Over the last five years the British government has been reckoning with more recent expressions of the anti-immigration and anti-Black sentiments among its elected officials. The “Windrush scandal” broke in 2017, revealing that the British Home Office systematically and intentionally denied citizenship privileges (like access to the National Health Service, passports, visas for visiting family members, and more) to those of the “Windrush generation.” The Windrush scandal highlights the disconnect between Britain’s self image as an antiracism world leader and the reality of racist policies and practices in modern Britain, but as this episode explores, the current scandal is just one of a long list of injustices imposed on citizens from the West Indies and other former British colonies.

Transcript: The Windrush Generation and the Mystique of British Anti-Racism

Written by Averill Earls, PhD

Recorded by Averill Earls and Sarah Handley-Cousins, Phd

Averill: Today, 800,000 Jamaicans and people of Jamaican descent live in the United Kingdom, including those who make up seven percent of London’s population. Like many of the British Caribbean peoples, Jamaicans began migrating to the UK in the late 1940s, after the passage and implementation of the 1948 British Nationality Act. Part II of the Act stated clearly and unambiguously that “every person born within the United Kingdom and Colonies after the commencement of this Act shall be a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies by birth.” As British citizens, thousands of Jamaicans, Barbadans, Tobagonians, and Trinidadians–as well as Nigerians, South Africans, Rhodesians, and many others–sought better lives in the far-off metropole. Among the first to seek that new life in Britain were hundreds of passengers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, who arrived on the Empire Windrush shortly after the implementation of the 1948 Act. Many answered the call to fill the labor shortage in the postwar UK rebuilding, booking passage on steam ships and former troop carriers. Few could afford to move their entire family, and Britain couldn’t make space for them fast enough anyway; there were immediate housing shortages as the Caribbean population grew in London, Birmingham, Handsworth, Manchester, and the like. Often one parent went, sometimes even both, and left children with family for a time, then sent for them a few years or even decades later, once they had the means to do so. With such legislation, Britain hoped to present itself to the world as a pillar of moral good in the world, deserving of the colonies it held onto even as its leaders hoped to be seen as gracious and benevolent parents of the nations birthed from its crumbling empire. But as we’ll discuss today, that self-proclaimed moral goodness was and is often at odds with the lived experiences of Black Britons. Over the last five years the British government has been reckoning with more recent expressions of the anti-immigration and anti-Black sentiments among its elected officials. The “Windrush scandal” broke in 2017, revealing that the British Home Office systematically and intentionally denied citizenship privileges (like access to the National Health Service, passports, visas for visiting family members, and more) to those of the “Windrush generation.” The Windrush scandal has highlighted–once again–the disconnect between Britain’s self image as an antiracism world leader and the reality of racist policies and practices in modern Britain.

I’m Averill Earls

And I’m Sarah Handley-Cousins

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig.

Sarah: Thank you for joining us today! Before we dive in, we want to thank you, our listeners, and especially our Patreon supporters, who help keep this history excavation team digging. A big shout-out and thanks to our fabulous Auger and Excavator level patrons: Lauren, Edward, Iris, Denise, Susan, Agnes, Peggy, Colin, Maddie, Maria, Jessy and Hannah! We can’t thank you enough. Listener, if you’re not yet a patron of this show, it’s easy: just go to patreon.com/digpodcast to learn more

Averill: So before we get too far, I do want to say that we’re going to be talking a lot about the tension between how the United Kingdom represented itself to the world (aka, as a paragon of multiculturalism via its empire), and the reality of racism all-too-evident in British society and politics. This is most clearly captured in the 2017 Windrush scandal that I alluded to in the intro – in 2012, when Theresa May was Home Secretary, her office created a “hostile environment” for those early migrants and their children. This is one of Kenetta Hammond Perry’s arguments in her book London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race, but she published her in 2016, just before the Windrush scandal broke in 2017. When we talk about race and racism in the UK, it has to be framed within the broader context of the British empire and decolonization in the late 20th century. But I’m going to keep this episode under an hour, so rather than a comprehensive history of race, citizenship, and Black Britishness, we’re going to focus on the Windrush and this idea that Perry interrogates in her work: the disconnect between the antiracist, moral leader that Britain tried to project to the world, and the reality that suggested quite the opposite, both at the institutional level and on the streets of London, Handsworth, and elsewhere in the UK.

Sarah: Let’s start in 1948. On June 21, 1948, the Evening Standard reported on the Empire Windrush as the ship made its way to London with passengers from the West Indies. “A dirty white ship sailed up the Channel as an Evening Standard airplane circles over the Straits of Dover today. From the air the Empire Windrush was little different from many of the ships which sail by daily, but to four hundred people on board she was the beginning of a new life. For they are the Jamaicans who set sail for the Motherland when they found they could not get work in their own country. As if to encourage them, the sea was calm and the sun shone brightly on the white cliffs of the land that is to most of them their last hope. The Evening Standard airplane, flying low over the sea, first sighted the Windrush at 11:25 am. As it circled round the passengers rushed to the sides of the ship, but there was no waving or cheering. Hands clinging tightly to the rails they stared in wonder as the airplane swept round and over them. The airplane circled for 15 minutes, and gradually apprehension turned to joy as the passengers realised they were receiving their first welcome to England. Brown and white hands waved so vigorously that one could imagine the cheers and smiles it was impossible to see or hear. They were still waving as the airplane left for Croydon.”

H.M.T. Empire Windrush. Black and white photo of large ship.
HMT Empire Windrush after which the Windrush generation is named. Photograph FL 9448 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

Averill: So obviously this news report is chronicling the arrival in England of the troop ship the Empire Windrush. Originally this ship was a German cruise liner, repurposed for transporting soldiers by the Nazi war machine, and then seized by the British as a prize of war – and then renamed the Empire Windrush. In 1948 it was taking the long way from Australia to the UK, and stopped in Jamaica to pick up British soldiers who were on leave. In addition to a number of Jamaicans who intended to join the British armed services, and those already in service, the Empire Windrush picked up some 648 passengers who intended to settle in the UK thanks to the 1948 British Nationality Act. When the ship docked in England, it carried over 1000 passengers, including 18 stowaways.

Sarah: In their reporting, the Evening Standard opted to focus solely on the 400 Jamaican passengers. This certainly wasn’t the first time darker-skinned people moved to settle in the United Kingdom, but it has generally been marked as the first time there would be a major population shift from the West Indies and the other British colonies into the UK. This was the first time there was a clear invitation to Brown and Black imperial subjects in which they were welcomed through legislation into Britain. But perhaps as this news report suggests, the welcome was tempered from the very beginning.

Averill: It might be fair, for example, to draw attention to the Evening Standard’s language in this report. Perhaps the author unconsciously or unintentionally drew attention to the dirtiness of the white ship just before revealing that it carried Jamaican passengers. Or perhaps not. But like the Nationality Act itself, the Evening Standard asserted that Britain welcomed these passengers, among them “brown and white hands” to England. This stance was certainly intentional, a show of Britain’s magnanimousness.

Sarah: This narrative was crafted across the British media. The BBC radio news bulletins the next day announced the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury. According to the British History museum, which holds a collection of sources surrounding the Windrush generation, the BBC reported on June 22 that “‘five hundred West Indians … have come to work in this country.’ Like other media sources, the bulletins contain omissions that obscure the reality: the Empire Windrush carried more passengers than the ‘nearly 500 Jamaicans’ who are referred to here. Passengers included men, women and children from Jamaica, Bermuda and Trinidad, as well as Polish refugees. At 1pm it was broadcast that passengers without employment would be housed in the deep shelter at Clapham Common Underground station, arranged by the Ministry of Labour who had initially panicked at the news that hundreds of migrants were due to arrive seeking work. This bulletin also reveals that passengers had unloaded the ship themselves due to a dock workers’ strike. At 6pm the bulletin reports that the 18 stowaways found on board had been fined or sentenced to several days’ imprisonment.”[1]

Sarah: As historian Kevin Searle notes, West Indians came by the thousands during the war to help support British war infrastructure or to serve in the military. After the war, most returned home, only to find few opportunities, and so many thousands returned to the UK in the years after the passage of the 1948 Citizenship Act.

Averill: During the war, in 1941, Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour and National Service, set up the National Service Hostels Corporation to provide housing for these migrant laborers–both citizens of the empire like the West Indians from Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados, etc, but also for the refugees from places like Poland who aided the British homefront and postwar rebuilding. The Ministry of Labour continued to rely on these hostels to house migrants from the Caribbean and elsewhere in the years after the war. The housing crisis that large scale immigration created would prove problematic for decades to come, and would undergird the limitations of Britain’s policies and practices of welcome and belonging for Black Britons.

Sarah: Post-war Britain had a massive labor shortage. There was an estimated need for over a million laborers, particularly for service jobs like waste removal, maintenance workers, construction laborers–basically the dirty jobs that no one really wants, but that somebody has to do. The Minister of Labour met this need by drawing on several sources, including POWs from WW2, Polish ex-soldiers, the “European Voluntary Workers” scheme, and of course, by 1955, massive influxes of workers from the Caribbean and South Asia.

Averill: The European Voluntary Workers scheme ran from 1946 until the early 1950s, bringing mostly eastern European refugees from displaced persons camps in Germany and Austria to work in a range of industries. Poles, as non-citizens, ended up doing a lot of the undesirable work in Britain; because they were technically British citizens under the 1948 Act, Caribbean workers had better negotiating power when it came to picking jobs. Many of these European workers undoubtedly resented the mostly Black and Brown West Indians for this perceived unfairness. Some of that resentment was certainly the resentment that one shittily paid worker feels toward another only slightly less shittily paid worker, thanks to the worker vs worker culture that capitalism creates. But we’re also talking about a period not so far from the height of popular eugenics, when Europeans were socialized into a world view that included a clear racial hierarchy of whiteness at the top and Blackness at the bottom. It’s entirely possible that such a worldview would have stymied one group of immigrants’ ability to empathize with the other. And Irish men in particular, who’d been subjected to racialization as not-quite-white by the British for over a century, were hostile toward men of color, as if battling to remain a step above in that imagined racial hierarchy.

Sarah: In the government-run hostels, Caribbean, Polish, and Irish laborers were all expected to live together. But they did not live together in harmony as intended, because of Irish racial prejudice against men of color. These hostilities often came to a head at social events, particularly dances where Irish men took offense to Caribbean men dancing with white European women. This happened in December 1946 at the West Bromwich hostel at the staff Christmas party, and again at the Greenbanks hostel in January 1948 in Leeds, where the hostel manager acknowledged that the ensuing brawl’s “cause appears to be racial prejudice – black men associating with white women.”[2] In August 1948 at the hostel at Castle Donnington in Nottingham, Irish men again started fights with West Indian men after observing some white women dancing with Black men. In all cases the authorities acknowledged that the white Europeans were the aggressors, but issued consequences for the Black Britons alone. In Donnington, for example, a cap was placed on how many Caribbean men could be housed in that hostel (3 in total).

Flag of Jamaica

Averill: The racial tensions in the hostels came to a head at the Causeway Green, Birmingham in 1949. At the time, 700 men lived together in the Causeway Green hostel: 235 Poles, 18 “EVWs”, 235 Southern Irish, 50 Northern Irish, 65 Jamaicans, and 100 English, Scottish, and Welsh. Birmingham was hostile to West Indians; the largest hostel in the city refused to house Black residents, and others imposed quotas. It is no surprise then that the Jamiacans were so outnumbered by Europeans in 1949. In the lead up to riots on August 8, there were a number of fights that exacerbated tensions. On August 3, at a dance, there was a brawl between Jamaicans and Poles. On August 6 there was a “more serious affair over the attention of a woman, which would escalate to involve a crowd fighting with bottles in the main reception hall.”[3] After a retaliation from the Poles was derailed by police presence at the hostel on August 7, August 8 saw the outbreak of riots.

Sarah: At 8pm, Searle notes that “Polish residents armed with weapons including sticks, stones, razors, factory-made knuckledusters, iron bars, heavy files and lengths of cable commenced an assault on the sleeping block occupied mainly by Jamaicans. Indeed, the Poles had been organising for some time, as some of these weapons had been prepared at their place of work during the day, and there were also reports of their numbers being bolstered by reinforcements from other local hostels. Serious fighting developed with many missiles, including large lumps of concrete, bottles and whole bricks – being thrown at and into the block. Most of the other occupants in the hostel ran to the air-raid shelters as the fighting continued in and around the building and on the main road, with some of the Jamaicans, who were chased by the Poles, attempting to seek shelter in private home.”[4] In the end, though it was indisputably the European volunteer workers who “turned on Jamaicans, attempting to run them out of the hostel,” the hostel manager (with support from the Ministry of Labor,) placed “restrictions on the number of black workers allowed to stay in government hostels at any one time.”[5]

Averill: As this example – and there are many – suggests, the openness created by the Nationality Act was quickly challenged by those who wished to “Keep Britain White” at mid-century. With the hostels specifically, of course, this Whiteness was centered on Europeanness more broadly, as Irish, Polish, and other European workers pitted themselves against Black Jamaicans. But this sentiment was not limited to the throngs of immigrant workers in the UK. Black Britons experienced various levels of violence and unwelcomeness from white Britons from very early in the 1950s — right up to today.

Sarah: And the unpreparedness of the British government for the arriving migrants from the West Indies speaks to the emptiness of the 1948 law. A law, after all, is a policy change, not a social change. As Kenetta Hammond Perry notes, “Although the British Nationalist Act of 1948 formally established a British Commonwealth citizenship that applied universally to all British subjects, irrespective of race, color, or origin, policy makers had no intention that nationality law would facilitate an unprecedented non-White migration from the Commonwealth.”[6]

Averill: Whatever the collective and individual responses to Black migrants, the UK needed the labor of West Indians, and continued to need them for more than a decade. In 1955, the British government launched a campaign to recruit more workers for some of the nationalized industries. In the 1961 UK census, there were just over 170,000 people residing in the UK who’d been born in the West Indies. By 1964, that number was over 300,000.[7]

Sarah: By 1958, Britain had been patting itself on the back as an international standard for anti-racism and welcoming immigration patterns, despite the earlier and immediate backlash at Causeway Green. In 1958 there was another explosion of racial violence, which domestic commentators blamed on increasing Black migration, perceived and real housing shortages in the UK, and “deviant working-class masculinities” – all factors meant to obfuscate the larger systemic cracks in Britain’s self-styled interacial paradise.[8]

Averill: According to Kenetta Hammon Perry, “On September 1, 1958, three hundred men and women barricaded themselves in two buildings at Blenheim Crescent to defend themselves against what the local press described as “mob of marauding white rowdies.””[9] This was the third consecutive night in which crowds of white Britons attacked and harassed Black Britons in West London. Early in the day on September 1, the secretary of Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement, a fascist organization that objected loudly to the mere existence of West Indian immigrants, gave a speech to inflame his white listeners to more violence. But September 1 would prove to be different than the preceding days – because while in August white “teddy boys” and teenagers chased Black men and women, threatening them with broken bottles and shouting racial slurs and obscenities at every West Indian and African they encountered, on September 1, the community of Black Britons living at Blenheim Crescent prepared to fight back. Perry notes that “Groups of West Indian men entered the streets while challenging Whites to ‘come and fight!’”[10]

Sarah: Black residents of Nottingham lobbed homemade petrol bombs from the roofs of Black-owned businesses to scatter the white mobs below. The police in West London did their best to control the racial violence, but could not arrest enough people to keep up with the waves that tore through neighborhoods. But as the local press declared, “in the face of another night of vigilante efforts to ‘Keep Britain White,’ on the evening of 1 September 1958, ‘this time colored people fought back.’”[11]

Averill: By the time the violence subsided back down to a simmer, police had arrested 108 people, mostly young white working-class men. Perry notes that commentators in the aftermath debated whether the race riots in Nottingham and London were “simply a local story about a sudden, geographically specific “outburst” of racial conflict? …A product of “hooliganism,” the depravities associated with working-class urban life or growing right-wing fascist agitation? … or precipitated by a largely Black male Commonwealth “immigrant” population, or did its origins lie elsewhere?”[12] And even as British politicians and media commentators wrestled with these questions internally, the world seized on these riots and blasted them across international headlines alongside the challenges to desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. So in addition to trying to parse out what the cause of these spikes of violence were internally, the British government had real cause to worry about what these incidents meant about the UK as a decolonizing imperial power and alleged “proprietor of Western democracy.”

Sarah: In many parts of the world, including Ghana and Australia, the race riots in Britain seemed to their journalists like anomalies. Many newspapers quoted CJM Alport, a Commonwealth Relations Office official, who basically said that Britishness was antithetical to violent racial conflict, and that the events of autumn 1958 were shocking because they seemed out of character, or “unBritish.”[13] To white South Africa politicians, the race riots in Britain seemed to vindicate their own system of Apartheid, already well entrenched but daily challenged internally and by the world. As Perry notes, “South African public opinion emphasize[d] how the violence unearthed tensions between a British migration policy reflecting the ideals of a multiracial Commonwealth and the practicalities associated with forging a multiracial society.”[14] A British correspondent reporting from Johannesburg explained, “The incidents at Nottingham have roused considerable interest here. . . . Many South Africans feel that as their own racial troubles develop the British, like the United States, are likely to be more sympathetic to [South Africa’s] difficulties, and this gives them a feeling of relief.”[15]

Averill: British policy makers, of course, preferred that the racial violence in Nottingham and London be chalked up to uncharacteristic one-offs, rather than evidence of an endemic problem like that in South Africa or the segregated American south. Kenetta Hammon Perry argues that the UK represented itself at any given moment in one or more of three ways: as “a racially liberal nation that touted ostensibly progressive values, including tolerance, decency, and equal justice,” and/or “as the “Mother Country” or progenitor of a multiracial Commonwealth defined by a sense of Britishness that was inclusive and universalist,” and/or “as a foil to the extremes of White supremacy practiced in the Jim Crow South in the United States and under South Africa’s postwar apartheid regime.” These aggregated to form what Perry calls the “British mystique of antiracism.”[16] Basically, through legislation like the 1948 Nationality Act, efforts to convince its remaining colonies that staying a colony was a great idea, and regular critiques of Jim Crow and Apartheid, the UK definitely rode a moral high horse. But as Perry points out when she calls this a “mystique,” Britain’s role as a leader in anti-racism morality was only ever surface level. And it didn’t take much to dematerialize the mystique.

Sarah: The writers and artists who spoke for the Windrush generation and their children, describe the loneliness and unfulfilled promises of the “Mother country.” Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners, Andrea Levy’s Small Island, and Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, to name just a few, represent London and the UK as cold, gray, hostile spaces that both implicitly and explicitly exclude people like them – the Black Britons who came from or descended from West Indian migrants. Though, as Anna Grmelov suggests, “The 1948 arrival of the Caribbean immigrants who sailed to Britain on the SS Empire Windrush is commonly considered to represent the start of multicultural and multiracial Britain,” Kenetta Hammon Perry’s work echoes that of the Windrush generation writers.[17] They were not made English by their living or raising families or even growing up in the UK. As Timothy Weiss notes, “They would eventually write about life in the English metropolis and about experiences of emigrants there; but to establish their identities as writers and to get their works published they had to return, imaginatively and sometimes in fact, to the ethnic communities and native landscapes that they had left. They could not be English writers per se; they had to be West Indian writers in England.”[18]

Averill: And it wasn’t just other Britons who made the cities of the UK cold, gray, and hostile to West Indians. Though the 1948 law was fairly broad and sweeping in opening the UK’s doors to citizens of the empire, it didn’t take long for policy makers to start chipping away at that permissiveness. The tensions between empire and metropole were exacerbated in the late 1950s by the “emergency” in Kenya, as the Mau Mau rebellion agitated for complete independence from Britain; by the internationalization and popularization of reggae and the rejection of “Babylon,” which was white Britain and empire incarnate; by the gradual dismantling of the empire that the UK thought to preserve through its 1948 Act.

Sarah: According to the Cabinet Papers at the UK National Archive, “For the next five years (1949-1954), immigration from colonies remained at no more than 2,000 per year. This increased in 1954 and had reached over 135,000 by 1961.” Early on, the Cabinet toyed with the idea of curbing the flow of non-white people into Britain, but decided that the numbers were too small to warrant action. But by 1954, when the number of West Indians entering the United Kingdom increased, “the Secretary of State for the Home Office, Gwilym Lloyd George, raised the idea of legislation to prevent free movement of colonial immigrants.”

Averill: “In 1955, the Colonial Office produced a draft White Paper (basically, a proposed law) on immigration restrictions.” Then Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, argued that the proposal was racially discriminatory, because it proposed setting restrictions on Caribbean immigrants but not Irish, even though the majority of immigrants were Irish. In 1956 they shelved the plans, but then two years later the Nottingham riots moved the government back into behind-the-scenes discussions for thinning the flow of emigrants from the West Indies. It is no coincidence that this was their solution. If you remember back to the Causeway Green conflict and all the race-related issues in the national hostels, even when the people in charge acknowledged that white Europeans instigated all the fights, it was always the Black folks who bore consequences. In those housing instances, the solution was to set a quota of how many West Indians could live in any given hostel. It would seem that for white British lawmakers, that logic carried over into immigration.

Sarah: In 1960, the government put together a committee to draft legislation. Within two years, it was passed. Now, instead of free movement for all citizens of the empire, the 1962  Commonwealth Immigration Act “controlled the immigration of all Commonwealth passport holders, except those who held UK passports, requiring prospective immigrants to apply for a work voucher, graded according to the applicant’s employment prospects.” That allowed a government office to make decisions about who got to enter Britain and who did not. Labour, which was historically the more liberal-leaning party in British politics, initially opposed the 1962 law, and intended to combat it after the elections in 1964. But candidates who openly opposed the 1962 Act lost the election, which the rest of the party interpreted as widespread support for the restriction on immigration.

Flags of the members of the Commonwealth Square, London. Creative Commons.

Averill: Theoretically this law wouldn’t apply to those who held UK passports – which included all Commonwealth and colonial subjects who’d applied for that passport between 1948-1962. But here’s where folks from the Windrush generation will start to encounter problems. Parents who planned to send for their children after they were able to establish safe and stable homes in the UK may not have applied for their children’s passports. And over the next two decades, it became harder and harder for children (especially adult children) to get to the UK on their parents’ passport. By 2012, we’ll see the logical conclusion of the tightening of that vise – eventually the British government wouldn’t even let those children visit their families in the UK, in an effort to ostensibly discourage West Indians from visiting and then staying.

Sarah: In 1968, when people of Asian descent living in Kenya and Uganda had to flee those countries because of internal persecution and violence, many went to the UK on the passports they’d obtained through the 1948 Act. In response the Conservatives in the government pushed the Labour government to pass new laws that further restricted who could enter the UK. After 1968, only those with a parent or grandparent born in the UK had freedom of movement into the country. Unsurprisingly this restriction mostly impacted only those without a white British parent or grandparent.

Averill: This series of restrictions came to a head in 1971 with another Immigration Act, which was enforced after 1973. According to the Cabinet Papers, “The Conservative government announced the Immigration Act of 1971. The act replaced employment vouchers with work permits, allowing only temporary residence. ‘Patrials’ (those with close UK associations) were exempted from the act. It also tightened the immigration control administration and made some provision for assisting voluntary repatriation. In 1972, Idi Amin expelled a large number of Asians from Uganda. Amid much controversy, the government permitted the immigration of 27,000 Asians through a specially constituted Uganda Resettlement Board.”

Sarah: Somewhat conveniently, these changes in immigration pathways changed just as Britain was getting ready to join the European Economic Community, or the precursor to the European Union. The EEC and its successor essentially built relationships between all member states that allowed the free movement of laborers between member states. While Europe faced the same economic challenges that most of the world did in the late 1970s, the 1980s and early 90s initiated a flow of Eastern Europeans – who spoke a different language and had different customs and practices, but who still looked like predominately-white Britain – to meet labor needs in the UK. 

Averill: Depending on which coalition or party controlled the British parliament, these immigration restriction laws could be used to heavy-handedly keep brown and Black folks from emigrating to the UK. In 2012, the Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition took up that heavy-handed approach. Theresa May (yes, the one who served as Prime Minister from 2016-2019) was Home Secretary. The Home Office is “responsible for immigration, security, and law and order.” Thus, she was charged with overseeing policies and procedures for the applications for visas from members of the Commonwealth and former colonies like Jamaica.

Color photo of woman. Home Secretary Theresa May in 2013.
Home Secretary Theresa May in 2013. Creative Commons

Sarah: According to the Independent, “Of around 550,000 people from the Caribbean who migrated to the UK between 1948 and 1973, roughly 50,000 who were still in the UK may not had yet regularised their residency status…. Hence, because of a “hostile environment” towards immigration as spearheaded by Theresa May when she was home secretary, the government viewed them as “illegal immigrants” and they were stripped of many of their rights as UK citizens unless they could prove they were UK nationals with relevant documentation. But most people arrived on parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents.”

Averill: May’s office denied West Indian family members the ability to visit their sick, dying, or dead relatives in the UK. They also denied folks from the Caribbean–who’d lived in the UK for literal decades–access to the National Health Service and other citizenship benefits when the government investigators discovered that such individuals’ parents hadn’t done the paperwork early enough to secure that person a UK passport. Hundreds were subjected to these kinds of humiliations and clearly racist policies. As reported by Olivia Peter, “The government said that more than 160 members of the Windrush generation may have been wrongly detained or deported. But more than 1,270 claims have been made to a compensation scheme.”

Sarah: Starting in 2017, newspapers across the UK began reporting on the developing situation. Jamaicans and other West Indians were wrongly detained, deported, and denied legal rights. Journalist investigation of the situation prompted an inquiry into these policies and practices. Though at first the Home Office denied that anyone had been detained, they later admitted that it was possible people were being targeted for deportation. The procedures May had implemented were intended to create a “hostile environment” for the 50,000 Windrush migrants who didn’t regularize their residency status when they first arrived in the UK. The results of these targeting practices were quite ruinous. We’ll share a couple of these stories, quoting directly from those impacted.

Averill: A man identified as “Mr. Marvin,” shared his experience: “My father went up in 1948, eventually, he sent for the family. I was the last to leave in 1954. I traveled to the UK on my British passport. Prior to my arrival, my father had experienced harsh racism, so when I got there he wanted me to study, so I enrolled at a technical college. Things were so bad, that at my age I was bunking with a 54-year-old man. My family eventually managed to get a council flat. At aged 18, I was called to the Royal Air Force. I was in the force for about seven years. After serving in the force, I worked in the UK as a race relations officer. In 1971, I returned to Jamaica to attend my grandmother’s funeral and upon seeing the progress in Jamaica, I was so impressed, that later when I was offered the opportunity to return to work with the Jamaican government I decided to take up the opportunity. At this time, I had a dual citizenship. At the end of my contract with the ministry, I gained employment with a local company and did not return to the UK. In 1982, I applied to renew my British passport in Jamaica; my application was refused on the grounds that I stayed out of the UK too long. I was instead offered a visitor’s visa if I wished to travel. I did not make a fuss, as my purpose was to visit my children and family in the UK and the visitor’s visa suited this purpose. However, in 2013, when I applied to renew the visitor’s visa, my application was declined. The refusal letter stated that I might not return to Jamaica. To be frank, the whole thing is a fraud. What England seemed to forget is that the immigrants helped to build the UK after the war. My father and others did the dirty jobs; they swept the streets, worked on the garbage trucks, factories, and lived in appalling housing, all to help rebuild England. I am receiving my UK pension every month, but they refused to grant me permission to visit the UK. I have two children living in the UK, both holding respectable jobs with their own homes. I have four brothers and a sister in the UK. In fact, most of my family are residing in the UK. When I lived in England, I held reputable employment. I do not hold a criminal record, was never involved in any dubious activities. Living in Jamaica, I have earned sufficient wealth to live a comfortable life. My home is worth 500,000 USD, I have no debts and more than enough savings, so why did the British High Commission turn down my application? I never asked my children or family members to file for me because my father and grandmother were British citizens. So, the reason for denying my application can only be viewed as racial. Under the Windrush investigation, I have since submitted my details to the Jamaica High Commission and was informed that I will be allowed to travel to the UK and then proceed with my application for citizenship.”[19]

Sarah: Two sisters, Annie and Bernice, shared their stories with Huon Wardle and Laura Obermuller. “My parents had five children. In the early 1960s, when they decided to move to the UK, three of us moved with them. The oldest and the youngest remained in Jamaica with one of our aunts. The youngest who remained was a three-month-old girl. The decision to leave her, my mother had said, was difficult but at that time it was the best under the circumstances. Both parents would be working full-time in the UK and no one was available to assist with taking care of the baby. The plan was to have her join the family when she was older. My parents remitted monies to my aunt to care for my sister and visited Jamaica to spend time with her. In 1969, when my parents decided to have my sister join us, we found out that the immigration laws had changed. My parents were not wealthy, they had no influential friends; they were ordinary, hard-working people. No member of our family living in the UK had committed a crime; we were not depending on the British government, so it was shocking when the Home Office refused to allow my sister to join us. This was very difficult for my family; I recall my brother giving my mother his savings to assist with my sister’s paperwork. Growing up in the UK, I was in a house with four boys, I would look at my female mates with their sisters and wish my sister would be allowed to come live with us. I had to form sisterly bonds with strangers, as my sister was miles away. I watched my mother cry many nights, regretting that she left her baby and was now unable to reunite our family. As much as we talked, and we sent money, it was not the same. It was an emotionally painful experience. There was not a lot that my parents could do: They tried, and I have all the evidence. The hardest blow was when my parents died and my sister was denied a visitor’s visa to attend their funerals. Like with her paperwork for residency, all the required documentation for the visitor’s visa was submitted, but once again, she was denied entry. It is horrific that my sister was unable to attend both of her parents’ funerals. We did what we needed to do but still did not get the visa; I can only see this as racist. My mother tried, it hurt my mother to know her daughter was out there suffering. My sister was suffering out there, separated from her family. The last time her visa application was denied, the letter stated she may not return to Jamaica; how is it that this person is able to say this when my sister never overstayed her time in any country? There was no issue regarding finance; she has her children and grandchildren in Jamaica. I think it is just shameful the way the British government treats its Commonwealth citizens.”[20]

Averill: So as these two examples, which are two of hundreds that have submitted, express, this is emotional, this is psychological trauma that is being inflicted on West Indians and their families in the UK, through British government policies. It’s as simple as the banality of evil, it’s the bureaucracy.

Sarah: Right. It’s like – “File a paper, this is the paperwork that you need to do, this is all you need to do, and if it gets denied, there’s nothing we can do.” There’s no one to blame or take responsibility, because that’s the way bureaucracy enforces racism, there’s no person to blame.

Averill: When in fact it was Theresa May, who has obviously articulated to her staff, that if there are these applications coming from the West Indies, we can’t trust them, deny those applications. It’s the language of racism.

Sarah: Oh absolutely. And it doesn’t make sense. I mean, it does make sense. As someone who doesn’t study the UK – it makes sense in the fact in that it is transparently and straight-fowardly racist. But it doesn’t make sense in that the British insist on having this Commonwealth, far-flung across the world, relationships with all these peoples, and the Queen goes around visiting and making a big deal about the Commonwealth. And meanwhile, people in the Commonwealth can’t even move freely between states? It makes no sense.

Averill: The Guardian has reported extensively on the Windrush scandal, taking the time to record the stories of those impacted by the British government’s secret (or not-so-secret, in the long run) racism. Thanks to the publicity of the scandal, many who’d faced the same discrimination from the Home Office were able to level official complaints and law suits against the state. In 2021 some of the suits were settled and wrongs made right, but for some, the decisions were made too late. Sarah O’Connor, Hubert Howard, Richard Stewart, Dexter Bristol, and many others died before they received the justice and reparations they deserved after terrible treatment by the British government. In Sarah O’Connor’s case, “Officials mistakenly classified her as being in the country illegally, even though she had lived here for 51 years, since she was six. Unable to work, and not eligible for benefits, she had to sell her car and clothes. The scandal reminded her of the racism she faced in the 1970s. “It feels like it has become a hostile country again.””

Sarah: We’ll post a Guardian collection of the stories of 50 people impacted by the “hostile environment” policy pursued by the British government in 2012, so you can take a look at some of these stories yourself. We should note that the discriminatory practices weren’t just directed at Black people either, either – in true 20th century notions of “race”, the British government tried to deport people with disabilities too.

Averill: I also don’t think it’s any coincidence that Britain’s exit from the EU took place around the same time that Theresa May was empowered to make the UK a hostile environment for the Black Britons who’d come from the West Indies. The British perception that membership in the EU meant accepting European and refugee Muslims certainly played into 21st-century efforts to “Keep Britain White.”

Sarah: In the decades that followed its 1948 arrival in London, the Empire Windrush came to represent the generation of people who came to settle in the UK from the West Indies. Though it was not the first ship to carry West Indian emigrants, it was well-publicized, and so became the touchstone for this reshaping of Britain (especially London, but all major cities, like Birmingham, Handsford, Manchester, etcetera). Today in the UK it may have developed a new meaning: that of a generation of people invited, only to find that they weren’t welcome. Literally hundreds of thousands of emigrants from the West Indies live in the UK now. Undoubtedly many would say that London, Handsford, Manchester, Birmingham, or wherever, is now home. But how they came to that feeling and sense of belonging seems challenging to pinpoint. At least for the Windrush generation, perhaps Sam Selvon said it best: Britain “Is a kind of place where hate and disgust and avarice and malice and sympathy and sorrow and pity all mix up. Is a place where everyone is your enemy and your friend.”


Ed. Hakim Adi, Black British History: New Perspectives (Bloomsbury Academic & Professional Publishing, 2019).

Huon Wardle and Laura Obermuller, “‘Windrush Generation’ and ‘Hostile Environment’: Symbols and Lived Experiences in Caribbean Migration to the UK” Migration and Society: Advances in Research 2 (2019): 81-89.

Ed. Marisa del Pilar Kaladeen and David Dabydeen, The Other Windrush: Legacies of Indenture in Britain’s Caribbean Empire (Pluto Press, 2021)

Timothy Weiss, “The Windrush Generation,” The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel, (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

Kenetta Hammond Perry, London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2016).

Anna Grmelova, “From Loneliness to Encounter: London in the Windrush Generation Novels of Sam Selvon and Andrea Levy,” Litteraria Pragensia 20:40 (2010) 70-84.

Kieran Connell, Black Handsworth: Race in 1980s Britain (University of California Press, 2019)

Darrell M. Newton, Paving the Empire Road: BBC Television and West Indian Immigration (Manchester University Press, 2011)

Guardian staff, ‘It’s inhumane’: the Windrush victims who have lost jobs, homes and loved ones | Commonwealth immigration,” The Guardian (April 2018)

Amelia Gentlemen, “Lambs to the slaughter’: 50 lives ruined by the Windrush scandal,” The Guardian

Olivia Peter, “Windrush scandal: Everything you need to know about the major political crisis,” The Independent

[1] “BBC newscript reports on the arrival of the Empire Windrush, 22 June 1948,” British Library, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/bbc-newscript-reports-on-the-arrival-of-the-empire-windrush-22-june-1948

[2] Qtd. in Searle, “The Causeway Green ‘riots’ of 1949,” 91.

[3] Searle, “The Causeway Green ‘riots’ of 1949,” 92.

[4] Searle, “The Causeway Green ‘riots’ of 1949,” 93.

[5] Kevin Searle, “The Causeway Green ‘riots’ of 1949,” in Black British History: New Perspectives, Ed. Hakim Adi, (Bloomsbury Academic & Professional Publishing, 2019) 90.

[6] Kenetta Hammon Perry, “Migration, Citizenship and the Boundaries of Belonging,” London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2016) 48.

[7] Huon Wardle and Laura Obermuller, “‘Windrush Generation’ and ‘Hostile Environment’: Symbols and Lived Experiences in Caribbean Migration to the UK” Migration and Society: Advances in Research 2 (2019): 81-89; 83.

[8] Kenetta Hammon Perry, “‘Race Riots’ and the Mystique of British Anti-Racism,” London is the Place for Me: Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford University Press, 2016)

[9] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 89.

[10] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 90.

[11] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 90.

[12] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 91.

[13] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 93.

[14] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 98.

[15] Qtd. in Perry, London is the Place for Me, 99.

[16] Perry, London is the Place for Me, 100-101.

[17] Anna Grmelova, “From Loneliness to Encounter: London in the Windrush Generation Novels of Sam Selvon and Andrea Levy,” Litteraria Pragensia 20:40 (2010) 70-84.

[18] Timothy Weiss, “The Windrush Generation,” The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel, (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[19] Interview with “Mr. Marvin” (pseudonym) in Huon Wardle and Laura Obermuller, “‘Windrush Generation’ and ‘Hostile Environment’: Symbols and Lived Experiences in Caribbean Migration to the UK” Migration and Society: Advances in Research 2 (2019): 81-89; 83-84.

[20] Interview with “Annie” (pseudonym) in Huon Wardle and Laura Obermuller, “‘Windrush Generation’ and ‘Hostile Environment’: Symbols and Lived Experiences in Caribbean Migration to the UK” Migration and Society: Advances in Research 2 (2019): 81-89; 85-86.


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