The Caribbean Windrush Generation, Colonialism and the Idea of Home


I have been writing and sharing quite a bit recently on the issue of the “Windrush Generation” and the issue of immigration in the UK – the country of my birth, which continues to lean to the right politically, is leaving Europe and has turned its face against immigrants from Europe and elsewhere in recent years. What a sad episode it is. A few days ago I shared the first part of Professor Bernard Headley’s family story. Now, another academic with Jamaican roots, Dr. Anne Bailey, has written on the Windrush topic.

Several Jamaicans feel that, after a wave of indignation and numerous reports and stories, the mainstream media has put the Windrush Generation back on the shelf. It’s stale news. I highly commend the UK Guardian for continuing to pursue the story. Why is this continued pressure needed? Because there are many unanswered questions.  Back in Jamaica, it appears, the Windrush generation is in limbo and unable to travel. This latest Guardian article is quite disturbing.

I would highly recommend Dr. Bailey’s blog. The link to this post is here. Thank you, Anne, for your ongoing concern from afar, and for your patient research and reflection. This is more than a “media story.” It is the story of a generation and its descendants, and about how the country of my birth deals with its history – or does not. Let us keep asking questions.

Paulette Wilson and Anthony Bryan outside the Houses of Parliament on 1 May. They were classified as illegal immigrants, detained and threatened with deportation, along with Wilson’s daughter and Bryan’s wife. Photograph: Yui Mok/PA/Guardian

The Caribbean Windrush Generation, Colonialism and the Idea of Home

I was born in Jamaica, a former colony of Great Britain. When I was growing up, I did not really understand what that meant.  I knew only that we spoke English and Jamaican patois but English was the official language. I knew too that we learned a lot about British history in and out of school.  I knew we celebrated British holidays like Boxing Day – the day I was born.  Boxing Day is the day after Christmas which was traditionally celebrated like a second Christmas day, particularly for household staff in England who had to work on the day itself.

Growing up in Jamaica, I had no knowledge of the specifics of this history and I suspect it was the same for many around me. We just knew that Boxing day was a holiday and it meant additional time with family since all places of business were closed. These things were just traditional and they spoke to us of home.  Likewise, we ate elaborately decorated buns at Easter and rich wine soaked fruit cake at Christmas – again because that is what the British used to do and that is legacy they left; that is the legacy we kept.  That too spoke to us of home.

So when hundreds of Caribbean residents embarked the MV Empire Windrush on May 28, 1948, they got on that ship as British subjects – as knowledgeable about Britain as anyone who lived in the “mother country.” Some of them had even fought alongside Britons in World War II.  Certainly, they had literally learned more about Britain than they had about Jamaica or Africa or anywhere else for that matter.   Noted African author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o in his memoir, In the House of the  Interpreter, writes eloquently about that phenomenon. As another person with a British colonial legacy, in his case, Kenya, he wrote about going to an elite school called Alliance where he learned much about Britain but very little about his place of birth.

Fruit cake: a British holiday tradition and a memory of home that is familiar to Jamaicans. (Photo: Anne Bailey’s blog)

And so for these and other reasons, Britain was not an unfamiliar place for these African descended Jamaicans and other Caribbean peoples.  They were not strangers. So much of their lives had been influenced by England that it might only have been the weather that was unfamiliar.

But they forged on. They built a life there and called Britain home in a new way. They became nurses, bus drivers, railroad engineers. Others laid railroad tracks, and still others took care of the elderly. They bought homes and settled down. Yet now, since a new policy was put in place in 2013, this Windrush generation, many of whom are now seniors, have been asked to leave. They have been asked to pack their bags and find another home because Britain – the Britain that they helped to rebuild after the ravages of war – is no longer to be their home.

Reportedly, this situation is now to be resolved but when? And what about those who are already in Barbados and Jamaica in a kind of no man’s land of citizenship? Will their situation also be sorted out? Will they be able to come back to Britain as citizens if they choose or go back and forth as they please?

Who will compensate them not only financially but emotionally for that sense of being ripped from their home because of new and more pressing political agendas? Even if and when all is rectified, will they ever feel again like they are truly home?  To be clear, up until recently, for a number of Caribbean descended nationals, returning to the Caribbean was a goal — but it was their choice to return to the Caribbean, not because they were being deported.

These are the questions I am asking as I think about the idea of home and what the legacy of colonialism really means; how that legacy disrupts ideas of home in the past and as it turns out, also in the present.

But the good news is that it is not too late to make things right. The  British Home Secretary apologized and promised on March 30 that the policy would be overturned and that amends would be made in two weeks. I was very glad to hear about this commitment and hope that indeed all benefits of citizenship will be restored to every one of these British citizens. As of this writing, many are still waiting for the promised change.  I remain hopeful, however, that the office of the British Home Secretary will honor their word.

A little universal thing called home. It truly matters. May Britain in this new era also remember its history, and in so doing, set an example for the world.

 

Dr. Anne C. Bailey is the author of “The Weeping Time: Memory and the Largest Slave Auction in American History.”

9 thoughts on “The Caribbean Windrush Generation, Colonialism and the Idea of Home

  1. Agreed Emma. It was the fact that they were saturated with British history and customs which made certain aspects of Britain familiar–not to be confused with the realities on the ground.

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    1. No problem. It worries me as it seems there are several unanswered questions and loose ends. I wish some of our local investigative journalists would do some reporting on this matter…

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  2. Hi Emma, I love your blog and read every one via email.

    Needless to say, the Windrush saga is an important and emotion-filled story. Thanks for sharing stories that add to our growing knowledge and understanding of our Windrush ancestors’ experiences in the UK.

    Quick question: Is there any way to post your blog to Facebook so that to ‘like’ and comment, one doesn’t have to sign in every time. I do hope it’s possible. Thank you. Best regards.

    Yvonne.

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  3. Also, Britain had set up structures that meant qualifications obtained under their Colonial rule were not immediately equivalent to qualifications gained in the UK, thus rendering many qualified Caribbean professionals as ‘2nd class’ and thus not able to work in their chosen fields. This was not a major problem when the two ‘worlds’ were kept apart, but became a glaring sore once mass immigration started.

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  4. The idea that ‘Britain was not an unfamiliar place for these African descended Jamaicans and other Caribbean peoples.  They were not strangers.’ is pure nonsense. They mostly had no clue about the realities of Britain and its way of life, not least totally different things imposed by a temperate European versus a tropical climate. They also (to their dismay) often had no notion of the widespread ignorance of the British regarding people and life in the Caribbean, much of which manifest itself initially as hostile racist attitudes.

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    1. Perhaps they thought they knew Britain, but didn’t always have it right, as far as British society was concerned. But all the British stuff was drummed into them at school – history etc. I guess the reality was different.

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