Historians' Watch

Undoing the Work of the Windrush Narrative

In a speech that quickly went viral, Tottenham MP David Lammy offered a stinging critique of the British Government’s treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’ during Parliamentary debate in late April 2018. Citing the names of his constituents who had come to Britain from the Caribbean with imperial birthrights to the protections and privileges of full citizenship guaranteed by the British Nationality Act of 1948, Lammy condemned the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policies towards ‘illegal’ immigrants. He insisted that they effectively served as a pretext to create a cloud of suspicion and initiate a process of criminalization that has been used to deny public benefits, employment and the permanent right to remain in the country.

HMS Empire Windrush. This is photograph FL 9448 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Lammy argued that the headline-making ‘crisis’ of citizenship affecting the ‘Windrush generation’ was more than series of heart-wrenching media stories documenting the impact of a racialized anti-immigrant political climate that preceded Brexit. Moreover, he suggested that addressing this national “disgrace” required acknowledging that it had occurred “because of a refusal to remember our history.” He urged, “We need to remember our history at this moment.

But what histories can we actually recall within the popular memories associated with the Windrush narrative? What aspects of British history are extolled, and which facets remain illegible in popular renditions of the Windrush narrative?  Perhaps more importantly, how does the very notion of a ‘Windrush generation’ obscure possibilities for erecting a usable past which could be mobilized to shore up the political claims to citizenship that are being systematically nullified under the guise of policing borders?  Tackling these questions requires consideration of the political import of the Windrush narrative in popular memory.

While the Empire Windrush brought hundreds of Caribbean migrants to Britain in 1948 – along with Polish settlers and sojourners from various parts of the world – part of the durability of the arrival of this particular ship as a historic symbol can be attributed to the fact that Pathé news footage of this moment created an audiovisual media event. The newsreel told a story about hope-filled Caribbean newcomers who had served the British empire during World War II and were now coming to Britain “with good intent” in search of economic opportunities unavailable in the colonies. Over the course of the last three decades –  beginning in part with local efforts including Lambeth Council’s 1988 publication of Forty Winters On, a collection of oral histories from Caribbean migrants – there have been concerted efforts to commemorate the arrival of Windrush passengers. At a national level, these endeavors included a three-part BBC documentary and companion book on the fiftieth anniversary of the Windrush arrivals in 1998, followed by the erection of Windrush Square in Brixton, and the inclusion of Windrush imagery in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. In 2018, Windrush Day (22 June) was established, a gesture interpreted by some as a token public relations move to deflect from the ongoing scandal over deportations. Collectively, these commemorative gestures have helped to cement a celebratory national narrative that heralds Windrush as an origin moment in the ‘irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain’ through the postwar migrations of Caribbean men and women longing to fully belong and contribute to British society.

Scholars including Stuart Hall and Barnor Hesse have called attention to the problems associated with popular versions of the Windrush tale, which fails to capture the imperial roots of enslavement and colonization that shaped the routes leading Caribbean and other Black and Asian Commonwealth migrants to Britain well before the mid-twentieth century. As a byproduct of the erasure of Britain’s imperial relationship to the Caribbean, popular Windrush narratives dehistoricize the foundational role that racial formations and racism have played in shaping ideas about national belonging and the experience of citizenship. This continues to prove detrimental to those whose non-whiteness prevents them from being perceived as inherently and legitimately British, regardless of their status in relation to the state and irrespective of proof of their worthiness.

Our current moment therefore demands our attention towards undoing the distortions associated with popular memories of Windrush. More specifically, it requires reckoning with the historical conditions that have compromised and systematically denied citizenship to Black people in the British empire, long before reports in The Guardian surfaced detailing stories of citizens being detained, deported, harassed, evicted, dismissed from jobs and left without life-saving medical treatment. This is a history that connects the current aims of petitioners seeking recognition and redress, on behalf of whom David Lammy spoke in Parliament, with those writing to Queen Victoria from rural parishes in Jamaica in the aftermath of emancipation, protesting election laws, high taxes, a corrupt legal system and lack of ‘equality of political rights’. When a 2018 petition seeking amnesty for minors who arrived from Commonwealth countries between 1948 and 1971 called for an end to deportations and compensation for those affected, it invoked sentiments akin to those expressed by nineteenth-century Jamaican petitioners who insisted that ‘a serious injury is done to the class of your Majesty’s subjects, who were emancipated from slavery, and invested with the rights of British Freeman’ in their demands for recompense from the state.

Rather than continuing to pigeonhole Windrush into an ahistorical frame that uncritically props up a progressive image of a multicultural nation, this particular conjuncture summons our attention toward a more robust accounting of the broader terrain of disenfranchisement, injustice and disavowal that has historically shaped Black people’s relationship to British citizenship and, by proxy, the British state. It is imperative to understand how the Windrush moment materialised as a part of a continuum of claim-making, whereby Black people in Britain and its empire engaged and remade citizenship and its accompanying language of rights in expansive terms as means to cross borders and declare ‘London is the place for me’. This language also provided a means to access public resources, make demands of the state and articulate how the indignities and violence of racism operate in British culture and society. In doing so, they defined British citizenship as an imperial condition of emancipation and not a status that requires constant authentication through proof of virtue or arbitrarily determined credentials attesting to belonging.

It is this narrative of the Windrush generation, and those who travelled the same imperial routes to Britain before and after which is all too often absent from public discussion. What history we remember matters. And a political narrative of claim-making, resistance, community-building and unapologetic insistence that Black people in Britain are here to stay is essential to understand why the current ‘Windrush scandal’ is indeed a reflection of a longstanding crisis of racialized citizenship – one that requires political remedies that move beyond bringing individuals into compliance with tightening immigration and nationality laws.

One Comment

  1. This is a really important post, thank you for addressing this. It has always seemed to me that this entire ‘Windrush’ obsession was a cover along the very lines you suggest. Rather it looks to me more like ‘slavery by other means’ or at the least indentured labour. Have you looked into what the politicians of the time were trying to achieve? Did they think this was a step on the way to a post-colonial multicultural Britain, or was it just a ‘people-grab’ to replenish the working class decimated by the losses of the war? So assuming the latter, the idea was just to bring in labour that could presumably be sent back again when their job was done. As you say, perpetuation of colonialist racism rather than anything else.

    Related – have you found similar attitudes to potential migrants from the sub-continent and South-East Asia who had been part of the Empire? Or do you think this was specifically aimed at the Caribbean?

    N W-W

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