Windrush, 70 years on

While Theresa May was busy trying to secure trade deals and investments by wining and dining ministers from the Commonwealth this April, in the outside world the extent of the cruelty of the ‘hostile environment’ was unravelling fast.

Seventy years ago, Britain invited thousands of people from its colonies in the Caribbean to come to Britain to help rebuild the country post World War Two. The date that is most often focused on is the 22 June, the day that the Empire Windrush docked in Tilbury, just east of London. But, last Thursday marked the day that the Windrush docked in Jamaica. And focusing on that lets us view the current scandal, the events of 1948 and the history of Britain from a very different angle.

When the Windrush arrived in Jamaica, whole villages were decimated due to the exodus of people moving to Britain on the promise that once here they wouldn’t be treated as subjects of an empire but, rather, equal citizens. The idea of Britain as the ‘Mother country’ flourished. It was seen as a country which cared for each and every one of its subjects in equal measure. There were promises of inclusion, equality and wealth.  

The colonial venture of Britain cannot be ignored; its impact is on-going and is felt every day. A venture which lasted for multiple centuries and spanned the globe, during which time colonialists devastated countries and committed gross atrocities including the creation of concentration camps, massacres and state created famines. The UK was built upon the backs of people of colour. One such example is the domination and oppression upon which the structure of Jamaican was built. From the plantation system which relied on slavery, particularly for bananas and sugar, to the Bauxite mines, a material used to manufacture aluminium. Millions of men and women were taken from Africa to Jamaica to work in plantations and mines. And, inviting people from the Caribbean, under the pretence of equality, was simply a continuation of this exploitation.

The latest treatment of migrants by the hostile environment is not an aberration. Inviting migrants from the British Empire was never meant to serve as a way to recognise their fundamental role in Britain. It was simply a temporary measure to supply labour in the nation’s hour of need. And now that our government has decided that they have fulfilled their purpose it is turning its back on them.

The hostile environment is not something new; it is part and parcel of British colonialism and its ongoing legacy.

Although lip service is paid that people of colour are equal to their white counterparts in Britain, the statistics beg to differ. When the Windrush generation stepped off that boat, they were welcomed with signs that read ‘No Irish, No blacks, No dogs’.  Migrants were regularly denied access to housing because of their race or were given housing in specific areas within which there were low numbers of white British. They experienced regular marches by neo-Nazis and fascist, many of which ended in all out battles. Then twenty years later Enoch Powell gave his Rivers of Blood speech.

But these aren’t all phenomena of the past. Today there continues to be racial discrimination in aspects of everyday life. People of colour are forced into dire living conditions in which their lives are seen as less important than saving money on things such as cladding. Before employers have even read through your CV they have likely judged you by your name – chances are if your name sounds ‘foreign’ you’re less likely to get the job. If you are a person of colour, particularly a male, you are more likely to be ‘randomly’ stopped and searched or placed in prison. This list goes on and on.

The hostile environment – a policy brought in by Theresa May in 2012 to make the UK so hostile that migrants want to self-deport – once again highlights the racism that flows deep within our society. It has extended borders and those that work in hospitals, schools, as landlords and at banks have become border guards. These people are untrained; this was never part of their job description. And so, how do they judge who is likely to be a migrant? Well, of course, they target those that are not white and do not have ‘British sounding’ names or accents. In order to try to comply with the Home Office, workers are blanket- questioning those that do not fit with their idea of what it is to be British (read: white).  

While Britain invited people over from the Caribbean, opened our borders for EU migrants, this never meant that we would allow them to feel part of this country. We need them to fulfil jobs to keep the UK running – from the barista that serves you your morning coffee, to the doctor that helps save your life. Britain has treated those born overseas as though they are simply tools, not humans with hearts. Humans that, naturally, want to be treated with the respect that they deserve and who form bonds with the places where they live and the people they grow up with. They could never have become British; they were invited to become part of a two-tiered citizenship.

The collective amnesia encouraged by our leaders, the dominant media outlets and an education system that shies away from teaching Britain’s repugnant history means many grow up with limited information and believing that the British Empire had ended by the 1960s. They do not see inherent links between Empire and the racism of today. Also, 44 percent of Britons think that this country’s “history of colonialism” is something to be proud of and 43 percent think that the Empire was a “good thing”. It is this misinformation that allows such nostalgia to occur.  

Colonialism and the inherent inequality and racism that are explicitly tied to it are not things of the past. Its legacy lives on – Windrush and the hostile environment are just the latest example of this. 

Photo: Hulme Library windrush mural (Wiki commons) 







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