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Windrush to Notting Hill: race and reactions to non-white immigration

Scientists have reached general agreement in recognizing that mankind is one: that all men belong to the same species, homo sapiens. . . . [Biological studies lend support to the ethic of universal brotherhood ... in this sense, every man is his brothers keeper. For every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main, because he is involved in mankind.1

While contested by some biologists as unscientific,2 the UNESCO Statement on race, drafted in Paris in 1950, was a statement of intent for the second half of the 20th century. Created as a reaction to the horrors caused by the Nazis’ biological racism, the Statement emphatically dismissed biological ideas of mental racial difference. Unsurprisingly the British far right reacted with repulsion at its publication with Chesterton’s newspaper Candour publishing an article by Derek Tozer entitled ‘UNESCO Hates the Rich Diversity of Men’. However, the notion of innate and unconquerable racial difference, more accurately white superiority, was not a prejudice confined to the lunatic fringe of the British political spectrum. Thus, UNESCO’s desire to usher in a new era of progressive racial equality was very much an ambition rather than a reflection of the existing attitudes of the wider public of the period. The sizable difference between the egalitarian and progressive ambitions of the Statement’s authors and the prevailing social attitudes in postwar Britain become starkly clear when one looks at the various reactions to the arrival of non-white immigrants in the postwar period.

Contrary to popular belief it was not the Empire Windrush but rather the Ormonde that was to begin a process of immigration that would shape modern Britain in the second half of the 20th century.3 The Ormonde’s arrival in Liverpool in late 1947 with 108 migrant workers from the Caribbean was a watershed moment in the country’s history that has fundamentally changed Britain and Britishness. The island’s music, food, language, culture and identity were forever altered. Despite its lasting impact, the arrival of immigrants in the postwar period was far from a historical aberration or irregular phenomena. Panikos Panayi has identified Britain’s history of immigration dating back to pre-history pointing to the age of invasions before the 11th century; the wave of continental tradesman, craftsmen and Jews during the high and late middle ages; religious refugees, economic newcomers and slaves between 1500 and 1650 followed by a significant rise in the variety of groups that arrived from the mid 17th century onward.4 Between 1815 and 1945 the rate increased with as many as a million Irish immigrants between 1800 and 1900 and tens of thousands of Germans and Russian and Jewish Poles. The First World War saw 240,000 Belgian refugees arrive in Britain while a further 200,000 Europeans arrived during the Second World War. On top of all of this Panayi estimates an extra 300,000 people moved to Britain between 1815 and 1945 from a range of places including France, Spain, Greece, India and across Africa, bringing the total to between 1.5 and 2 million immigrants.5

On paper then, the arrival of the Ormonde in Liverpool and the Windrush at Tilbury dock should have been little more than the latest advent in a history of immigration. However, while some have wrongly sought to portray their arrival as akin to Cortes landing in Mexico - the vanguard of an invasion - their arrival is rightly seen as ‘a turning-point in British history’.'’ In the words of Mike and Trevor Phillips, ‘the Windrush sailed through a gateway in history, on the other side of which was the end of Empire and a wholesale reassessment of what it meant to be British’.7

The arrival

The arrival of non-white immigrants in the late 1940s did not mark the first appearance of black people in Britain. Well before World War II small settlements of black people existed, often made up of colonial seamen and usually in ports such as Liverpool and the East End of London, often dating back to World War 1.“ In addition, during the Second World War around 130,000 black American troops were stationed in Britain with many accounts of the cordial nature with which they were received. General Eisenhower noted:

The small town British girls would go to a movie with a Negro soldier quite as readily as she would go with anyone else, a practice that some of our white troops could not understand. Brawls often resulted, and our white soldiers were further bewildered when they found that the British press took a firm stand on the side of the Negro.9

In fact the arrival of Windrush was not even the beginning of West Indians in Britain, with some 8,000 having been based there during the war.10 These men had served the ‘mother country’ in numerous regiments such as the Trinidad Squadron and Jamaica Squadron of the RAF and the British West Indian Regiment of the Army. However, while the authorities could not compel these men to return home when the war ended, they were strongly ‘encouraged’, and many made the voyage back across the Atlantic.

Sadly the islands that they returned to had changed. The hurricane season of 1944 had wrought havoc with one major storm landing near Kingston, Jamaica and causing severe damage as it crossed the island to Montego Bay in August of that year. In addition to the storms and all of the socio-economic and employment problems that accompanied them, many who returned to the islands after the war found life in the Caribbean ‘slower, smaller and poorer than it had before, with even fewer opportunities for advancement or self-expression, and governed by the same oppressive structures of imperial control’." As such many decided to return to Britain, joined by others who were making their way to the imperial metropolis for the first time; their decision to do so was a major step on the road to modern, multiracial, multicultural Britain.

The 1948 Nationality Act gave all imperial subjects the right of free entry into postwar Britain. However, due to the financial hurdle of paying for passage via boat, the immigration from the West Indies that started in 1947 remained a trickle for the first few years. By the mid 1950s this changed with steadily increasing numbers making the voyage. In 1954 24,000 people arrived, followed by 26,000 the year after, meaning that by 1958 some 115,000 people had left the port of Kingston and Port of Spain and arrived in Britain to make a new life.12 The West Indians were not alone in making the journey to the imperial capital. Many thousands came from India and Pakistan, often as a result of the problems caused by partition. Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims and as many as 30,000 Anglo-Indians also made the journey to join their fellow colonial subjects,13 bringing the total to nearly a quarter of a million empire and commonwealth migrants in the decade following the arrival of IVindnish.'’ There is little doubt that war-ravaged Britain needed the labour, but what welcome did these colonial subjects, many of whom had fought for King and country during the war and saw themselves as British, receive?

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