The Windrush Generation


The twenty second of June 1948 found me in the innocence of my sixth year, completely unaware of a momentous event taking place some five thousand miles away across the Atlantic, which would affect the lives of many for generations to come.  The event was the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in Essex, with its cargo of four hundred and ninety two mainly Jamaicans on board.  It was to mark the beginning of what was later to be known as the Windrush Generation.  In the simplicity of my life then it did not occur to me that I would be making the journey to that strange and distant land nine years later, leaving behind forever, the beauty of an unfolding adolescence, never to return to the possibilities or dreams I dreamt in those warm, wonderful days of the summer of 1948.

 Sitting on white-washed stones circles beneath the duppycherry tree in the school yard at the back of the East Queen Street Baptist Church; I did not imagine that in a few years, I would be one of those helping to lay the seeds of Black culture in the soil of England’s green and pleasant land.  How many of the new arrivals in the late forties, fifties and sixties were aware that the ancient deities that had made the journey across the Atlantic from Africa to the Caribbean, had made the return journey with us and were putting down new arcane roots in the heart of Britain?

 Unlike other immigrants to this country before, there were no reception committees to meet us at the quay side; there was no induction into the ways of this strange and exotic country which was to be our new home.  They had exchanged our Blue Mountain homes for ex-army tents and dark, dank, air raid shelters beneath Clapham Common, in south London.  From there they moved to Somerleyton and Geneva Road in the heart of Brixton from where we were sent to cities around the country by officials at the local labour exchange in Coldharbour Lane.  1948 was a pivotal year in the history of Twentieth Century British lawmaking.  It was the year in which the new immigration act came into force; the act allowed unrestricted entry to members of the empire, for the first time. This coupled with the nationalisation of the railways and the setting up of the welfare state meant there were thousands of willing hands to fill vacancies in factories, a desperately under staffed transport system and a nascent National Health Service. 

Four hundred and ninety two eager and willing hands, dressed in thin cotton clothes, carrying their hopes and dreams in cardboard suitcases answered the call from the mother country, to come and help kick-start her economy at the end of World War II.  We later came by the thousands without any predetermined plan to conquer and possess, we had no political or philosophical intention to capture, hold and develop; we had simply migrated to find work like thousands before who had travelled as cheap labour to Cuba, Costa Rica, Panama and the United States; the difference now was that this time we had travelled to our “motherland”, the metropolitan heart of the Great British Empire.

 Life in our new homeland was not easy; the streets were not paved with gold as we were brought up to believe.  Sleeping three to a bed in a room with six and seven others was often the norm; twice monthly baths in the nearest public bathhouse.  Xenophobic hostility was the nature of our daily encounters: “They are here to take our jobs and women, they breed like rabbits, they have dirty personal habits, niggers go home, keep Britain white,” were often the cry.

As we stand at the threshold of a new millennium, what the SS Empire Windrush symbolises is far greater than the journey of four hundred and ninety two men and women to these shores.  For me it marks the end of the sharp divide between the colonisers and the colonised, for in Britain today, it is often impossible to say with any certainty who colonised who.  Today those four hundred and ninety two settlers, are referred to as the founding fathers of the “Windrush Generation”.  They fought and sacrificed to lay down the foundation of the Black Community in this country. We must record their deeds for those generations who are to follow, for they should not have to live without knowledge of their history.  They are born into a society in whose history they are near invisible, when they are seen, it is as enslaved and colonised victims.  Nothing they learn about Britain makes them feel as if they belong.  History points a people towards their destiny; it teaches that those with no sense of history are bound to repeat the mistakes of the past.  As a people, we must begin to document and preserve our own deeds.

 And so while others search for the key that will reveal the answer to all things, we Africans must salute and pay homage to the lives of those ancestors who left the warmth of their homelands to become pioneers and settlers, in this strange and hostile land. We who are the product of their efforts must remember that often those who plant the seed, are never at the harvesting. We must remember that in their death lies our purification and renewal, for death is the sacred food of rebirth. We must not forget that it is their deeds and bones that nourish the soil of this land, and make it ours.



February 1998