Windrush - songs in a strange land

Review by Pat Turnbull.

This small, free exhibition at the British Library offered a potted history of the relations between Britain and the Caribbean, very timely in view of the revelations about the recent mistreatment of British citizens of Caribbean origin.

It opens with a list of the names of 128 slaves to be sold along with Studley Park plantation in Tobago. The sale was to take place on 30 September 1773 over four thousand miles away at Garraway's Coffee House in London.

The Antigua Gazette on 20 June 1816 included 'Absconded, from her owner's service, a Negro Woman named Patty' offering rewards for recapture, and punishments for anyone who harboured her or helped her leave the island. It also included a For Sale notice for Robert 11, Lewis 8, and Lucretia 5 - 'The three latter have lost their mother and may be sold separate. They are offered at a low price, as their owner has no use for them...'

After the British abolition of slavery on 1 August 1834, most British colonies imposed an 'apprenticeship' system that required former slaves to work for their masters without compensation for up to six years. Apprentices across the Caribbean refused to work. An account by James Williams tells of his experiences as an apprentice in Jamaica; he says life was worse than under slavery, with magistrates and police dishing out punishments like the treadmill. Apprenticeships were ended two years early, in 1838. The subtext is probably that the rebellious ex-slaves made it impossible to implement.

Despite all efforts, freed slaves refused en masse to work on the plantations for their former masters. They were increasingly replaced by indentured workers from China, and particularly from India. They were generally required to work for five years, but did not receive passage back to India until after ten years in the colony. An 1878 report on the conditions of indentured Indian people in Grenada described people who were 'perfect skeletons' due to extreme malnutrition, illness and lack of health care.

On 11 October a historic rebellion broke out in Morant Bay, Jamaica. Led by Baptist Deacon Paul Bogle, the rebels demanded an end to the poll tax, the withholding of wages, and ejection from lands. The Governor of Jamaica, Edward John Eyre, declared it a 'race war'. Over 500 people were executed, similar numbers flogged and thousands of homes burned.

The exhibition highlighted more mass rebellions, this time across the Caribbean, between 1934 and 1938, in the wake of the stock market collapse of 1929, the decline of sugar production and American intervention, which the exhibition said 'deepened long standing social tensions in the Caribbean'. Protesters demanded economic investment, better wages, land reform and political independence. The exhibition told us: 'The Moyne Report ... was written in 1938. However, due to its portrayal of desperate living and working conditions it was not published until 1945.' The Caribbean Labour Congress, the first Caribbean-wide labour organisation, was also founded in 1945.

During the Second World War, people from the Caribbean were encouraged to go to the USA and come to Britain to do war work such as engineering in munitions factories. Others served in the armed forces. However, Sam King, a Jamaican who served in the RAF, described the situation when he returned to Jamaica after the war: 'Men who had been Home Guards, men who were working in American factories and farms, men who were working on the Panama Canal, I would say 30,000 men were thrown back without any planning.'

This is the context of the 1948 Nationality Act that granted citizenship and right of abode in the UK to all members of the British Empire. In the same year the Empire Windrush and other ships brought people from the Caribbean to work in Britain. The Ormonde and the Almanzora had arrived in 1947 and many more ships would arrive afterwards. Thousands of people came to Britain in these ships. Many did not intend to stay permanently, but they did, despite an often cold welcome.

In 1962 Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica were the first Caribbean nations to gain independence from Britain. In 1962 too the Commonwealth Immigrants Act introduced new restrictions on immigration from British colonies based on one's 'prospects of employment'. As the exhibition put it: 'Those who had once entered Britain legally as ostensibly equal members of British society were now under the scrutiny of the state as unwanted strangers.'

In 1981 the government abolished the 1948 definition of British citizenship through the passage of the British Nationality Act. This reversed the right to citizenship by birth and created three new categories of citizenship, only one of which provided the right to live in the UK. And most recently the government passed the 2014 Immigration Act, also known as the 'hostile environment policy', which has resulted in the mistreatment of so many British residents who thought Britain was their home, and were suddenly told it was not.

The Empire Windrush