Podium: The original settlers had a hard time

The Secretary of the Windrush Foundation to the South Place Ethical Society, London
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The Independent Culture
ON 27 MAY 1948, 500 people sailed from the Caribbean on the SS Empire Windrush in search for a better future. The ship arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 21 June 1948. It was the beginning of a change to the face of Britain.

In mid May 1948, adverts appeared in Trinidadian and Jamaican daily newspapers saying that a troopship was leaving for the United Kingdom and the passage was pounds 28 and 10 shillings. It was an opportunity not to be missed. The SS Empire Windrush was on its way back to England, and 500 West Indians took up the offer.

Many of them did not have enough money to pay for rooms in hotels, or hostels. So it was a Jamaican, Baron Baker, who took the responsibility of arranging accommodation for the settlers. In 1944, he had joined the Royal Air Force. After the Second World War, most of the West Indian servicemen and women were demobbed and sent back to the Caribbean. Baron had remained in London. Major Keith (an official from the Colonial Office) told him of the Windrush settlers, as Baron was in a position to assist them when they landed. The Colonial Office had made no preparation for them, and it was Baron who suggested the use of Clapham Common Deep Shelter.

He told Major Keith: "The Air Raid Shelter had been used to house Italians and German prisoners of war, and even myself, when I came to London sometimes and could not find accommodation. So why not open it for the people on the Windrush?"

On the evening of 22 June 1948, the shelter housed 236 Windrush settlers. The decision to open it was important in the making of Brixton as a multi- racial community. The shelter was less than a mile away, and most of the settlers found lodgings in the London Borough of Lambeth.

They were among the first group of Caribbean people to journey to the UK in search of a better future. Those who settled here during and after the end of slavery, had little or no influence in bringing about a change to the face of Britain. The nation remained monocultural until June 1948.

Black communities have existed mainly in Liverpool, London, Cardiff and Bristol for over 400 years. African slaves had been taken there from the 17th century, and after slavery was abolished in 1834, many of them made their homes in those cities. But their communities were perennially rendered powerless by local (and national) authorities, and thugs who made their lives uncomfortable.

In the "Introduction" to a booklet published in 1988 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Windrush landing at Tilbury Docks, Professor Stuart Hall, of the Open University (a Jamaican), wrote: "The great wave of post- war migration from the Caribbean to the UK can be symbolically said to have begun with that fateful voyage. The history of the black Diaspora in Britain begins here."

They were leaving behind a homeland, not yet liberated from direct colonial rule, where the flag of Empire still flew, making them not full citizen of their own country, but subjects of a colonising nation. They were leaving behind the immense poverty of the countryside, and the declining estates of Britain's "sugar colonies" - once the jewel in the crown of, and destined to become the symbol of, a one-crop declining monoculture.

A land where, for all its extraordinary natural beauty, its vivacity, the vigour of popular life and culture, and its range and diversity of peoples and cultures, the opportunities for ambitious young people and the prospects for their children, especially if they came from the "lower orders", were nil.

What they were coming to was certainly not a "Mother Country", a land of milk and honey, where the streets were paved with gold. Those who had served in His Majesty's forces knew better than that. But, though the path for black men and women was uncertain, there were opportunities, like chances to be taken by those who were willing to gamble with the future, because they had so much at stake and so little to lose.

The Windrush settlers, and others who arrived later, had to struggle to survive in Britain. They endured prejudice, discrimination and harassment. In spite of these, many individuals have made progress economically, educationally, and otherwise - against the odds.

The UK has become a multi-cultural, multi-racial society, a situation that would have been unthinkable in June 1948. The Windrush celebration has been an occasion, not only for looking back 50 years, but also for looking forward to the 21st century and debating the future of the children and grandchildren of those who first laid a foundation for them in Britain.