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Sukhdev Sandhu

  • Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multiracial Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Phillips
    HarperCollins, 422 pp, £16.99, May 1998, ISBN 0 00 255909 9

Elderly Jamaicans, still trim, their trousers shiny-kneed but meticulously creased, smile spryly and recount with courtesy their memories of treading down the gangplank of a former German warship onto a grey, gale-swept motherland. As they tell their word-perfect stories, a series of familiar archive images floods the screen: broad-brimmed, broad-smiled West Indians with their natty suits and meagre luggage; the scrum of cameramen snapping away at this strange and freshly-docked cargo; the calypsonian Lord Kitchener acceding to a Pathé newsman’s request and breaking into a reedy ‘London Is the Place for Me’. Suddenly, according to innumerable commemorative church services and TV series, a marvellous post-colonial transformation was about to be wrought on a monochrome, war-weary nation.

The docking of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury in 1948 did not herald the beginning of multiracial Britain, even if that myth has become entrenched in the wake of last year’s 50th-anniversary celebrations. Black people had lived here for years: in addition to the long-established communities in Liverpool and Cardiff, thousands of Caribbean men and women had served in the RAF and worked as technicians and electricians in factories in the North-West during World War Two. Nocturnal Soho was crammed with illicit dens and clubs in which East End racketeers, West African stowaways and black GIs smoked one joint after another and frittered away their scant earnings on illegal gambling and drinking sessions.

Nor was the Windrush the first postwar ship to ferry Caribbean migrants to England. Six months earlier and completely unheralded, the Almanzora had docked at Southampton with 150 Jamaicans aboard. The state did not offer them hand-outs or cheap accommodation; they spent the weeks after disembarking trying to stave off the coldest winter this century by loitering for as long as possible in the Underground and in Lyons Corner Houses. Nor did the Windrush trigger a massive influx of new immigrants. Scarcely more than a thousand drifted across the Atlantic over the next five years. Ambitious West Indians found it cheaper to sail to the United States, where they had been making their fortunes since the 19th century. Many headed for Florida where they farmed, picked citrus fruit and worked in canning factories. By the Twenties, the decade of the Harlem renaissance, a quarter of the district’s residents were of Caribbean origin, while half of New York’s black businesses were owned by West Indians. In 1952, however, when Congress passed the McCarran Walter Act restricting migration, prospective migrants to the US were obliged to reconsider. The United Kingdom, where some of their kin had already settled, was an obvious choice.

Officially, 492 West Indians, the majority of them Jamaican men with an average age of 24, were on board the Windrush when it sailed for England on Empire Day in May 1948. They paid £28 10s. each – the not inconsiderable equivalent of three cows – and were armed with affidavits signed by Justices of the Peace which testified to their good character. There were also eight stowaways on board. In addition to an assortment of journalists, students, clerks, boxers, mechanics and actors, around a third of the passengers were on leave from the RAF or returning after being demobbed. Although the hurricane which hit Jamaica in 1944 had destroyed the island’s coffee and banana crops and thrown it into deep recession, the early settlers were not economic migrants. Most had marketable skills and did not need to come to England. They were drawn by the opportunity to escape the cosseted predictability of island life and experience the freedom that England represented. The Caribbean seemed to offer spiritual petrification, England the possibility of endless possibility. Only by fleeing Jamaica – however firmly they told themselves they would return in five or ten years – could they begin to exist. Harris, in George Lamming’s novel The Emigrants (1954), pinpoints this feeling when, setting eyes on England for the first time from a ship’s porthole, he thinks to himself: ‘There was life, life, life, and wherever there was life there had to be something other than no-THING which did not matter.’

The Windrush passengers drew a cheerier response in London than they did in Jamaica, where the Daily Gleaner spoke glumly of ‘New Life in Sombre Setting for W.I. Job-Seekers’. That paper’s curmudgeonliness contrasted unfavourably with the Daily Mail which, in a spasm of magnanimity it would fail to show in the following decades, announced: ‘Cheers for men from Jamaica’. More warmly still, the Evening Standard greeted the arrivals with a headline – ‘Welcome Home’ – that was both generous and accurate.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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