Jamaicans celebrate 50 years in UK

The first West Indian migrants who arrived on the 'Empire Windrush' overcame racism and poverty to prosper, reports Matthew Brace
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The Independent Online
THE Windrush Generation is preparing its Sunday best for a nationwide party. Most of its members are retired and greying now, but their memories are sharp. They can recall the chilly morning, 50 years ago next month, when they arrived with their fellow Jamaican migrants on the troopship Empire Windrush at Tilbury after a month at sea.

On 25 June they will meet Prince Charles at St James's Palace for an official ceremony to mark the anniversary. At least three books are being published and the BBC plans dramas and documentaries retracing the events of the first major emigration from the Caribbean to Britain and recounting how that first wave and their descendants have fared since.

Those who sailed on the Empire Windrush left the warmth of their island colony on an evening in May to come to London to work, responding to ads from the Mother Country. The economic depression in post-war England had sent shockwaves to Jamaica, where demand for produce had slumped, while Britain needed rebuilding and there was a shortage of labour.

In Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain, to be published by Minerva Press on 25 June, Sam King, co-founder of the charitable Windrush Foundation, recalls life on board: the trepidation in the eyes of his countrymen (and eight women) who paid pounds 28/10s (pounds 28.50) to make the voyage, how they lived and slept side-by-side, forced down meals ofmashed-potato, and pulled up their zoot suit collars to fend off the sea breezes. "Three cows, that is what it cost. A lot of people could not afford it but my family had a farm they had bought in a co-operative, the same farm they had worked on as slaves. They sold three cows to give me the fare. The food was awful. I can't eat mashed potato even now. I am still in contact with one of the cooks and we still talk about it!"

About 10 days out, the ship supposedly developed engine trouble and pulled into Bermuda. but the word among the passengers was that the government had had second thoughts and was cancelling the exercise. Mr King recalls: "Once we sailed from Bermuda we saw on the horizon HMS Sheffield, a battleship, watching us. People got really scared and we would listen to the wireless where we heard that a lot of British people did not want the boat to dock at all."

They, and some government ministers, were concerned the new immigrants would run riot like savages and said if there was any trouble on the ship it should turn around. "I saw one man crying, saying, 'They are going to send us back', so the word went out - peace and love, no fighting on board, and we'll be all right."

The morning of 22 June 1948 dawned dank and chill over Tilbury as the Empire Windrush emerged from the mist and docked. But spirits were high and, as Mr King discovered, there were jobs galore. He was offered five at Balham Labour Exchange on his first visit. Once he had saved enough money from work as an engineer (a trade he had learnt in Britain through two years in the RAF as one of the West Indian volunteers), he applied for his first mortgage to Camberwell council (later Southwark) - and was sent a lettertelling him to go home to Jamaica. Almost 25 years later, after a distinguished career as an executive in the Post Office, he stood proudly in the same council's chamber wearing his ceremonial gold chain as Mayor of the borough - the first immigrant to hold the office in London.

It would not have happened if he had given in to threats by neo-Nazis, who telephoned him at home when he was elected a councillor and said they would burn his house down and slit his throat if he took up the seat. "I had no intention of letting fascists run me out of England," he says. "This was my country now. I loved Jamaica and my family, especially my mother, but I was not prepared to stay there and live in a colony."

Now a grandfather, Mr King lives with his wife in a house decked with newspaper cuttings with photographs of him meeting the Queen and the Princess Royal, and copies of the Jamaican flag. Would he ever go back? "No, man. I am home here. The Minister for the Colonies, the Rt Hon Creech Jones, said we wouldn't last more than a week - but we have."