A Wider Context to Windrush by Nairobi Thompson

back to boat

Windrush as we talk about it today did not start in June 1948 when the Empire Windrush ship docked at Tilbury. We cannot properly talk about the Windrush Generation without referencing slavery… No British slave colonies in the Caribbean – No Windrush!

Had Britain not enslaved and trafficked men, women and children to the West Indies taking full advantage of the so-called ‘Doctrine  of Discovery,’  the historical landscape would have been entirely different.

The West Indies became central to Britain’s overseas empire. It soon became very clear how lucrative the cultivation of sugar was especially when it was being produced by people they did not have to pay. Britain first settled in the Caribbean in 1623 in St Christopher (St. kitts) and they settled in Barbados in 1625 ; several other islands were colonised including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Antigua . Britain established slave colonies on White-owned plantations where they produced crops, mainly for export. The wealth generated for plantation and slave owners was exponential.

The transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, but slave ownership was still legal for another 27 years. Ongoing and numerous slave uprisings  however made slavery less viable as a capitalist business model.  When the abolition of slavery act was passed in 1834 slave holders were paid £20 million as compensation for their loss of ‘property’. The former enslaved people received nothing while slave owners benefited from more compensation by way of Apprenticeship schemes. These schemes were a type of modified slavery which required newly emancipated slaves to work for slave owners for another 4-6 years without payment. After the Apprenticeship scheme ended West Indians as former slaves suffered extreme poverty due to generations of enslavement, not being compensated and the exporting of their economic wealth. There were few job prospects outside of the work they did when they were enslaved – government jobs, land and home ownership along with the wealth built by slavery were retained by White people. This led to West Indians looking for work and other opportunities farther afield. They enlisted and served in both WWI & WWII.

After WWII West Indians returned home to the same conditions, being limited job opportunities and prospects. The 1948 Nationality Act conferred British citizenship on all Commonwealth subjects which meant West Indians could legally come to Britain to settle, work and bring their families. Whilst migration of Black people to Britain was not a new thing, arrival to Britain on the Empire Windrush became an iconic moment. On board were 1027 people, many of whom came from the West Indies in response to Britain calling for people of the Commonwealth to fill acute post-war labour shortages.

West Indians contributed to the rebuilding of Britain, the launching and success of the NHS, and meeting other labour shortages in coal mining, transportation, manufacturing, construction, and public services. Sadly, their significant contributions have been overshadowed by ‘Hostile Environment’ policies and legislation that started to take shape in the 1950s progressively removing the status of British citizen from West Indians. Many who did not pay to be ‘naturalised’ as British citizens from the early 1980s or whose applications were refused went on to face the trauma of being treated as illegal immigrants. They were unable to access healthcare, jobs, benefits and accommodation. In extreme cases some individuals were detained by immigration, some were unable to return to Britain after going on holiday, whilst others were deported to countries they had little knowledge of having spent most of their lives in Britain.

This scandal caused a national outcry forcing the government to apologise in 2018; they also set up a compensation scheme and a National Day of Commemoration on 22 June each year. The compensation scheme however is beleaguered with ‘processing delays, low offers, and unfair rejections reversed on appeal.’  Sadly people are dying before they receive compensation.

The Windrush Generation is made up of loyal and proud West Indians who answered Britain’s call to come and work, settle and live productive lives. We must always remember their British citizenship was conferred on them after they were enslaved, then it was cruelly taken away, but none of that has stopped West Indians from giving their very best to Britain.

1) Doctrine of Discovery was essentially a colonial landgrab as it allowed Europeans to ‘discover’ land even when occupied by indigenous people and lay claim to that land in the name of their European monarch. The colonisers claimed all commercial rights over said land and the indigenous peoples. This meant the indigenous people of the West Indies principally the Ciboney, Taino (Arawak), and Caribs were driven off, killed or enslaved.

2) https://youtu.be/hGDUYYGqOz43)
3) An introduction to the Caribbean, empire and slavery | The British Library (bl.uk)
4) West Indies - Mercantilism, Triangular Trade, Slave Rebellion, and Social Hierarchy | Britannica
5)Thompson, N. (2022) Almost British
6)Windrush 75: What is Windrush and who are the Windrush generation? - BBC News
7) Windrush: At least nine victims died before getting compensation - BBC News 2020

Additional Reading:

  • Britain's Black Debt: Reparations for Caribbean Slavery and Native Genocide by Dr Hilary Beckles
  • Black Poppies: Britain's Black Community and the Great War by Stephen Bourne
  • Voices of the Windrush Generation: The real story told by the people themselves by David Matthews
  • Almost British: by Nairobi Thompson