Paddington Bear and Black British Migration Politics

Paddington Bear, London (Flickr)

This year, the United Kingdom celebrated Queen Elizabeth II’s platinum jubilee, acknowledging the achievement of a billionaire remaining alive for a long time. Festivities at Buckingham Palace were broadcast for a national audience and they began with a short video of the Queen taking tea with Paddington Bear. Though a staple of children’s literature since 1958, a recent animated version, voiced in two hugely popular movies (2014, 2017) by Ben Whishaw (a white actor), shared marmalade sandwiches with the monarch. Paddington likely received this royal favor because he exhibits what many Britons see as unique national traits. Though bumbling in his etiquette, Paddington is earnest, unfailingly polite, and deferent to proper authority.

If most white Britons happily relate to these aspects of Paddington, many are less inclined to identify with his defining experience of being an immigrant. Paddington came to London as a refugee from “darkest Peru,” so based on current British immigration law, he would not be welcomed today. In 2012, the government enacted its “hostile environment” policy and, as a result, wrongly denied numerous rights to descendants of Black Caribbean “Windrush” migrants in 2018. Since then, increasing numbers of people fleeing poverty and war in countries like Iran, Iraq, Eritrea, and Syria have crossed the English Channel in small boats, risking their lives for asylum. Unlike mostly white refugees from war in Ukraine, these primarily non-white migrants face profound opposition. As even some officials note, the government would deport Paddington to Rwanda under the newest proposal for deterring this migration. It seems odd then that someone who would be defined as “illegal” in today’s rightwing parlance—he stows away in a ship’s lifeboat—should be adopted as a national mascot.

Paddington is no stranger to anti-immigrant fervor. Author Michael Bond created him as thousands of Black people migrated to the metropole from British colonies after World War II. Seeking to escape economic devastation wrought by centuries of colonialism, they sought new opportunities. Many found them rebuilding the war-torn Britain’s infrastructure. Racist opposition to their arrival, always present, reached new extremes in 1958 when whites attacked primarily Caribbean migrant communities en masse in Nottingham and West London. It was in this environment of anti-Black violence that Paddington—a deliberately sympathetic immigrant character—first appeared in print.

The connections between the fictional Peruvian bear and these real human migrants are not immediately obvious. Most associate Paddington’s journey with earlier child migrations like the British wartime evacuations or the Kindertransport, which helped Jewish children emigrate from the German Reich to Great Britain prior to WWII. But if we consider Paddington’s name, the influence of Black immigration politics on the story become clearer. In the first book and movie, Paddington’s adoptive parents, the Browns, name him after the train station where they find him. As an initial stop in London for thousands of Caribbean emigrants, this location symbolized a crucial point in the process by which, in Kennetta Hammond Perry’s words, they negotiated “inclusion into a transnational body of British citizens whose shared rights, privileges, and freedoms were made universal in the imperial space of the metropole.” Cultural critic Stuart Hall, himself from Jamaica, described the significance of seeing fellow West Indians arrive at Paddington in 1951:

It turned around every preconception which lived inside me. The prerequisites of the colonial order had placed us here and them there. . .  And yet now—in London, in front of my eyes—I could see in that instant the world turning inside out.

For Hall, this scene “carried the promise that it would level the colonial playing field.” By attaching to Paddington the name of this transformative place, Bond aligned his creation with those putting Black in the Union Jack. The first movie reinforces this connection, scoring Paddington’s initial sights of the city to “London is the Place for Me,” a song inextricable from the Windrush migration.

By placing the Brown-Paddington family in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, where numerous Caribbean immigrants made their home (and whites attacked in 1958), Bond further identified his character with those redefining Britain. He initially wrote Paddington as arriving from Africa, a place probably more closely associated with Black people in the mind of most white readers than Peru, the location chosen after Bond learned that no bears inhabit the African continent.

Bond’s original characterization of Paddington is not without significant problems. His origin in “Africa” reduces multiple varied ethnicities to a single identifier. It also erases differences between the experiences of thousands of Caribbean and African migrants by defining them all together under a white view of their common Blackness—a trend, Olivette Otelle notes, common in current discourse around Black Britons. Bond’s use of the qualifier “darkest” for both Africa and Peru reflects his own adoption of colonial racism. And Paddington has drawn criticism for representing white ideals of assimilationist migrant behavior, evident in his prior knowledge of English and obsession with respectability. He even abandons his original name because it is too hard for Britons to pronounce. And by making Paddington from Peru, a nation shaped mostly by Spanish colonialism, Bond absolved his domestic readership from confronting British exploitation as a cause of migration.

Yet Paddington also carries potential to advance migrant justice in Britain, a cause Bond increasingly adopted in his later stories and activism. His bear has become a symbol within the movement, a “walking, talking, ursine pin-up for humanizing our work” according to one immigration lawyer. This new status is illustrated by a much-reproduced piece of graffiti featuring Paddington and the slogan “Migration is Not a Crime.”

The animated movies advance this pro-immigrant portrayal. In the first film from 2014, characters Mr. Brown and Mr. Curry are redeemed from their portrayals as smallminded bigots only to the extent that they eventually welcome Paddington into the community. In the 2017 motion picture, Paddington’s incarceration on false charges demonstrates the social costs of removing migrants. In his absence, neighbors lose their breakfast provider, memory aide, study partner, and devoted friend.

The popularity of the movies suggests there is greater appetite for pro-migration narratives than Britain’s government or press assumes. This raises the question of how future movies could emphasize Paddington’s connection to Black immigration history. What would the franchise look like in the hands of a Black director, or with a Black actor voicing its lead? What would it mean for Paddington to speak English with an accent commonly heard in London’s Black migrant communities?

Paddington is now entangled with monarchy, deployed to sanitize its historical complicity in slavery, support for imperial crimes, and discrimination against “Colored immigrants or foreigners” in its hiring practices. Yet this royal connection is recent, mostly the product of the jubilee sketch. It shows how quickly Paddington can assume new meanings. If he represented Black migration to Britain more explicitly, his vast audience might be better equipped to interrogate how the nation benefitted from colonialism—and what it owes to the those burdened by it. Perhaps the tag around Paddington’s neck stating “Please look after this bear” would then signify less a polite request for paternalist benevolence and more a righteous demand of the state for equal citizenship. If enough people came to see Paddington as a symbol of Britain’s complex racial history, one day it might not be necessary for a bear to “humanize” migrants at all.

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Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas is an Assistant Professor of History at Western Carolina University, where he teaches early American, African American, Caribbean, and Atlantic World history. His current book project compares two 1831 slave uprisings in Virginia and Jamaica, focusing on their place in historical memory and their effects on contemporary politics. His work has appeared in the Journal of Global Slavery, Slavery & Abolition, Black Perspectives, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and the Journal of Caribbean History. He is currently a National Endowment for the Humanities postdoctoral fellow at the Library Company of Philadelphia. You can follow him at @Adam_Thomas_PhD.

Comments on “Paddington Bear and Black British Migration Politics

  • Avatar

    Neat equation: Paddington and the monarch AND Paddington and West Indian Migrants

  • Avatar

    Thank you. Brilliant article. much appreciated.

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