The Windrush Crisis and Britain’s Memory Problem

The Empire Windrush. Source: Caribbean National Weekly.
The Empire Windrush. (Photo: Caribbean National Weekly)

Black Britons have occupied a prominent place in national and global politics in recent weeks. The British government has been criticized in the press and parliament for a 2012 policy that, in seeking to make Britain a “hostile environment” to so-called illegal immigrants, has had disastrous effects on the “Windrush generation”—people who came to the country from its Caribbean colonies between 1948 and 1971. Unable to provide documentary evidence of rightful residence—most came on their parents’ passports and were never provided it—they have lost access to employment, housing, and medical treatment  from the National Health Service. Deportation proceedings have been initiated against some.

Negative coverage of the scandal forced Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and Home Secretary Amber Rudd to issue public apologies. A “task force” has been created to address what has become known as the “Windrush Crisis,” and compensation may be offered to victims. After a series of revelations and hasty denials about the government’s deportation policy, Rudd recently resigned. Before doing so, Rudd announced that all commonwealth migrants who arrived between 1948 and 1973 will be able to apply for formal citizenship. The government’s seeming contrition has been undercut, however, by revelations that it knew for years what effects its hostile environment policy would have–by May’s initial refusal to discuss the issue with representatives of Caribbean governments; and by the Home Office’s 2010 decision, despite warnings from its staff, to destroy evidence of migrants’ arrivals. May was Home Secretary at the time.

“Crisis” is an apt description in many ways. For the British government, still scrambling to placate public outrage, it surely applies. Moreover, it captures the devastation inflicted on people like Paulette Wilson, who was nearly separated from her family and deported to Jamaica, a country she had not seen for fifty years; Renford McIntyre, who has been rendered unemployed and homeless; and Albert Thompson, who still has not received cancer treatment first denied six months ago. Yet “crisis” also suggests a sense of suddenness that obscures as much as it reveals. The recent experiences of Wilson, McIntyre, Thompson, and thousands of others are just the latest manifestations of a long-running tradition of British racism toward its Black population.

The scandal has provided a partial history lesson, but an incomplete one. Readers of articles by Nick Dearden or Yasmeen Serhan will have learned that migrants were recruited by the British government to fill post-World War II labor shortages. The first group traveled aboard the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948, giving the migration its name. A quote in Serhan’s piece from Guy Hewitt, Barbados’ High Commissioner to the UK, also alludes to the racism migrant communities faced then: “This [hostile environment policy] is about saying ‘Go back home,’ as they said 70 years ago.” Indeed, Britain has long been a hostile environment to Black people.

But as Bob Carter, Clive Harris, and Shirley Joshi argue, the British Nationality Act of 1948 that made migration from the colonies possible was actually designed to “curb colonial nationalism rather than to concede rights of entry and settlement into Britain.” Fear of losing imperial resources, including labor, overrode vaunted notions of equal citizenship. The category of “UK and Colonies Citizenship” (UKC) created by the act, contends Harris, actually further enshrined distinctions between Britons born in metropole and colony. For the latter group, “citizenship as a right … existed only to be surrendered when [they] sought to celebrate their ‘Britishness’ not by waving their Union Jacks ‘out there’ in the colonies but in the Mother country.’”

This legal construction of perpetual foreignness was reinforced by regular acts of interpersonal violence. The same year the act passed and the Windrush arrived on English shores, white police and civilians attacked Caribbean and West African migrants in Liverpool. In 1958, some 200 whites attacked Black inhabitants of London’s Notting Hill neighborhood, chanting “Go home you black bastards.” In 1968, Member of Parliament Enoch Powell delivered his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech, intimating a coming race war resulting from the influx of colonial subjects. Reflecting shifts in public mood, the 1971 Immigration Act erased UKC status, prevented further migration, and redefined, in Kathleen Paul’s words, the “truly British” as “those descended from white colonizers.”

These restrictions did little to curb racist attacks. In 1977, neo-Nazis marched through London’s Lewisham neighborhood, home to a large Caribbean migrant community. Resistance from Black and white residents dealt a powerful blow to the far-right, but the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 again exposed racism both in the minds of Lawrence’s killers and embedded in the structure of the Metropolitan Police. The criminal justice system, from stop-and-search tactics to incarceration, continues to disproportionately target Black people. Following uprisings in British cities in 2011, historian David Starkey wove together assumptions about Blackness, criminality, and immigration on national television. Invoking Powell, Starkey blamed the “riots” on an alien culture:

The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion and black and white boys and girls operate in this language together. This language which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has been intruded in England … is why so many of us have this sense of literally [living in] a foreign country.

Starkey was widely criticized for his statement, yet it demonstrated the same inability of the immigration laws of 1948, 1971, and hostile environment policy of the current government to recognize Black people as truly British. The endless recurrence of such thinking suggests a problem older than the mid-twentieth century. Instead, it originates with Britain’s role in Atlantic slavery, maintained by failure to remember that role.

A 2013 statement by May’s predecessor as Prime Minister, David Cameron, is a case in point. Responding to a Russian official’s jibe that Britain was merely a “small island,” Cameron responded that it is “an island that helped to clear the European continent of fascism and was resolute in doing that throughout the Second World War,” locating defense against fascism purely within its European island boundaries–overlooking contributions of colonial subjects, including most Empire Windrush passengers, to the war effort. “Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery,” he continued, ignoring two prior centuries of British slaveholding. National identity was defined only in terms of whiteness and benevolence. Cameron’s rhetorical sleight of hand was worthy of the historians whom, Eric Williams noted, “wrote almost as if Britain had introduced Negro slavery solely for the satisfaction of abolishing it.”

By casting Britain as the defender of slaves, Cameron exhibited a view many white Britons held when abolition was enacted in 1834: that freedom was a gift to Black people, not a right they had won. As such, freedpeople were expected to show their gratitude. Abolitionist Thomas Clarkson reminded some in Brown’s Town, Jamaica, in 1839 that he had “labored for fifty-three years in your cause,” and that only obedience and productive labor for the motherland would make “amends for all [my] care and anxiety.” When Black people contested their continued oppression after abolition, such as in Jamaica’s Morant Bay uprising of 1865, abolitionists increasingly adopted views espoused by Thomas Carlyle and Jamaican governor Edward Eyre that Black people were ungrateful, incapable of civilization, and unworthy of citizenship. In 1866, The Times of London described Jamaica’s freedpeople as “spoilt children … petted by philanthropists and statesmen … into precocious enjoyments of rights … which other races have been too glad to acquire by centuries of struggle … dandled into the legislative and official grandeur by the commiseration of England.” This assumption required its own elision regarding the long tradition of resistance to enslavement, including a 60,000-strong slave rebellion in 1831 that catalyzed emancipation.

This narrative, downplaying violence and celebrating benevolence, has been absorbed into Britain’s public memory of colonial slavery, as demonstrated by the bicentennial anniversary celebration of the slave trade’s abolition in 2007—dubbed a “Wilberfest” for its lionization of white abolitionists and exclusion of Black participants in the anti-slavery struggle. This sanitization of British history helps explain why so many Britons still think colonialism was a source of good. It also bolsters beliefs that racism was largely eradicated by abolition and that, therefore, subsequent demands for racial equality, including rights of Caribbean migrants, constitute unnecessary troublemaking. Class, rather than race, is widely considered the nation’s true source of discrimination.

Moving forward requires revision of popular memory to emphasize not debts of gratitude owed by Black Britons, but monetary debts owed by white ones. It requires acknowledgement that the banks and insurance companies  they patronize grew their capital by funding the slave trade, protected by the Royal Navy; that profits from slavery helped build cities like London, Liverpool, and Bristol, as well as many stately homes citizens and tourists visit each year; that not just elites but the middle class garnered significant personal wealth by enslaving Windrush migrants’ ancestors; that sugar used to sweeten cups of tea—that quintessential staple of British culture—was, like the tea itself, produced by brutal labor practices in the colonies; and that white British national identity was—indeed, still is—partly defined by a mythology of benevolence toward non-white people in imperial outposts. The Financial Times produced a video about the Windrush Crisis entitled “This is not who we are.” In fact, this is exactly what Britain has long been.

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Adam Thomas

Adam Thomas is Visiting Assistant Professor of American Studies and Global and Intercultural Studies at Miami University of Ohio. His work has appeared in the Journal of Caribbean History, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and edited collections. His current project examines historical memories surrounding slave rebellions in the U.S. and British Caribbean. Follow him on Twitter @Adam_Thomas_PhD.