Today 22 June, is Windrush Day, which commemorates the arrival of the first large group of Caribbean migrants to reach the UK. They travelled on HMT Empire Windrush, a wartime troopship converted from a Nazi cruise liner seized during the Second World War.
The ship anchored off Tilbury on 21 June 1948, though disembarkation did not take place until the following day. Some of the passengers were British servicemen and their families returning home, but the largest contingent boarded in Kingston, Jamaica, after seeing an advertisement in The Gleaner offering cheap berths for anyone who wanted to work in the UK – a great opportunity at a time when the island economies were depressed. Passengers included calypsonians Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner and Lord Woodbine, as well as the future Mayor of Southwark, Sam King.
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The ship’s arrival has come to symbolise the birth of multiculturalism and to stand for a whole generation of people from Britain’s former colonies who came to the ‘Mother Country’ in search of a better life – and who thereby enriched the nation and its culture.
The shameful treatment of some members of the Windrush Generation, treated as illegal immigrants after years of living and working in the UK, provoked outrage from communities, lawyers and the media. Eventually, the injustice, dubbed the Windrush Scandal, was recognised by Theresa May’s government, which instituted Windrush Day as a way of paying belated tribute to the positive contributions made by ‘the pioneers’.
- The must-read book on the Windrush Scandal is The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman (Guardian Faber, ISBN 978 1 7833 5184 8). The extraordinary history of the ship itself is detailed in Paul Arnott’s Windrush, a Ship Through Time (The History Press, 978 0 7509 8986 2). Both books are highly recommended.
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