs who had expressed concern about the Windrush’s arrival. The National Archives

Attlee recognised the dangerous political fallout that would arise should the government execute its policies in an overtly discriminatory manner. The freedom of movement referenced in his reply is a marker of the so-called benevolence of British imperialism. To question the rights of these migrants would, he suggested, “weaken the goodwill and loyalty of the Colonies towards Great Britain”.

In his attempt to quiet the growing opposition, Attlee was able to voice one of the key reasons why the Windrush stands out among the ships that would bring Caribbean migrants to Britain in the 1940s and 50s. As he warned:

Too much importance – too much publicity too – has been attached to the present argosy [the Empire Windrush] of the Jamaicans.

The Windrush became an emblem of history precisely because of the publicity around it. Its arrival occurred at a particular moment of political escalation, visible within these governmental files, where racial anxiety around issues of migration became an identifiable problem.

The anticipation surrounding its impending arrival in England thus increased. As the Windrush docked, it wasn’t just ministers who were waiting, but also reporters and a Pathé film crew that would go on to place the ship firmly in the public imagination.

A fateful moment on the gangplank

The now iconic, crackling black-and-white newsreel of the arrival of the Empire Windrush captures the coming lore around this moment.

In his coverage, the plummy-accented British interviewer, John Parsons, reduces the story to only a particular set of passengers: 500 Jamaican men seeking employment in the country. But we know from archival records that the ship sailed from Southampton to ports in Trinidad and Jamaica, Mexico, Cuba and Bermuda before dropping anchor at Gravesend.

The women and children aboard are excluded from the footage. So too are the men from the rest of the Caribbean – all with the right to settle and work in Britain – and also 66 Polish refugees fleeing Stalin.

One key moment from the newsreel is Parsons’s interview with the Trinidadian Calypso musician Lord Kitchener (misidentified as Jamaican). Standing on the gangplank, Kitchener serenades Parsons with his now legendary song, London is the Place for Me. It’s a musical gesture that appears to conjure a mood of hope, optimism and insinuated hospitality waiting at the heart of the empire’s metropolis.

This monochrome story has been mythologised in recent popular representations of the ship’s arrival. During Danny Boyle’s 2012 London Olympic opening ceremony, a bombastic model of the Windrush was paraded and circled around the floor of the stadium. The ship’s embrace into the spectacle of a progressive ceremony that championed civil rights, labour movements and the welfare state, entangled the imaginary of the Windrush’s docking with patriotic notions of integrity and sportsmanship.

In the 2014 live-action adaptation of Michael Bond’s children’s book A Bear Called Paddington, we see a continuation of this starry-eyed portrayal of the Windrush story. As the young stowaway bear, Paddington, arrives in London from Peru for the first time, a contemporary rendition of Kitchener’s London is the Place for Me cheerfully plays in the background. Thus, the calypso sung on the gangplank of the Windrush now becomes the soundtrack of a beloved British children’s story of what it means to welcome a migrant figure.

Such romantic depictions demonstrate the political investment in obscuring the history of the ship. The Windrush’s arrival became, especially in the late-20th and early-21st century, a feel-good media narrative about a benign empire that seamlessly transitioned from a period of vicious colonisation to one of open-mindedness and equity.

Few of these representations properly considered the brutality and racial hostility that awaited those Caribbean migrants on board, who would face discrimination in all aspects of British life for decades to come.

In Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands, Hazel Carby pinpoints the discrepancies in portrayals of the Windrush ever since, writing that the ship represented a “cultural and political break in time”. As its arrival gathered immense importance throughout the years, a profound and misleading mythology developed around it.

“Before the Windrush,” Carby notes, the myth was that “Britain was white”. The ship, it was believed, brought black people from the colonies to the centre of empire for the first time.

That myth would mutate even further. Particularly after the 50th anniversary of the ship’s docking in 1998, the Windrush appeared more and more as a symbol of national uplift and benign imperialism – if such a thing is possible. As the writers Mike and Trevor Phillips put it, the vessel became in that commemorative moment an “irresistible” icon that inaugurated the “rise of a multi-racial Britain”.

These days, it is impossible to speak of the ship as representative of a story of racial tolerance and justice amid the ongoing Windrush scandal (reported by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman in 2017), where pension-aged British citizens, the children of the first generation of Windrush migrants, are being “illegalised”, detained and/or deported.

But going through the archives, we see in government memos from the 1940s clear signs of the scandal to come decades later. The documents reveal how British officials sought to delegitimise – couched in terms of “discouragement” – the rights of these early colonial migrants.

The unofficial attempt to curb migration from the Caribbean in the 1940s would find a juridical voice in restrictive immigration policies from the 1960s to the present, which would officially delegitimise the rights of these British subjects.

From Germany, to Tilbury, to Algiers

Undoing the Windrush mythology requires not only a focus on the political and administrative realities around its arrival, but also a mapping of the ship’s nautical life.

Built in 1930 by the German company Blohm and Voss in Hamburg, it was part of a series of cruise ships that would take Germans to South America. The ship’s original name was the MV Monte Rosa and, during the 1930s, it would ferry thousands of German migrants and tourists to countries such as Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Passengers included members of the Nazi movement who sought to spread fascist ideas.

Once the second world war broke out, the Monte Rosa transported supplies and personnel, supporting German warships and naval attacks against the Allies. It also transported Jewish Norwegians who were caged beneath the decks and sent to Auschwitz (a gruesome history outlined in Paul Arnott’s book Windrush: A Ship Through Time). As Arnott writes of the Monte Rosa at that time:

In one respect, she was a migrant ship – in another, a vessel promulgating the Nazi movement at sea.

At the end of the war in 1945, the British captured the Monte Rosa in Kiel, Germany. By 1947, the boat had become part of His Majesty’s troopships (HMT) and was renamed Empire Windrush – christened after the river Windrush, a quiet tributary of the Thames that begins in the Cotswold Hills in south-west England.

The ship embarked on a voyage to the Caribbean in May 1948 – the only journey it would make to that part of the world, but one that would disproportionately define its history. Afterwards, it would transport British troops throughout the Korean War and the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya.

In March 1954, the Windrush made its last journey carrying British troops and their families from East Asia back to England. After boarding the last of its passengers at Port Said in Egypt and on its way to Southampton, the ship’s engine room caught fire 50 miles off the coast of Algiers. Nearly all of the passengers, including men, women, children and infants, were rescued by four nearby ships before the burning vessel was abandoned at sea, where it soon sank.

This fire would become a source of intense controversy. In the following months, a formal inquiry investigated whether the ship was legally seaworthy, given its recorded history of disrepair.

The response of the British media to the sinking of the ship is noteworthy. Because so many survived, the press claimed this sunken ship as yet another symbol of the “superiority” of the British national character and, by extension, the British empire. As the Birmingham Post put it:

There is reason for pride, as well as for deep thankfulness, at the outcome of the dire emergency that so swiftly overtook the troopship Empire Windrush in the early hours of Sunday morning.

In recounting the “calm and considerate” actions of the crew, the newspaper noted that such dispositions deserve mention “because it is so much in the national tradition”.

A boat on fire.
The Empire Windrush on fire before sinking off the coast of Algiers in March 1954. Wikimedia

Thus, even as it sank, the publicity around the Windrush reiterated the ship’s benevolent qualities. This representation echoed prime minister Attlee’s comments regarding the distinctive British tradition of fair play concerning colonial migration. Amid the context of a crumbling empire, the ship was again mythologised in the service of preserving a benign sensibility of British imperial history.

Today, as Windrush scandal victims, and survivors, continue to emerge – with compensation only very slowly being dispatched – the complicated history of the HMT Empire Windrush has much to teach us about how we view and understand Britain’s imperial past and present.

This particular ship has always been entangled within the British empire’s publicity machine. As we mark the 75th anniversary of its Tilbury docking, and commemorate the remarkable impact these post-war Caribbean migrants and their descendants have had on the cultural life of the UK, it is imperative to avoid the lure of this imperial persona. It is not the romance of the Windrush we should remember, but the untended racial injustices that have endured since the ship’s arrival.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Henghameh Saroukhani

Henghameh Saroukhani is an Assistant Professor in Black British Literature at Durham University. Her research interests span the fields of black British and black Atlantic literatures and cultures, cosmopolitanism, new materialism, autotheory, and dub poetry. I hold degrees from the University of Alberta (BA, Political Science and English), the University of British Columbia (MA, English), and the University of Leeds (PhD, English).

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