Mohammed “Mo” Farah, who won two gold medals for distance running in the London Olympics, was born in Somalia and lived in Djibouti before moving to England when he was 8—yet the usual anti-immigration voices in the UK press seem to have gone quiet. This guy’s British; nobody’s going to quibble.
News about immigrants always catches my eye, maybe because I’m an immigrant, too—though my path to the UK was certainly smoother than most. But maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by the Windrush story. I’d meant to write only one post on that topic (click to read it), but I’m giving you another one today, because I can’t seem to let the subject drop.
The 1948 arrival of the Empire Windrush caused anxiety among authorities here, but not, from what I’ve read, the kind I would have expected. Mike and Trevor Phillips, in Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, suggest that officialdom was mainly worried about how they were going to house and feed 500 extra people in a country still recovering from war, still rationing everything from bread to furniture to clothing.
But citizens of British West Indian countries were British subjects with British passports then, so they had every right to move to the UK. West Indians of the day, by all accounts, considered themselves to be as authentically British as anybody in what they routinely referred to as the mother country. The Minister of Labour in London said “They are British citizens and we shall we do our best for them when they arrive”, but there was enough opposition for another Ministry official to write a memo emphasizing that “there is no logical ground for treating a British subject who comes of his own accord from Jamaica to Great Britain differently from another who comes to London on his own account from Scotland.”
It’s not clear to me who ran the ads in Jamaican papers asking for immigrants to bolster the UK work force. The Windrush went to Kingston to pick up British military personnel who had been home on leave; according to one Caribbean serviceman on the trip, an unspecified “they” wanted to fill empty births on the way back “to sort of make up some money.” Certainly, it wasn’t the government’s doing. When the governor of Jamaica sent a telegram to the British Secretary of State for the Colonies saying that 500 people were on their way, Parliament had no idea who’d placed the ad or authorized reduced-price tickets.
That telegram misled British officials, describing the newcomers as unskilled when the group included engineers, builders, carpenters, and miners, shoemakers, tailors and cutters, experienced factory workers, famous calypso musicians, workers who already had jobs waiting for them at Tate & Lyle (a famous British sugar company which I’ve written about before), and at least one French polisher (French polishing is a special type of furniture refinishing; I’d never heard of it until I moved here, so it may have another name in the States). And there was a whole team of boxers. I don’t know whether Britain particularly needed boxers, but a couple of experienced telegraph operators came in handy well before the ship docked; they sat outside the window of the ship’s telegraph office, ostensibly playing dominos but actually overhearing and translating the telegraph signals that went in and out, keeping passengers up to speed with what was being said about them in England.
Parts of the British press seem to have taken against them early, and had plenty of time while the ship crossed the Atlantic to make sure everybody knew it. The Daily Express referred to the Windrush passengers as “unwanted people” who were coming to the UK after recognizing “the futility of their life at home”. You might say the Daily Express must have had to extrapolate from limited information, or you might very well think they were just pulling this ‘news’ out of thin air. Yes, the passengers were looking for jobs, but as one told the story, he had sold three cows to raise the £28.10 for his fare when most Jamaicans at the time didn’t own three cows; the Windrush passengers generally came from families with significant means, and those who didn’t have personal assets had community support behind them. The Caribbeans had fine suits and snazzy hats that the Windrush crew envied; they had enough money to treat crew members to rum, and better rum than the crew generally got, at that; and they were used to far better food than that served on board. Those who had visited the mother country before warned others that even shipboard food was better than what they’d eat once they landed (which I take as a reference to cooking with rationed supplies rather than as a low blow at British cuisine).
England gave them a mixed welcome. Jobs were easy to find, but housing wasn’t, in an era in which some landlords added “No Coloured” (or worse) to their existing “No Irish” signs. But landlords who didn’t want to rent to people who’d “just come over on the banana boat”—a slur slung around in those days—were turning away people who clearly had drive and ambition, or they wouldn’t have traveled 4700 miles to be here.
For example, the Caribbean serviceman I quoted before was Euton Christian, who settled in Manchester and became the city’s first black magistrate. The passenger who sold his cows was Sam King MBE, a veteran of the Royal Air Force who worked for the post office, helped start the first British newspaper for the Caribbean community, and helped produce the first Notting Hill Carnival , still Britain’s premier Carnival event. In 1983 he was elected mayor of Southwark (a borough in London), the only serving black mayor in the UK at the time, and the designation MBE shows he’s a member of the Order of the British Empire—a great honour, received personally from the Queen for service to the realm.
Identifying Mr. King and Mr. Christian as individuals, distinguishing them from the crowd, brings up another point: the photos of the big group of well-dressed dark-skinned people coming ashore, sensational in 1948 and reprinted time and again since, carry an unfortunate political message. As the Phillipses write, repeated use of the famous shots over half a century emphasized that “black citizens, the Caribbeans and their children, were…aliens forever.” Whatever Britishness is, the photos seem to say, it must not include these people, or they wouldn’t be news. That didn’t help the struggle.
Going by the Olympic opening ceremony, today’s Britain is colour-blind, which with the best will in the world has to be seen more as wishful thinking than accurate depiction. But I agree with the Phillipses when they say, “It would be impossible to describe [today’s UK] without awarding a role to the Caribbean immigrants”.*
The poetry of James Berry, who came from Jamaica at 24 on the next boat after the Empire Windrush, and who is still publishing today, reflects the mix of cultures. In “Englan Voice”—note: not ‘England Voice’—the narrator’s blend of accents could easily stand for the blend of island cultures: the damp northern one he and I live in, and the sunnier southern one where he came from. (To hear him read the poem, click here and scroll down to find the video).
“Team GB”, as the press referred to our side, was full of newcomers like Mo Farah, as well as athletes whose immediate family came from other countries; by that definition, immigrants won more than a third of Britain’s medals. Laura Bechtolsheimer (two dressage medals) came from Germany. The father of Anthony Joshua (that’s Anthony Oluwafemi Olaseni Joshua; gold in heavyweight boxing) came from Nigeria. As I said before, I cheered for lots of teams, but for the moment I’ve decided to focus on my identity as an immigrant to the UK. For one thing, that’s the only way I’m ever going to be in the same boat with Olympic champions.
* The Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, however, seemed to describe Britain with almost no reference the contributions of the Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Nepalese, which astonished me.
Photos of the Notting Hill Carnival and of Lord Kitchener are from Wikipedia and used under the Creative Commons license.