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It’s the seventy-fifth anniversary of His Majesty’s Transport Empire Windrush’s arrival in Tilbury, near London, from Jamaica. Aboard the ship—a captured German liner converted into a British troopship—were 802 migrants from Britain’s West Indian colonies. Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies by way of the British Nationality Act of 1948, they were called to the colonial capital by a “Mother Country” eager for workers in the aftermath of the devastation of World War II.

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The African Caribbeans came to a country overwhelmingly white. A number of the new arrivals were demobilized World War II veterans who had returned home to the Caribbean (on the Empire Windrush) and then heeded the inducement to return to the UK. One of these was RAF-veteran Sam King, who later founded the Caribbean-heritage Notting Hill Carnival and became the first Black mayor of the Borough of Southwark (London).

There have been Africans in the British Isles since at least the days of the Roman occupation. And there were British African Caribbean immigrants to the UK before the arrival of Empire Windrush on June 22, 1948. But it was the Windrush that got the media attention. The ship gave its name to the “Windrush Generation”—the more than half a million Caribbean migrants who moved to the UK between 1948 and 1972. (Immigration was somewhat restricted in 1962 and then mostly shut down in the early 1970s.)

This journey was not without its peril,” write diplomats Guy Hewitt and Kevin M. Isaac. “Many Caribbean migrants faced indescribable hostility. Some still recall the infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech by Enoch Powell; the Teddy Boys and Notting Hill race riots; and the signs that said, ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs.’” Nevertheless, the migrant “persevered, and with toil, sweat, and tears played an essential role in helping to build a modern, global Britain.”

The ex-troopship 'Empire Windrush' arriving at Tilbury Docks from Jamaica, with 482 Jamaicans on board, emigrating to Britain, June 22, 1948
The ex-troopship Empire Windrush arriving at Tilbury Docks from Jamaica, with 482 Jamaicans on board, emigrating to Britain, June 22, 1948 Getty

British Rail, the National Health Service, and public transportation, for example, recruited heavily among those born in Jamaica and Barbados. In 2014, new immigration rules made it easier to remove people who didn’t have permission to be in the UK. Perversely, in the eyes of immigration enforcers this included members of the Windrush Generation, suddenly redefined as illegal immigrants—more than four decades after they’d arrived perfectly legally.

As Hewitt and Isaac note, High Commissioners for Barbados and for St. Kitts and Nevis both complained to the UK about “unconscionable practices” and dubious deportations as a result. But what’s now referred to as the Windrush scandal didn’t really break open until 2018. The Home Office, the ministry in charge of immigration and internal security, wrongly deported at least eighty-three people while detaining, denying rights to, and threatening with deportation an unknown larger number of the Windrush Generation.

Nearly 60,000 pre-1972 immigrants were at risk of the Home Office’s demand for documents that had never existed.

“When the Windrush Generation and their children arrived, they were British subjects, from British colonies, carrying British passports,” write Hewitt and Isaac. “They should, therefore, never have been caught up in this category of illegal immigrants—stigmatized, denied access to work, banking services, housing and pension benefits and medial treatment.”

People who had literally built and maintained the NHS were denied care by it, in what one critic, Guardian editor-at-large Gary Younge (born in Hertfordshire to Barbadian parents), called a policy of “cruelty by design.” Reverend Wilfred Wood, the first Black bishop of the Church of England, said the actions came “close to a crime against humanity.”

The scandal led to the resignation of the Home Secretary, an apology by the Prime Minister, and an independent Windrush Lessons Learned Review, which condemned the Home Office’s “ignorance and thoughtlessness.” A system of compensation for the policy’s victims was set up, but at least two dozen of the elderly Brits eligible for it died before receiving payments.

The Empire Windrush itself had caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean in 1954 with the loss of four crew.

Windrush Day, a celebration of the contribution of immigrants to Britain, is celebrated every year on June 22.

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Social and Economic Studies, Vol. 67, No. 2/3, Small Nations, Dislocations, Transformations (June and September 2018), pp. 293–302
Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies