Lots of stories have grown up about the Empire Windrush and its passengers,
the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’, and sometimes it can be hard to sift the
myths from the facts. Soca News takes a look below the waterline…
The Windrush brought the first Black people to Britain
People of African origin were living in Britain hundreds of years before the Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948. There are records of Black people marrying in England in the 16th century and by the late 18th century at least 10,000 lived in London and 5,000 in other parts of the UK, many of them in ports such as Southampton and Portsmouth. We now know that a lady in her early 20s with sub-Saharan ancestry was living in Sussex around 200-250AD – one of many who came to these islands with the Romans.
The first immigrants from the Caribbean came on the Windrush
If we don’t count the slaves, sailors and servants of African Caribbean ancestry who had been reaching these shores for 200 years or more, people came over from the Caribbean well before the Windrush. Some came to work, especially in the entertainment industry – the first calypsos were being sung in London during the First World War! Nor was the Windrush the first ship to arrive after the Second World War ended: SS Ormonde arrived in March 1947 and SS Almanzora docked at Southampton on 21 December 1947, both bringing small numbers of Caribbean migrants.
All the passengers on Empire Windrush were Black people migrating from the Caribbean
Far from it: out of the 1,027 passengers on board, only 492 were West Indian migrants. The remainder were British servicemen returning home, residents of Gibraltar, Burma (Myanmar) and Mexico. The latter were not Mexicans but refugees who had fled Poland to escape both Nazi persecution and Russian murder squads. In an epic four-year journey, the Poles had travelled to Iran, Uzbekistan, India, Los Angeles and eventually Tampico (Mexico) before boarding Empire Windrush and reaching London.
The arrival of Empire Windrush began mass migration to the UK from the Caribbean.
It was hardly a stampede – only about 1,000 people arrived in the five years after Windrush, even though the 1948 British Nationality Act gave citizenship, and the right of entry and settlement, to all people living in British colonies. Most West Indians seeking a better life preferred to emigrate to the USA, because it was nearer and offered more opportunities. But in 1952, Congress passed the McCarran-Walter Act, which aimed to safeguard the States from Communism, “Jewish interests” and undesirables. As immigration into America got harder, Britain became the obvious alternative and the pace of Caribbean immigration to the UK increased.