The Windrush

Continuing the series on aspects of Britishness that appeared in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics.

A group of Victorian industrialists, played by a multiracial (admittedly mostly white) cast of actors in the opening ceremony of the Olympics, 2012

After the opening ceremony for the London Olympics, some British political figures said the presentation had been too political, that it had too left-wing an agenda, and reports here seem to show that some Americans agreed.

I’m left (as it were) struggling to see how a production introduced by a Greek chorus of Victorian industrialists can be seen as left-leaning.  Okay, under those top hats and behind that facial hair we saw skin tones not normally seen in British boardrooms of the period, but surely no one could have thought the production was meant to be realistic—the stylized movements of industrialists and workers were a bit of a giveaway.  Any way you look at it, those guys represented the economic powers behind the industrial revolution, which was hardly a socialist love fest.  As right-leaning mayor of London Boris Johnson even said (though not in these words), the Eton Boating Song and the Queen of England are icons, and not ones associated with the proletariat.

Over here, BBC commentators told us the theme of the evening was revolution, from the industrial to the digital, but perhaps change would be a better characterization.  Yes, votes for women was once a revolutionary idea, but surely nobody today would argue that including suffragettes reveals a left-wing agenda.

An articulated model of the Empire Windrush enters the arena in the opening ceremony.

Other countries were free to cut whatever portions of the production they didn’t like, and the USA made some surprising cuts, including a nod to the social revolution British people refer to with the shorthand “the Windrush”.  I sat down today thinking “Surely a good many readers of this column must have wondered why a model ship came into the arena, accompanied by a lot of well-dressed black people carrying suitcases”—but then I read that NBC cut that sequence, so today I find myself answering a question nobody asked: What’s the Windrush, and why include it?

The British vessel Empire Windrush started life as the Monte Rosa, a cruise ship built in Hamburg in the early 1930s.  The Monte Rosa became part of the Nazis’ Strength Through Joy program/programme (the party rewarded deserving members with cruises), and eventually part of the German war effort.  She stayed in military service but changed sides when the British captured and renamed her in 1945, adding her to a series of troopships with two-word names beginning Empire and ending with the name of a UK waterway.

Newbridge, spanning the Thames near the confluence of the Thames and the Windrush (photo courtesy of Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license)

(The Windrush is a minor river that joins the Thames way upstream in Oxfordshire at Newbridge, a bridge so named, rather unimaginatively, because it was the newest of three built in the area.  By monks.  During the reign of King John.  So it must have been before 1216, though the existing stonework dates only (only!) to the 1300s.  I wonder what people will call the proposed modern bridge that is being considered, which if built would give Newbridge some relief;  its 600-year old stonework is beginning to show wear.  They could instead consider raising funds for bridge maintenance the way people did back then: get a bridge hermit.  It sounds like something out of a folktale, but apparently you built a hermitage at the foot of the bridge, installed a hermit, and got your hermit, when not doing his daily hermiting, to collect contributions from travelers.)

The real Empire Windrush (photo courtesy of Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license)

But when most British people today refer to the Windrush, they don’t mean the river or even the ship, but specifically the voyage it made in 1948 from Australia to England via Jamaica.  Ads in Jamaican newspapers offered inexpensive berths to encourage relocation to the UK to help bulk up a labour force depleted by the war, and so the Windrush brought what’s generally taken to be the first substantial group of Caribbean immigrants.  Nearly 500 people took up the offer (and at least one stowed away), mostly Jamaicans and Trinidadians, some to join the Royal Air Force, some just to get a look at Britain, some to make a new life, but most to make good and then go home again—though mostly they stayed.  (As my own much less dramatic and completely historically unimportant 2- to 3-year British adventure has lasted 13 years so far, I understand how this can happen.)

Actors playing passengers disembarking from the Windrush

These were mostly skilled people, not the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’ who come to mind when most Americans think about groups of immigrants.  Some had places to stay, but authorities found beds for those who didn’t in the Clapham South deep shelter, one of 8 air-raid shelters dug during the war with the idea that afterwards they would be used as tunnels for London Underground (US: subway).  That was prophetic for the many Windrush passengers who eventually went to work on trains or buses. (In the 1950s, the UK held recruitment drives in the Caribbean specifically to hire bus drivers.  That came up on my citizenship test, actually.)  As for the rest, a sizeable contingent went to work for the newly formed National Health Service.

More actors playing more Windrush passengers

The closest Employment Exchange (now Jobcentre Plus; US: Unemployment Office) was in Brixton, so some looked for lodgings in that part of London, which still has strong associations with what’s called here the West Indian or the Afro-Caribbean community.  On the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Windrush, one of the squares in Brixton was renamed Windrush Square.  Scholars, historians, and teachers use phrases such as the “Windrush Generation”, and “pre-Windrush Britain”, and there’s a move afoot to have a national Windrush Day.

Two kids from the choir singing “Flower of Scotland” in the opening ceremony: one a lass with traditional Scottish red hair and freckles, one a lad with dark skin and a charming gap-toothed smile; both adorable, both British.

Everybody here recognizes the Windrush as a symbol of modern, multicultural Britain.  (It’s a shame that NBC didn’t.)  The Angles and the Saxons were after all just immigrants who got here earlier (okay, about 2 millennia earlier). There were Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain by the 18th century; the Windrush passengers weren’t the first, but the Windrush stands for the larger, post-war changes in the complexion and the complexity of the British population, and the contributions of recent immigrants—some from Commonwealth countries, some from non-Anglo-Saxon peoples—to the cultural mix.

Today in British boardrooms you are liable to see some of the different skin tones we saw in the opening ceremony’s group of industrialists (and–gasp!–you might even see a woman).  And if that’s a left-wing agenda, that’s okay by me.

Note: Belatedly it occurs to me that whatever your nationality, if you’ve read Andrea Levy’s award-winning novel Small Island you may know something about the Windrush already.  I hope you feel you know more now, and that it’s worth knowing.

[Images from the opening ceremony itself are screen shots; I’m assuming that as it was a BBC broadcast and I’m a taxpayer, I have the right to use the image for a nonprofit purpose.]



Filed under Culture, Current events, History, Sports, Travel

13 responses to “The Windrush

  1. Fascinating, and I can’t fathom why the Windrush sequence was cut in the States while we were treated to what seemed like an eternity of people rolling up sod…

    • Thanks for the comment. And I have to admit that the whole Windrush sequence was over in a flash — it was a real blink-and-you-miss-it bit of the production. If I can find the time, I plan to put together an update in a few days, with more info on individuals who came over on the Windrush, some of whom are still around.

  2. I didn’t know any of that. Being from Birmingham doesn’t excuse me. Great post.

    • Yeah, there’s a lot more to the Windrush story than I had realized. I’d heard of it since I moved here in 1999, but had no idea, for example, that it started out German!

  3. great article. learned something new. but as american I kind of know why they cut that, with america’s long history of slavery, people might have lost sight of the Olympics and turned that into a big blow up. What I was more angered about them cutting was the 7/7 tribute. and benedict cumberbatch. 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment — Until I read it, I hadn’t even known that Benedict Cumberbatch had a part in the ceremony. His bit was over well before the ceremony itself started, even before I tuned in, but I found in on the BBC web site. Maybe you can see it there.

      I like Cumberbatch as Holmes very much, but I didn’t feel that missing a video of him riding around in a black cab talking about London was an omission that I would mourn, but of course real Cumberbatch fans would want to see it and surely would expect to have the *chance* to see it.

      I don’t really understand why NBC felt the need to cut much of anything, but then again maybe I’ve been living over here and benefitting from the BBC for so long I’ve forgotten what US TV is like!

  4. Malcolm

    Is it possible that Britain is an even more efficient melting pot than America? In 1968, two decades on from the Windrush, I was taken to my hotel room in Birmingham (UK) by a cheerful black porter. Thinking he might be a recent immigrant, I was casting around for something to say that would be welcoming without slipping into patronizing, when he asked in deepest Brummy (=Birmingham) accents: “Is theis yow faerst veeseet to Baermingh’m?” The welcome I was struggling to assemble had long since been celebrated.

  5. Candida

    Hmm, as long as grumpy old men like Peter Hitchens can sully morning radio with rants where they use the word “multicultural” in the same list as “grubby” and “little”, we’re in no position to congratulate ourselves in Britain. I have fun just imagining what shade of bellicose burgundy he turned when the Windrush rolled into the stadium. That’s really what confirmed that the opening ceremony was everything it should have been and got the best of modern Britain spot on: Hitchens hated it. Excellent.
    The accent thing goes on: the strongest – almost incomprehensibly so – Cornish accent I hear around me is from my part black neighbour, whose family came direct from Africa, well before Windrush. Threw me the first time I met him too, although he’s my age he sounds like a Cornishman from before TV and radio and “upcountry” immigrants like me diluted the local accent.

  6. Candida

    Incidentally, descendants of the Windrush arrivals get a lot of mileage out of the line “What were they thinking?” Comedian Nathan Caton covered it recently, I think when talking about this bit of the ceremony, imagining his grandmother sitting back home in the West Indies and thinking (you have to put in the beautiful extended drawl yourself) “Me’s had enough of this laid-back lifestyle, music, and endless sunshine. You know what me want? Drizzle. And a perpetual sense of disappointment.”

  7. I am loving the posts Mary Ellen. I watched the opening ceremony (admittedly, not attentively) and appear to have missed quite a bit of it. There was just too much going on to catch it all and take in (or try to figure out) the significance of every enactment. I’m learning a lot of British history. Thanks. 🙂

    P.S: Go Zambia! Thanks for supporting us, though we left empty-handed. Our man almost made it to the 100-metres final, though!

  8. Raquel Uy

    Thank you for sharing a not-so-well-known yet interesting event of British history. Love your posts! And yes, I know more now and it is worth knowing. I enjoyed watching the Olympics too and kind of sad it’s ended, for now. Wish it lasted a month! At least we can look forward to your future posts on more explanations/meanings about the London Olympics 🙂

    • I’m replying belatedly (sorry), but now we’ve got the Paralympics, so I’m continuing to get my fix of track-and-field events and such that way. I hope you’re getting serious coverage of that in the US?

      • Raquel Uy

        No problem and glad you’re enjoying the Paralympics. We don’t have coverage here but I heard that Bladerunner won his event so I’m happy with that. Oh and I’m not from the US, I actually live in the Philippines 🙂

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