The arrival of the Empire Windrush from the Caribbean 75 years marks both the beginning of a transformation of British society and the continuation of a tortuous relationship between the West and Africa, writes Onyekachi Wambu.
2023 represents an important anniversary for people of African descent in the UK. 22 June, now known as Windrush Day, marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks, transporting to the UK some 600 Caribbean men and women, many of whom had served Britain during the war, who were seeking fresh employment opportunities.
Britain, needing a workforce for post-war reconstruction, reached out to the former colonies – and many from the Caribbean, facing limited opportunities at home, responded eagerly. Many were also driven by the chance to remake themselves in the so-called ‘Motherland’, following years of the brutal and humiliating treatment of their ancestors.
The original intention was to work hard for a few years, to earn enough money to set themselves up comfortably when they returned home. Seventy-five winters on, they and their descendants remain in the UK, living examples of what John Lennon referred to as the life that actually takes place, between our plans and our dreaming.
Despite their now deferred promises, the arrival of the Windrush is now taken to have a number of significant meanings. On one level it is now understood to be the beginning of the process of mass migration to the UK from the former colonies in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa – a process that would radically transform a previously white UK population into the complex multi-racial society that it now is, headed by Rishi Sunak, a UK Prime Minister of Indian descent, and Humza Yousaf, a Scottish First Minister of Pakistani descent.
This transformation has been quite profound and 25 years ago on the 50th anniversary, when I published an anthology, Empire Windrush: 50 Years of Writing About Black Britain, telling the story through the literature that had been produced by a generation of gifted writers (George Lamming, Sam Selvon, C.L.R James, Beryl Gilroy, Buchi Emecheta, Salman Rushdie, etc.), this was the most important meaning of the Windrush Anniversary.
The anthology captured the emotions of those who had made that journey, their reasons for leaving, their reception by their often bewildered and hostile British hosts, the daily challenges they witnessed, the emergence of the voice of a second generation of British-born children such as Bernardine Evaristo and Andrea Levy, and the myriad ways the first and second generation eloquently describe through prose and poetry, the ups and downs of the “Empire striking back”, so to speak.
Revisiting some of this ground 25 years later for a 75th anniversary edition due to be published on 22 June 2023, the meaning of Windrush has again shifted dramatically. The shift involves overturning the now ingrained and popular tendency to view Windrush only as the beginning of something, in contrast to the more vital need of viewing it as a ‘moment’ in time – a part of the continuity of the long British relationship with people of African descent over the last 500 years of slavery, empire and colonisation.
The Empire Windrush was one of a number of ships, with different cargoes, which have arrived, left, passed through or been built in the UK, as part of that relationship. The holds of the various ships are loaded down with their own unique meanings – from the trauma and dislocation of the slave ships from Africa to the Americas, and then the subsequent journeying to the UK of freed Africans such as Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century, to the optimism and hope of the Windrush arrivals in 1948: each ship an intricate part of a mercantilist trading and economic system which continues in place.
The times themselves are demanding this longer-term perspective and unravelling of the tortuous relationships that underpin the holds of the various ships that travelled as part of the odious ‘Triangle’.
In this unravelling, it is no coincidence that the calls for apologies, restitution and reparations are increasing, leading to the Dutch, on 19 December 2022 being the first Western government to issue a full-throated apology for their slavery past, and financially committing £200m in reparations.
There is now pressure on the UK government and royal family to do likewise – perhaps an appropriate tribute in this 75th Windrush year! Let’s see.
Empire Windrush, edited by Onyekachi Wambu, is published by Wiedenfeld & Nicolson in the UK.