Exploring Caribbean London

As the crowds begin to descend on London for the 2012 Olympics, Kito Johnson finds out how the Caribbean has helped to make London a great city

  • The London Eye is a good way to get a bird’s eye view of London
  • West India Quay is one of the old warehouse buildings along the Thames that has been transformed into shops and apartments. Photograph by Kito Johnson
  • The Thames with St Paul’s Cathedral and the buildings of East London in the background. Photograph by Kito Johnson
  • Big Ben and the parliament buildings
  • The Band of the Grenadier Guards plays outside Buckingham Palace during the changing of the guard

It seems like only last week that Usain Bolt was strolling his way to Olympic gold in the 100 metres final in Beijing, smashing the world record in the process. But four whole years have gone by, and this summer the crowds will be descending on another city, one of the world’s great capitals, whose eight million people represent just about all nationalities and languages, religions and cultures.

London straddles both banks of the Thames, so a river trip is one way to get your bearings. Sight-seeing vessels and ordinary ferries plough up and down the river all the time. Greenwich, in southeast London, is the downstream terminal, with its historic park, the Old Royal Naval Academy, the National Maritime Museum and the Royal Observatory, the origin of Greenwich Mean Time. From here you can sail upstream through the City of London, past the sinister Tower of London and the majestic Tower Bridge, and on towards Big Ben and The Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall, Trafalgar Square and the theatre district are only a short walk or bus ride from Westminster Pier.

Today, the Thames carries only a fraction of the traffic that used it when seafaring was at the heart of London’s economy. Stratford, in east London, was one district that depended heavily on the river for its existence, and fell into disrepair after the demise of shipping. But it has been transformed now into the centrepiece of the summer Olympic Games, housing both the Olympic Stadium and the Athletes’ Village.

Stratford is where the thousands of Olympic hopefuls and their supporting casts will eat, drink, sleep, and complete their preparations; it is the place where they will bask in glory or lament defeat. At its heart, Westfield Stratford City is Europe’s largest urban shopping mall, gathering under its roof world-leading designer outlets and chic boutiques, pubs, bars, restaurants and entertainment venues.

London’s Caribbean heritage can easily escape the casual eye. The Thames was an important link in the triangular trade of earlier centuries. It was here that ships docked laden with sugar, molasses and rum from the West Indies, before setting off again to West Africa to find another cargo of slaves to sell in the Americas. Many grew rich from the Atlantic trade, but all that remains now are two former warehouses in West India Quay. In one of them, thanks to the sterling efforts of the staff at the Museum of London in the Docklands, you will find a tribute to the blood, sweat and tears of the Caribbean’s ancestors. On the third floor, the Sugar & Slavery exhibition is a permanent reminder of how slavery affected the British empire and helped to generate capital for Britain’s own development.

Southwest across the Thames, in the London borough of Lambeth, there is another reminder of the Caribbean’s historic links with Britain. The Imperial War Museum acknowledges the 10,000 West Indians who served alongside British troops in World War II. In an exhibition a few years ago entitled “We Were There”, the museum displayed the stories of some very distinguished West Indians, like Ulric Cross from Trinidad, who in 1941 became a Squadron Leader in the Royal Air Force, and flew sortie after sortie against Hitler’s Luftwaffe. Here you can discover men like Laurie Philpott from Jamaica, and countless others just like him, who answered the call of “king and country”, and came from all ends of the British West Indies to fight Nazism.

After the war, many of the West Indians who had come to help decided to stay. They sent for their families, bought property, and made Britain their home. On June 22, 1948, the MV Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex and heralded the arrival of Britain’s multicultural society. West Indian men and women found jobs in all sorts of trades and public services, and played a big part in rebuilding the British capital.

They settled not just in London, but in Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool. The National Health Service, British Rail, the Royal Mail and London Transport were just some of the essentials of British life that came to depend heavily on this influx of Caribbean labour. The London Transport Museum in Covent Garden has paid tribute to the part played by Caribbean migrants in keeping the city moving during those austere postwar years.

Then there’s the cricket.

The summer of 1976 is still regarded as the hottest ever in England. Rain did not fall for months, and great swathes of the normally verdant English countryside looked more like the Sahara. In the intense heat, the racial tensions that had plagued so many West Indian lives in England seemed to be coming to the boil too.

Into this cauldron came a West Indies cricket team led by the bespectacled Clive Lloyd, to begin an era of world dominance that would last almost two decades. In the run-up to the series, England’s captain, Tony Greig, a white South African by birth and nurture, promised on TV that he and his English teammates would make the West Indians “grovel”.

To be fair to Greig, the word has two distinct meanings, the first simply being “to cower in fear.” But, considering the legacy of slavery, the brewing social unrest in England, and the ugliness of the apartheid regime in South Africa, most black people took Greig’s comments the other way – he wanted to make them “act in a subservient and docile manner to gain favour”.

Clive Lloyd later summed up the effect that Tony Greig’s words had on the team during that scorching summer. “The word ‘grovel’ is guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of any black man,” he said, “[and] the fact that it was used by a white South African made it even worse. We were angry, and West Indians everywhere were angry. We resolved to show him, and everyone else, that the days for grovelling were over.” The ensuing Test series was not Grieg’s finest hour: Michael Holding set the tone with some of the most lethal spells of fast bowling ever seen.

Battles on the cricket square between England and the West Indies have never been just about cricket. Sir Vivian Richards, later to captain the West Indies himself, once remarked to me during an interview that “cricket was a uniting force in our quest for a Caribbean identity. You only had to come to England to see what our cricket meant to the West Indians who were working in the bus depots, and all those others who were struggling against the bureaucracy of the system at the time.”

So the more thoughtful West Indian visitor to London should take a trip to Lord’s Cricket Ground, or the Oval, and remember the tremendous psychological warfare that took place there between the former coloniser and the former colonised. It may have looked like an innocuous contest between bat and ball, but it allowed West Indians living in London, and elsewhere in Britain, to feel a sense of pride and belonging that they had not known before.

Not long ago, London’s National Theatre screened a version of Moon on a Rainbow Shawl by the Trinidadian playwright Errol John. Set in 1947 Trinidad, it tells of one man’s desire to leave his life, his friends and his family behind, and head to England where the streets were paved with gold. Whatever the reasons that brought West Indians to England, those of us living in the diaspora can easily identify with the anguish that grips the play’s main character, Ephraim, as he struggles to decide on his future.

London today is certainly different from the one that Ephraim dreamed about. The teeming Caribbean street markets of Brixton and Portobello Road are now regarded as cultural treasures. Jamaican jerk chicken, Guyanese pepper pot and Trinidadian roti, if not quite national dishes, are relished by people far removed from the Caribbean. The annual Notting Hill Carnival, which takes place over the last weekend in August, was imported from Trinidad and adapted for the streets of Ladbroke Grove by homesick West Indians: it is now Europe’s biggest street festival.

London’s Caribbean residents tend to transform themselves into versions of Machel Montano’s “Mr Fete” for the weekends. They descend into the basement at Cottons Restaurant in Exmouth Market for “Soca Fridays”, or converge en masse at Busspepper Promotions’ bimonthly jams in the City to “jump and wave” well into the early hours. The Cuban Jazz sessions at Ronnie’s Bar on Frith Street in Soho take revellers on a musical escapade to Spain, on to Africa’s West Coast, and through all of South America, before finally depositing them onto the streets of Havana and Santiago de Cuba.

It’s fair to say that in London, we Caribbean people are known for our easy-going demeanour, our joie de vivre, our great food, our love of soca, steelpan and reggae. It’s just that, from time to time, we need to remind ourselves, and others, how much we have contributed to this wonderful city over the years.

May you and yours have a truly great time at the Olympics, and exploring all that London has to offer. But don’t forget how West Indians helped to make London the great city that it is.

Caribbean Airlines flies to London from Trinidad.