Edward Long arrived ‘home’ in the ‘mother country’ in 1769 with his wife and three young children after 12 years as a planter in Jamaica. His return presented no problems. He was a colonist, a ‘freeborn Englishman’, welcomed back to ‘his’ country. His wife came, as he did, from an elite white dynasty and his children, though they were born in Jamaica, inherited his birthright. (The children of enslaved women inherited their mothers’ status and were born enslaved.) Long had made enough money from his cane fields and enslaved labour to return home, safe in the expectation that his plantations could be managed from a distance while he enjoyed a life of leisure. He had been keen to return to ‘his dear Native Land’, determined that his children should receive an English education. ‘I can no more be happy here than Gulliver was,’ he wrote to a close friend: the family estate in Clarendon was ‘undoubtedly the Golgotha of Jamaica’. All white colonists lived in fear, given their tiny numbers and their dependence on enslaved Africans. England, by contrast, was always imagined as a safe place. The Longs were welcomed by their relatives – rich West Indian merchants in London and landed gentry in Suffolk. They settled in Chichester, a genteel southern English town, in an area liked by returning ‘West Indians’ because of its tranquillity and its relative proximity to London. Long had brought with him a collection of documents he had acquired in preparation for what he hoped would be a peaceful literary life. He planned to devote himself to writing a new and authoritative history of Jamaica.
England, however, had changed since he left for Jamaica in 1757. There had always been critics of New World slavery but they had been a tiny minority. The slavery business, from the making of guns and fetters to the provisioning of ships and processing of sugar, was accepted as an important part of England’s wealth. Slavery, itself associated with Africa and the Americas, happened elsewhere. Britons, proud of their liberties, ‘never shall be slaves’: slavery was a condition for others. But by the 1760s there were the beginnings of a growth in anti-slavery sentiment. A significant number of black people had long been present in London and the port towns – enslaved, free, runaways, sailors and servants – but the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the huge expansion of Britain’s empire may have made them increasingly visible. The black presence raised questions about what it meant to have such an empire, one composed of peoples of different ethnicities and religious beliefs. A number of cases of enslaved African men and women who had escaped from their owners in London, only to be recaptured, came to public attention.
James Somerset, who had been brought to England from Virginia by his owner, Charles Stewart, and managed to escape and live freely for a brief period, became the subject of a test case in 1772. Was the ownership of people legal in the ‘mother country’? Stewart had employed slave-hunters to capture Somerset and put him on a boat for Jamaica. A baptised Christian, Somerset was able to appeal for support and a writ of habeas corpus was secured for his release. He went to Granville Sharp, who agreed to take the case. Sharp was concerned with the legality of slavery in England and especially troubled by slaveowners’ exercise of unrestricted violence and power, considering it morally damaging. He had devoted much time and energy to researching legal arguments about personal liberty and in 1769 had published A Representation of the Injustice and Dangerous Tendency of Tolerating Slavery, or Admitting the Least Claim of Private Property in the Persons of Men in England. Somerset’s case became a cause célèbre, widely reported in the press, with Lord Chief Justice Mansfield sitting in judgment. Both pro-slavers and anti-slavery activists (there was as yet no organised movement) knew that the judgment mattered. During the trial the lawyers defending Stewart, and Mansfield himself, warned of the dangers that would be unleashed if Somerset was freed: ‘They will flock over in vast numbers … overrun this country and desolate the plantations.’ Sharp too was concerned by ‘the unnatural increase of black subjects’ in England and what the effects of this might be on public morals. But Mansfield, deeply reluctantly, and determined to limit his judgment to Somerset himself, ruled that ‘the man must be discharged.’ Somerset was a man, not simply a ‘thing’: he could not be forcibly returned to the Caribbean.
Edward Long watched the trial with dismay. He issued a vitriolic pamphlet castigating the lawyer who had discovered ‘the art of washing the black-a-moor white’ and had made the scurrilous claim that ‘negroes’ could be proclaimed ‘subjects of the realm, and held entitled to all the rights, liberties, and privileges of natural, or free-born subjects’. The nation was supported by its trade, he argued, and British commerce and opinion ‘esteemed Negroe labourers merely a commodity, or chose in merchandise … objects of purchase and sale, transferrable like any other goods and chattels.’ Their right of property was as ‘strong, just, legal … as that of any other British merchant over the goods in his warehouse’. The legality of the slave trade and slavery was not his only theme. He had returned to England to find far too many black people living in ‘ease and indolence’, blocking the native poor from employment, committing thefts and misdemeanours. He had left the brutalities of Jamaica to live in his ‘dear native land’, a white country, and was horrified by the discovery that there was no secure border between metropole and colony. Fresh from the plantation, he alerted his readers to the sexual dangers such proximity to ‘the negro’ engendered. ‘The lower class of women in England are remarkably fond of the blacks, for reasons too brutal to mention,’ he wrote.
By these ladies they generally have a numerous brood. Thus, in the course of a few generations more, the English blood will become so contaminated with this mixture … as even to reach the middle, and then the higher orders of the people, till the whole nation resembles the Portuguese and Moriscos in complexion of skin and baseness of mind. This is a venomous and dangerous ulcer, that threatens to disperse its malignancy far and wide, until every family catches infection from it.
The idea of England as endangered took root. Preserving proper boundaries, keeping England white, was seen by many as a priority. Two years later Long published his three-volume History of Jamaica, in which he argued that black people were essentially different from and inferior to white ones: they were born for subjection.
England as a ‘hostile environment’ for people of colour has had a long history, not confined to pro-slavers like Long, who fought against the abolition of the slave trade from the 1780s, or those who campaigned from the 1820s against the emancipation of the enslaved. Slavery at a distance was one thing, black people at home quite another. Even committed anti-slavery activists such as Granville Sharp were quite clear about the difference between white Britons and Africans: it was slavery that was the problem. Years after the Somerset judgment Sharp noted that it had been important to stop slave-owners ‘bringing with them swarms of Negro attendants into this island’. The language is all too familiar. The presence of black people in England, and the status of people of colour in what was once the empire, have been sources of contention for centuries. Writing in the 1790s, the African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, also known as Gustavus Vassa, represented himself as both African and British. He lived with and through both these identities, a double consciousness. For those who were colonised, questions of identity and belonging were a key legacy of empire. In the 1960s, when the children of the Windrush generation were arriving with their parents, there were no issues with their entry to the ‘mother country’: they were travelling internally within the empire. They were registered as ‘freely landed’: that was the wording on the landing cards destroyed by the Home Office in 2010. Paulette Wilson, Hubert Howard and the many others whose shocking stories are told in The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman, the journalist whose investigations led to the uncovering of the scandal, came in on their parents’ British passports: from the moment of emancipation in 1834, freed men and women became British subjects. But long before the raft of legislation in the 1960s that limited Commonwealth immigration it was clear that British subjecthood was racialised and that black and brown Jamaicans did not enjoy the privileges of freeborn Englishmen.
Approximately 12 million African captives were forcibly transported to the Americas in the early modern period. Many died on the passage across the Atlantic. A significant number, bought and sold as ‘slaves’, worked on the plantations and in the towns of Jamaica, which was colonised by the British in 1655. It is estimated that about a third of these men and women died soon after arrival. At the time of emancipation there were 310,489 adult men and women who had survived the ‘social death’ of the plantation economy. Their owners successfully claimed £20 million in compensation from the British government on the basis that enslaved people were private property. This was the last time they would be valued in monetary terms, as they had been throughout their lives: the slave-owners received cash or cheques. The struggles of enslaved people, including the major rebellion of 1831 which finally convinced the British Parliament that chattel slavery in the British Caribbean, the Cape and Mauritius had to end, resulted in semi-freedom. The system of ‘apprenticeship’, which bound freed men and women to work for their masters for a further period, was abolished in 1838, when ‘full freedom’ was granted after further campaigns in both metropole and colony. But it wasn’t full freedom at all. In the following decades, the emancipated struggled to enjoy the rights that had been promised to them, while the Colonial Office and imperial governments acted effectively to limit those rights and the plantocracy made every effort to hold on to their powers. Freedom, ex-slaves quickly learned, had no guarantees. Between 1838 and 1865 Jamaica’s House of Assembly imposed restrictions on the franchise to limit the black vote, planters held down wages, and the courts continued to operate in white interests. Freed people’s notions of imperial belonging, of being ‘black fellow-subjects’ with rights and entitlements including, for example, the right to petition the crown directly, conflicted sharply with the realities of colonial government. The imperial powers never wavered in their support for the plantocracy or their vision of Jamaica as a place that would produce for the benefit of the ‘mother country’. This meant a plantation economy with no space for peasant aspirations. The explosion of popular protest at Morant Bay in 1865 was a climactic moment. The subsequent violent repression led by Governor Eyre brought Jamaica fully to the attention of the British press, Parliament and public for the first time since emancipation. Eyre’s critics were led by John Stuart Mill, his supporters by the likes of Carlyle and Ruskin. But the issue for Mill and liberal opinion was the legality of the punitive actions, not the source of the protest, which was the social, political and economic oppression of the majority black population.
The pro-slavery campaigns of the early 19th century had been spearheaded by the ‘West India Interest’, but they had relied on support from significant sections of the English population, including some working- class radicals. William Cobbett, one of the most popular journalists of the day, was also one of the most virulent racists. His Political Register echoed the themes that preoccupied Edward Long, and which have been staples of racist discourse ever since. Black people were made for subjection; there were too many of them; they were taking jobs and reducing wages; and they were definitely not ‘men and brothers’, as the abolitionists called them. Even worse was the ‘familiar intercourse’ between ‘the Negroes and the Women of England’, the horror of ‘English mulattoes’. For Cobbett, a passionate nationalist, these women were an offence against family and country. Having read of the revolution in Saint-Domingue in 1793, he played on the inhuman cruelties supposedly perpetrated by ‘the negroes’ in their determination to kill all whites, a story that was to be repeated again and again, and which terrified colonists across the empire.
By the 1840s what was called ‘the great experiment’ of the transition from slavery to freedom was deemed by many Britons to have failed. The Times voiced planters’ complaints about the indolence of African labourers and their endless demands for new indentured labour from other parts of the empire; Charles Dickens wrote about his hatred of ‘telescopic philanthropy’; Charlotte Brontë represented Jamaica as a place of degeneracy and corruption in Jane Eyre; Carlyle’s ‘Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question’ rested on an absolutist assumption of the need for racial hierarchies. The links between English nationalism and racism were fed by popular writers such as Charles Kingsley and the historian and travel writer James Anthony Froude, with his daredevil adventures of Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake, who entertained the notion that slavery was something which must be allowed to die away gradually. Africans were ‘children of darkness’, the English a race born to govern. The debates in England over the Indian rebellion of 1857, when much was made of the inhuman brutalities of the mutineers, the American Civil War, when support for the Confederacy was as strong as it was for the North, and then Morant Bay, all gave new voice to racists and encouraged a particular vision of English whiteness. In the aftermath of 1865 Jamaica’s independent House of Assembly was abolished and crown colony government established with an extremely limited franchise.
Caribbean peoples challenged the imperial powers in whatever ways they could: in their minds blackness and Britishness were not mutually exclusive. They petitioned the crown, held meetings, published pamphlets, organised in associations, demanded better employment conditions. The Trinidadian J. J. Thomas’s scathing Froudacity documented the accomplishments of black people in the diaspora and stressed their ability to chart their own destiny. By the late 1880s there was a strand of black nationalist thought in Jamaica, which was influenced in the early 20th century by pan-Africanism, while Marcus Garvey’s interwar critique of British imperial power cited the failure to deliver equality. Jamaicans, often responsive to claims on behalf of crown, nation and empire, had volunteered to fight in the First World War but experienced disillusionment after its end as their hopes of citizenship were disappointed. Jamaica underwent significant changes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: bananas, not sugar, were now its prime export crop, peasant producers had been marginalised, the labour force had been proletarianised and the US-owned United Fruit Company had gained a near monopoly. It wasn’t until after the major disturbances of 1938, led at first by sugar workers on Tate and Lyle’s Frome Estate, that the adult franchise was finally granted (in 1944) and government reform initiated. Independence wasn’t secured until 1962.
Meanwhile, racist ideas and practices were an insistent feature of British culture, embedded in its colonial history and manifested in multiple ways: from the race riots of 1919, when thousands of men in port towns turned violently on local black communities, to popular fiction and films, or the legislation of the 1920s against ‘coloured seamen’. A Mass Observation survey on race in 1939, cited by Colin Grant in Homecoming, recorded a range of hostile comments. ‘One cannot compare them with whites,’ one woman said. ‘Having been brought up in a hot country they should be left there.’ Another thought of them as ‘big religious children’. ‘I don’t know much about Negroes,’ she commented. ‘I think of them as tall black naked individuals with wide nose, thick lips and black frizzy hair.’ During the war the inclusion of West Indians in the armed forces in Britain provoked mixed responses, while the presence of black GIs increased awareness of the institutionalised racism of the US. The war against Nazi Germany was fought in part for a more inclusive notion of freedom and equality, but ideas about racial superiority were deeply rooted in Britain’s imperial history and there was plenty of evidence of hostility to mixed-race relationships and brown babies.
It was the 1948 Nationality Act, which granted free movement to Commonwealth citizens, that provoked ‘England Fever’ in the British West Indies. Widespread poverty and lack of opportunity across the Caribbean meant that as many as 300,000 men and women left their homes to try their luck in the ‘mother country’. Both Tory and Labour governments hoped that the acute labour shortages after the Second World War would be filled by Europeans and immigrants from the colonies of white settlement, who were classified as ‘British stock’. They did not expect large-scale West Indian migration. But, as the Labour minister for the colonies put it, ‘these people have British passports and must be allowed to land.’ He didn’t believe they would stay: British winters would deter them. The new arrivals were coming to a country they thought they knew, its history, geography and culture familiar from the colonial education system. But the colonial encounter was taking on a new form, shifting from ‘there’ to ‘here’. The arrival of the Empire Windrush came to stand for a hinge moment, the beginning of a new time, when the threat summoned up by Long, Cobbett and others of ‘swarms’ of ‘negroes’ disrupting a white English way of life became, for some, a disturbing reality. Black people knew that ‘we are here because you were there,’ but very few Britons had any idea of the long history of colonialism.
The troubled story of black settlement in postwar Britain and the government response to it has been well documented. Neither major party had ever been enthusiastic about the benefits of immigration and limitations on the entry of imperial subjects of colour were soon implemented. Churchill’s remark in 1955 that ‘Keep England White’ made a good slogan may not have been openly supported by many, but the effect of successive pieces of legislation was to close the door. Labour governments have attempted to soften the restrictions by passing Race Relations Acts, but these have often been limited in their effectiveness. By the end of the 1980s the combined effect of imperial legacies, political hostility and public opinion meant that Britain had among the strictest border controls in Western Europe. ‘The nation’s history on immigration legislation,’ Maya Goodfellow argues in Hostile Environment, ‘is a history of racism.’ The Conservatives’ ‘hostile environment’ policy wasn’t ‘a deviation from the norm, but well aligned with the United Kingdom’s approach to race and immigration over several decades’. It was in 2012, in an interview with the Daily Telegraph, that the then home secretary Theresa May announced her aim of creating ‘a really hostile environment for illegal migration’. The focus on ‘illegal migration’ was a response both to Ukip’s stoking of anxieties about immigration, and to the government’s own failure to bring down the numbers of new immigrants in line with the promises David Cameron had made. A range of new policies, including checks with hospitals, councils and letting agencies, were designed to hound people out of the country by making it impossible for them to get state benefits or employment. The scandal was that the Home Office focused on long-resident black British subjects, who weren’t ‘illegal’ at all. Amelia Gentleman began to hear of cases of imminent enforced deportation at the end of 2017 and gradually uncovered a series of horrifying instances of lost jobs, lost benefits, refusals of hospital treatment: Caribbean people who had lived and worked in England since childhood were being labelled ‘illegal’ because of their lack of documentation. It was decreed that individuals must be able to prove their right to stay, rather than its being the responsibility of the Home Office to disprove entitlement. Gentleman recounts the stories of special needs teaching assistants, car mechanics, factory workers, caretakers and ambulance drivers: lives disrupted, people living in fear, the nightmare of trying to find the requisite documentation when National Insurance records were deemed insufficient, the loss of work and of self-respect, the sense of betrayal, the humiliating and dehumanising nature of it all. For Hubert Howard, who came to England when he was three and never left, ‘It has been a struggle and it’s destroyed my life.’ Paulette Wilson, who has been in England since arriving as a child in 1968, and who worked for a period in the House of Commons canteen, suffered two years of anxiety, rescued only by the determination of her daughter not to let her mother be deported. Elwaldo Romeo arrived from Antigua when he was four; 59 years later he got a letter saying that he was in the UK illegally. ‘It makes me cross when I think what my ancestors went through. Antigua was a breeding colony for slaves. When slavery was abolished no one looked after the slaves; they had no land of their own; they were destitute in the Caribbean. They couldn’t go back to Africa, because they were no longer Africans. They were British subjects.’
Some of the most disturbing material in Gentleman’s account concerns Home Office practices: the enforced returns targets printed in offices across the country, the horrors of Croydon (the Home Office’s Visa and Immigration Centre) and Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre, the refusal to take responsibility for destroying the landing cards, the lack of respect for black Britons and the inhuman behaviour of officers – ‘a textbook example of institutional racism’. Fortunately there were whistle-blowers. And there was the Barbadian high commissioner Guy Hewitt, who mobilised the Commonwealth prime ministers to challenge Theresa May, as well as a number of supportive MPs, refugee and migrant centre workers, black activists such as Patrick Vernon, and the Guardian, which gave space to Gentleman’s stories over a long period. Yet despite the scandal, the widespread public shame, the apology and resignation of the home secretary Amber Rudd, and the promise from her replacement Sajid Javid of change, compensation still hasn’t been paid, and the ‘hostile environment’ hasn’t been dismantled, merely renamed the ‘compliant environment’. No change has been made to immigration rules or to the substance of government policy.
The British government paid £20 million in compensation to the slave-owners in 1834. The freed men and women weren’t compensated for the capture and transportation of their ancestors from West Africa to the Caribbean, or for their own enslavement and coerced labour. Emancipation was fought for and won – but it did not bring full freedom. The British West Indies continued to be regarded by successive colonial governments as a place to grow sugar or bananas as export crops to supply Europe and the US. Freed men and women were denied their rights as British subjects to economic opportunity, self-determination and justice. They claimed those rights over generations, fashioning their own meanings of freedom and black citizenship. They fought as imperial subjects in two world wars and, faced with continuing economic hardship, came to the ‘mother country’ with hopes of a better life, hopes that in many cases were bitterly disappointed. As the reparations activist Bert Samuels puts it, ‘it is widely accepted in Jamaica that Britain has used us and refused us.’