written by Erin Fetterly
When the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex on June 22nd, 1948 and proceeded to unload its passengers from across the world, it would have been hard to imagine the future cultural significance of this moment. Although the Empire Windrush only made this specific docking once, it lends its name to the influx of Caribbean migrants into Britain from approximately 1948-1971, as the Windrush Generation.
Most of these immigrants would have boarded ships to find work and a new life in Britain, whilst simultaneously helping to fill UK labour shortages left open by World War Two. These workers came from all over the Caribbean including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados, St. Lucia and British Guiana. Further research suggests however, that these ships included immigrants from European countries like Italy and Germany, and Pakistan and India as well. This makes sense, especially when referring to the Empire Windrush, as close examination of evidence shows that the ship made more stops than was widely shared before it docked at Tilbury, including Trinidad, Jamaica, Havana and Bermuda. Matthew Mead has written an article that outlines the overlooked information of that day and the proceeding wave of immigrants. It indicates that as well as being an imperative cultural milestone for British-Caribbean people, it also marks a notable point in history for other nationalities too, that should not be forgotten. Though there was an influx of migrants from all over the world during the Windrush period, a considerable percentage were from the Caribbean, and it is this population with their culture, who are more frequently referred to as the Windrush Generation.
Britain’s current multicultural reputation was thrust forward with this influx of Caribbean migrants, and the docking of the Empire Windrush is considered the catalyst for the blossoming culture that ensued. Caribbean culture, with its influences from Africa, South Asia, the Middle East and Europe began to grow as migrants began to share and express their values and practices within Britain. These new citizens also began their fight for equality and rights within British society; something that was not new for Britain, but which started to develop Britain’s proud, accepted multicultural character and reputation. Though they were often met with exclusion, disdain and disapproval at first, they continued to build their culture in their new homeland, sharing traditions while not discriminating against those who wished to observe and learn. This simple but welcoming trait allowed for their practices to be imparted and absorbed by Britain’s people. They became a part of everyday British life, taking jobs as manual labourers, drivers and nurses; some of who carried on to influential positions within society like Sam Beaver King, who became the first black mayor of Southwark.
The immigrants who arrived over the following twenty-five years slowly created their own organizations, businesses and events within society. The West Indian Gazette founder Claudia Jones began an indoor Caribbean Carnival, first in January 1959, which has since morphed into modern day’s exciting, and dazzling Notting Hill Carnival, held every year in celebration of Caribbean culture. In the 1970s there was a zine started by a group of black feminists called The Daughters of Harriet Tubman, titled ‘Wha ‘appen Sista’. These are just a few of the mediums with which Caribbean culture started to flourish and be expressed. Today, The Windrush Generation and their traditions are still celebrated and taught, as a dominant part of British culture. In 2019 The National Theatre in London premiered a new play titled Small Island by Andrea Levy. It focused on Windrush immigrants, their journey from the Caribbean to England, and their ensuing triumphs and hindrances while trying to adapt to their new lives. A play like this allows for a new generation of people to learn about and appreciate the Windrush Generation, their stories, culture and struggles. Some Windrush immigrants and their descendants have also left Britain over the last twenty years to find new homes; sharing Windrush stories and traditions with people across the world.
Unfortunately Caribbean immigrants from the Windrush Generation have not always been treated equally, not just by British citizens but by the government; it has only been recently that they have received the treatment they deserve. Adequate records were not kept for the immigrants who came to Britain during the years of 1948-1971, and therefore many did not have the documentation the government required to stay in the country. In 2010, the Home Office destroyed the landing cards of many of the immigrants and in the following years, many people who were children of legal Windrush immigrants had to leave the UK. This came to a head in 2018, when an inquiry was finally made into the happenings, and Prime Minister Theresa May made a public apology to the immigrants and their families who were either forced to leave or who had to endure the unfair treatment that had taken place. The Windrush compensation scheme was established in April 2019 and people were provided with their rightful documentation or citizenship.
Windrush Day is celebrated on the 22nd of June every year in Britain since 2018. People celebrate and appreciate the Windrush Generation, their culture and everything else they have they have contributed to Britain’s now strikingly diverse character. The Empire Windrush docking in Tilbury was a spark that began a migration of people who helped to transform British society and propel it towards the beautiful, multicultural mecca it is today.
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