The Jamaican Government “celebrates” the 75th anniversary of the Windrush

The Government of Jamaica is embarking on a “celebration” of the departure of the HMT Empire Windrush from Jamaican shores, carrying over 1,000 passengers, more than half of them Jamaican and the remainder from Bermuda, Trinidad & Tobago, Guyana, and other countries. The Windrush dropped anchor in Tilbury, Essex, UK on June 21, 1948. The well-dressed passengers were full of hope for a better life; we have seen the photographs of their eager young faces.

As I wrote for Global Voices just five years ago, the legacy of the Windrush has been a painful one. The UK Guardian is to be commended for its persistent, in depth coverage of the issue, and you may find a collection of their stories here. Please also read my friend Dr. Anne Bailey’s thoughts on the Windrush here. What is “home”?

A flyer showing a planned calendar of events to commemorate "Windrush 75" (May 23 - June 22, 2023) in Jamaica.

But is this really a Foreign Affairs issue for diplomats? Is it, indeed, an academic debate? Let us see how the Panel Discussion turns out; it will be live streamed on YouTube. For me, the endlessly unfolding “Windrush saga,” which the Guardian calls a “scandal,” seems much more personal.

Because this is about grandmothers and grandfathers, cousins and aunties. The problem here though is that, just as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where the Panel Discussion will take place) has the diaspora in its portfolio, many Jamaicans would consider this a “diaspora issue” and set it aside. I am sure that word “diaspora” will be oft-repeated. So how, exactly, to celebrate it?

As I noted five years ago, both our Prime Minister Andrew Holness and Foreign Affairs Minister Kamina Johnson Smith gave numerous interviews when the scandal began brewing, and met with then UK Prime Minister Theresa May. But who were they speaking up for? Jamaicans at home, British citizens, who? Once again, our ambivalence seemed to linger at the time, and still does. We have never quite got on board the diaspora train.

However that may be , these are stories of senior citizens, confused and confounded by bureaucracy, disrespected by the “Mother Country” they had embraced – where they worked so hard in menial jobs that no one else wanted (like my father in law, on the railways). The bitterness, the humiliation, and the actual physical and psychological suffering – all of this is real, and ongoing.

The problem is that, in some ways, the “Windrush victims” have fallen into a deep abyss, caught between two worlds: that of the cold British bureaucrat, and that of the somewhat indifferent “home country” – Jamaica, in our case – which has since moved on and has its own problems to deal with. Neither of these worlds really care any more. Do they?

So, what to celebrate?

There are countless other immigration stories, of course, such as this one – younger generations, who have fallen victim, one way or the other, to the fundamentally racist policies, which have been a decade or so in the making and are now the default policy in the UK’s right-wing government. The UK Home Office hides behind innocuous-sounding phrases like a “compliant environment” (a rebranding of its former “hostile environment” promulgated by former Prime Minister Theresa May over ten years ago) – but none of us are fooled. The institutional racism persists; and institutional racism affects people, who find themselves trapped in the system. So, as I said, it’s personal.

A UK Home Office report in February this year revealed (surprise!) that people of colour were “disproportionately” affected by the UK’s immigration policies. Between 2014 and 2018, around 65,000 people were thought to be negatively impacted: “The most common actions were having a UK driving licence revoked or a letter being sent to their employer advising them that they may not have the right to work in the UK,” the Guardian reported.

A 2020 think tank report concluded that these policies have helped to encourage racism (for example, in situations with landlords, tenants, employers and employees) and exacerbated poverty. At a meeting just a few days ago, Lord Simon Murray – the Home Office minister responsible for trying to sort out the Windrush mess in terms of compensation, etc – did not receive a very friendly reception at a recent meeting.

Lord Murray said he was greatly looking forward to next month, “when we will celebrate the enormous contribution of the Windrush generation.”  Does he mean the contribution of songs like the huge 1960s hit “My Boy Lollipop” and the plethora of Jamaican/Caribbean restaurants in urban England? Sure. Immigrants bring their culture with them. Let’s kick up our heels, and eat some jerk chicken.

“Contribution”? I would rather his Lordship used the word “sacrifice.” So it was, I know, for my mother and father in law, who with great expectations went to what turned out to be an inhospitable UK – to help fill the Mother Country’s need for cheap labour to rebuild the country after the war. They were used, and then they weren’t really needed any more. Oh, there are many, many family stories of their struggles.

A portrait of Ms. Beverley Lashley, National Librarian of Jamaica.
Ms. Beverley Lashley, our esteemed and dedicated National Librarian. I know the Windrush issue is one she truly cares about. (Photo: National Library of Jamaica)

So, dear Ms. Lashley, forgive me…I am just not sure about that word “celebrations” in the headline of this press release from the National Library of Jamaica, which you may read below:

National Library Leads the Charge on ‘Windrush 75’ Jamaican Celebrations

The National Library of Jamaica, The Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport (MCGES) along with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade (MFAFT) and other local stakeholder groups will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the departure of the HMT Windrush from Jamaican shores with a month-long series of events beginning on Tuesday, May 23, 2023. The Windrush 75 celebrations, which include a Labour Day Festival, a National Church Service, a Panel Discussion and a traveling exhibition, are a part of the Jamaica 60 events and activities and are aimed at educating Jamaican nationals at home and in the diaspora about the significance and cultural impact of those migrants who left Jamaica to the British Isles seven and a half decades ago.

While in Britain Windrush Day is observed on June 22 to signify the arrival of the ship to Tilbury, we in Jamaica have decided to celebrate the departure experience, highlighting our memory of those who decided to leave their families for better opportunities, while sharing our culture with the world,” said Beverley Lashley, National Librarian and Coordinator of the Windrush 75 activities.

“The departure means something to us in Jamaica as we observe, year to year, the growing network of Jamaican influence globally, as well as the growing culture of migration. The truth is Jamaica would not have been where it is today without the input of those migrants who left for the UK on the HMT Windrush in 1948 and our culture would not have the global impact that it has on the world today without them staying true to their roots, despite being replanted on foreign soil.” Lashley continued.

The commemorative activities will begin on Labour Day, Tuesday, May 23, 2023 with the Windrush Five Communities Anchor Festival Labour Day and Community Celebrations at African Gardens in August Town, Kingston beginning at 10:00 a.m. Being held under the theme “A United Family at Home and Abroad”, the day’s activities will include beautification of the August Town Primary School and painting of the August Town Police Station, followed by a community celebration at African Gardens Square. The event will feature uniformed and church group parades, football, netball, dominoes, live entertainment from local talent, farmers market and delegations from the UK and USA Diasporas.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023, will then see the Windrush 75 National Church Service being heldat the Kingston Parish Church, South Parade, Kingston, beginning at 10:00 a.m. Members of the public are being invited to attend the service and are encouraged to arrive at the church service by 9:30 a.m. The National Church Service will be live streamed on the National Library of Jamaica’s Youtube page, and the Kingston Parish Church’s Facebook page. 

This will be followed by “Windrush 75 Reflections from Kingston Harbour” – A Panel Discussion on Thursday, May 25, 2023, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade, 2 Port Royal St., Kingston. Beginning at 1:00 p.m. the panel discussion will tackle the implications of the Windrush experience, migration and the cultural outflows which have benefited Jamaica’s development.   The panelists are: the Rev. Dr. Dave Gosse, Director of the Institute of Caribbean Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona Campus; Migration Researcher Dr. Hilary Hickling; Mr. Herbie Miller, Director of the Jamaica Music Museum at the Institute of Jamaica; Mr. Earl Moxam, Senior Journalist at the RJR Gleaner Communications Group; and Mr. Rudi Page, Diaspora Consultant, at Making Connections Work (MCW).

This informative forum is open to public attendance and will also be live streamed to the diaspora on the National Library of Jamaica’s Youtube page, and the Ministry of Culture, Gender, Entertainment and Sport’s and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade’s Facebook pages. It is to be noted that persons who are interested in physically attending this event must register by Tuesday, May 23, 2023 at the following link:

The celebrations will then close out with the Windrush Travelling Exhibition, which will be staged at various parish libraries across the island from Monday, May 29 to Thursday, June 22, 2023. The exhibition will showcase important narrative information connected to the experience of the Windrush era.  

We invite Jamaicans to come out to attend these commemorative events. This is an opportunity for Jamaica to reclaim the narrative of the Windrush and to draw inspiration from this new perspective on our migration story.” Lashley further stated.

Stakeholder groups involved in the execution of Jamaica’s Windrush 75 celebrations include the MCGES, MFAFT, NLJ, JMM, The Diocese of Jamaica and the Cayman Islands (The Anglican Church), the Jamaica National Council for UNESCO and Making Connections Work (MCW).

Persons interested in sharing their memories, artefacts, experiences from the Windrush era may contact the National Library of Jamaica using the email address:   

A picture of the vessel, the Empire Windrush, which was originally a German passenger liner and subsequently a troopship. The ship brought one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the UK in 1948.
The SS Monte Rosa was a passenger liner launched in Germany in 1930. During WWII, she was a German navy troopship. When the war ended, she was acquired by the United Kingdom and renamed Empire Windrush. The vessel is best known for bringing one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the UK in 1948. This era of British Caribbean people came to be called the “Windrush generation”. Photo by Flickr user Alan, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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