Remembering Windrush

When the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948, its West Indian passengers didn’t know their arrival would become a historical watershed. A new exhibition at the British Library explains how the Windrush generation changed Britain for good

  • The Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury with 1,027 passengers — more than eight hundred of them West Indian immigrants, considered UK citizens under the British Nationality Act. Contraband Collection/Alamy Stock Photo
  • This photo from the British Library exhibition depicts a newly arrived West Indian woman, waiting with her luggage. Photo courtesy The British Library
  • In addition to artefacts from the British Library’s own collections, Songs in a Strange Land also includes objects borrowed from other institutions and from private collections — like this souvenir postcard, purchased on board the Windrush by Jamaican
  • West Indian immigration to the UK didn’t start with the Windrush. This Second World War poster explains the contributions of West Indians in Britain to the war effort. Photo courtesy The British Library
  • The 1959 novel To Sir, With Love, about a West Indian teacher working in an East London school, was based on the real-life experiences of writer E.R. Braithwaite, born in British Guiana. Braithwaite’s original typescript shows his extensive revisions, s
  • Trinidadian singer Mona Baptise arrives in Britain on the Empire Windrush, June 1948. Photo by Trinity Mirror/Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

The history and culture of Britain have been shaped in all kinds of ways, obvious and subtle, by the country’s relationship with its former Caribbean colonies. When the first British settlers landed in St Kitts in 1623 with a royal patent from King James I — establishing the “mother colony” of the British West Indies — it began a centuries-long, world-changing, and still ongoing exchange of people, commodities, language, culture, and ideas across the Atlantic.

But in that long history of movement back and forth between the British Isles and the Caribbean archipelago, one moment has become especially celebrated: the arrival of the Empire Windrush on 21 June, 1948, with its more than eight hundred West Indian passengers. Legally British subjects, with rights of citizenship, they arrived in postwar London to try their chances in the imperial capital. They were not the first, but the extensive press coverage of their landing at the Port of Tilbury led to an association in the public memory between West Indian immigration and the Windrush.

They were also certainly not the last. Encouraged by the UK government and industries hampered by labour shortages, thousands more West Indians travelled to Britain over the next decade. Taking up jobs with the National Health Service, British Rail, and London’s public transport, they helped the war-ravaged country get back on its feet. By the early 1960s, there were almost 200,000 people in Britain born in the West Indies.

Inevitably, there was a backlash. West Indians in Britain faced racial prejudice in all forms, from rejections by potential landlords to outright violence. The intolerance and conflict of the 1950s and 60s continue to shape British society today. But the migrants who came to be known as the Windrush generation, and their children and grandchildren, also enriched the UK immeasurably. Twenty-first-century Britain is inconceivable without their contributions to politics, commerce, arts, and sports (just look at the England team at the recent FIFA World Cup).

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land draws on the extensive collections of the British Library to tell the story of the Windrush generation through documents, photographs, sound recordings, and other archival materials — looking for “the deeper reasons why the arrival of the Windrush became a symbol for the origins of British multiculturalism,” putting the wave of postwar migration into a wider historic perspective. As co-curator Elizabeth Cooper explains, the exhibition “seeks to open up a conversation about the ways slavery, colonialism, and race have through history structured British identity and society — a context that is today more relevant than ever, given the recent headlines relating to the Windrush generation.”

She adds: “culture has been fundamental to struggles for freedom and belonging.” As visitors to the British Library explore the artefacts collected here, they’ll surely reflect that those struggles are far from over. 

 

Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land opened at the British Library on 1 June and runs until 21 October, 2018. For more information, visit www.bl.uk