The docking of the Empire Windrush in Tilbury in 1948 was just one incident in a long history of African / Caribbean involvement in the UK, writes Clayton Goodwin.
On 21 June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on the River Thames just to the east of London. The passengers disembarked the next day. The ship carried with it the foreordained aura of history, clearly marked the point at which Caribbean and African involvement in UK life commenced, and has also forged the development of its own generation and of those that have followed.
Such, at least, is the myth, and, like all myths, it bears an important message, but it is hardly the full story. If all the people who have said that they – or their parents – had “come over on the Windrush” had actually done so the vessel would have foundered from overloading before it reaching half-way in its voyage. As was said in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.
Africans, actually, had been in England even before the English arrived. While campaigning here, Roman emperor Septimius Severus, born in present-day Libya, died at York in 211 (CE). Having won the crown in a three-sided civil war, he relied for support and security on what historians describe as his “favourites”, and these must have included men from his own background.
Although the African influence dried up in later centuries, it never went away entirely. For example, five hundred years later St Hadrian / Adrian of Canterbury, another son of Libya, was twice offered the archbishopric of Canterbury, the most prestigious ecclesiastical appointment, which he declined. The African presence in England since Tudor times is also well-documented.
In the early years of the last century my grandfather, who was a painter / decorator in the London Docks (including Tilbury), witnessed at first-hand the growth of the vibrant – already existing – African, Caribbean and Asian communities in the city’s East End.
This expansion continued well into the inter-war era of the 1920s and 1930s. Black participants, including African-Americans, had a high profile in British sport, entertainment and day-to-day life. A good many were received by royalty and achieved international acclaim. Probably the most famous was singer Florence Mills, who was already an established star when she died aged only 31 years.
The fact that they are now largely forgotten cannot be blamed entirely on the British public. There was no mass media then to publicise achievements beyond those spectators who witnessed performances in person.
Symphony of cultures
The passengers of the Empire Windrush came into what was already fertile territory. Yet, retrospectively, it is right to regard their arrival as marking a point at which people of African heritage as a community started to become an integral part of the UK’s symphony of cultures.
The roots, often nourished by rejection, took time to flourish and bear fruit. Even so, the complexion of the country as it is today, the post-colonial society, can be traced back to that time. Although calypsonian Lord Kitchener, a passenger on the Windrush, may have been premature in singing “London is the place for me”, he was pointing in the direction of the future.
Therefore, it is so sad, infuriating and incomprehensible that our national institutions have still not grasped the implications and justice of the inevitable. Two current news stories are particularly poignant. A much-publicised report by Baroness Louise Casey found the Metropolitan Police to be institutionally racist (among other unpleasant things).
Really! Isn’t that what people of all cultures have been saying for many years – and was confirmed by the previous report by Lord Macpherson into the murder of Black student Stephen Lawrence, published over 20 years ago? At least, nobody can plead ignorance now. How to fix it – there’s the rub?
It isn’t feasible to dismiss the entire force and start again. Crime would run rife while their replacements were being trained. Besides, who would do the training? Obviously, it would be today’s experienced officers, who would pass on their prejudices as well as their skills.
The Metropolitan Police cannot be reformed in isolation. It can be reformed only when the society which it represents has been reformed. That process is not helped by PM Rishi Sunak – who otherwise, at home and overseas, is gaining a reputation for rationality (at least compared to his immediate predecessors) – feeling compelled to give dog-whistle support to the immigrant / ethnic-tinged rantings of his more extreme ministers, of whom Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose own parents of Asian heritage came from out of Africa, is the most prominent, in the run-up to national local elections. In the impetus to apologise, and, in some cases, to make amends, for the legacy of slavery, liberals have had to consider “the beam in their own eye” (as St Matthew quoted Jesus as saying).
It is recognised now that Manchester, the world’s first industrial city and held to be the bastion of liberal thought, is tainted as much as is its slave-trading neighbour, the port of Liverpool. Just as wounding, though honest, is the mea culpa of the Guardian newspaper, the beacon of humanity in a notoriously muddied media – which was founded in this northern city and was known for many years as the Manchester Guardian – that it, itself, has been grounded on the buying and selling of humanity. Its competitors have escaped similar censure by being founded sometime after the abolition of slavery.
Discovering a new world
For the Windrush passengers, the anticipation of discovering a New World in England was real enough. Oswald Denniston, a street-trader who settled in Brixton, was among their number. He took the trade-name Columbus, by which he sold his wares in London and the towns around about. At Rochester market in the late 1950s he was the first Black person on whom I ever set eyes and heard speak. Mr Denniston later reflected to the BBC, “Many of us thought we would come here to get a better education and stay for about five years, but then some of us have ended staying for fifty”.
Those new arrivals who had not made their own arrangements were put up in deep shelter at Clapham South underground station. The majority were Jamaican and because the nearest employment office was at Coldharbour Lane in Brixton a distinctive Jamaican community grew up in that neighbourhood, where the island’s influence remains strong.
The term Windrush generation has since been extended to all immigrants from the Caribbean (often including those direct from Africa also) who came here between 1948 and 1971, and, more recently, it has become a code-term for the difficulties and injustices which they and their children have suffered from the Home Office (which is in charge of immigration).
Although as an event the docking of the Empire Windrush was just one incident in a long history of African / Caribbean involvement in the UK, it is a good and relevant moment to mark as the point from which to reflect on the development of the current composition of our society. And it is a good point, too, for King Charles III to ponder as he sets out on his path as the newly-crowned head of country and Commonwealth.
By happenstance, I, too, was at Tilbury docks in June 1948 (not necessarily on the 21st / 22nd). My grandfather, who had recently retired, took me with him when he went back to see some of his former work-mates. We can be reasonably sure of the month because the dockers were still talking about the much-heralded arrival there just a few weeks earlier of Don Bradman’s famous Australian cricket team (the so-called ‘Invincibles’).
Although in comparison, the coming of the Empire Windrush was hardly noticed, its impact has been immeasurable by whichever yardstick is used. It is more than a myth; it has become a legend providing a focal-point for a people’s experience, the effect of which we have scarcely begun to appreciate.
The myth, in itself, is not important, but the message it carries matters.