My late Jamaican ex-Second World War veteran father Simeon George Rowe returned to Britain on the iconic former troop ship Empire Windrush that docked at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 after a 5,000-mile voyage.
Passenger number 830, he went to Birmingham, in the West Midlands, with four other friends who’d also been onboard, because a Jamaican earlier arrival had a place for them to live in Thornhill Road, Handsworth.
Responding to an advertisement in The Daily Gleaner, they had originally been recruited by the Royal Air Force in Jamaica, during the war to help the “mother country”, as they called Britain, fight Hitler’s Nazis at a time of its greatest need.
In 1944, dad was among the “first batch” of 2000 Caribbeans recruits taken to the RAF’s Filey training camp in North Yorkshire before being posted to bases all around Britain. They were mainly ground crew, doing maintenance work and menial tasks, including loading munitions onto aircraft and cleaning. Very few were trained to be pilots.
Dad was unceremoniously demobbed and sent back to Jamaica in 1946, where he returned to grinding poverty on an island ruled by the imperial British. So much for the so-called civilising nature of colonialism claimed by reactionary historians and politicians then and now. Most people in the post-slavery nation were unemployed, so joining the British military gave them a job and money to send back home, as my father did, to support his small grocery store-running mother, who lived in Kingston’s poor Jones Town.
Two days after the date of the docking of the Empire Windrush, an article in the Birmingham Gazette revealed that “out of the 492 [Caribbean] people who came to Britain aboard the ship, five of the arrivants initially came to Birmingham. The international reputation of Birmingham as the ‘workshop of the world,’ seems crucial in the decision of the migrants to visit the city”.
For a second time, they had answered the call by Britain, this time to help rebuild a country that had been devastated by war. Out of uniform, they were less welcome than before, as I have documented in my BBC film, Fighting for King and Empire, Britain’s Caribbean Heroes.
Birmingham was famed for its motor vehicle factories and there were plenty of building sites and other places to work too.
The Gazette article’s subtitle “Work - but no Homes”, chimed with the hostile environment expression: “They want our labour not our presence,” which emerged during struggles against the racism in the post-war period. It says a huge amount about the way in which there was a glut of unskilled jobs in industry awaiting post-war migrants but the notorious, “No blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs awaiting them in the housing market.
In the paper on June 24 1948, Simon (sic) George Rowe, aged 24, was quoted as saying: “I did my best for the mother country and came over here expecting to better myself, but Birmingham people are the most unfriendly I have ever met. There seems to be a great colour bar here.”
Today we should be wary of the viciously anti-migrant and refugee British government that has cynically tried to hijack the memory of the Windrush ship, and the noble resistance struggles before it, by putting on commemorative events, backed by the prime minister and monarchy, including a monument to the ship’s arrival at Waterloo railway station, in south London. Quite why they decided to put it there, almost 30 miles from Tilbury dock, is puzzling.
Rather than monuments, costing the taxpayer thousands of pounds, we should demand justice for the Windrush generation of Jamaicans and other Caribbeans in Britain treated as “illegals” by Conservative government of prime minister Theresa May as part of her discredited “hostile environment” for migrants like them. They had travelled to Britain, often as young children on their parents’ passports and were forcibly deported as adults to a Caribbean island on which they did not grow up and did not know anybody.
Those people affected by the scandal come from a much wider cohort of people than the descendants of those who arrived on the Windrush. People who arrived as children in Britain in the 1950s and 60s from India, Pakistan, the former UK colonies in Africa and elsewhere were affected. But it has been particularly associated with people who came from the Caribbean in the decades after the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.
It’s a shocking scandal for which the government subsequently apologised, set up the Wendy Williams inquiry to get to the bottom of why it happened and established a multi-million-pound compensation scheme for the victims.
Has the government learnt the necessary lessons? Judging by the appalling Illegal Migrants Bill going through the British parliament, it seems the resounding answer is: “No.”
The Liberation Movement, a new Black-led anti-racist initiative I’ve co-founded, is working with organisations like Together With Refugees to oppose what we’ve hashtagged the #RefugeeBanBill.
We must stand against the government’s attempt in the bill to, for instance, legalise locking up child refugees.
You can take action to support the campaign this month by contacting your MP to lay out your concerns – by email or letter, requesting a meeting at a local constituency level, or inviting the MP to an event in your community. During Refugee Week of 19-25 June and Scottish Refugee Festival (16-25 June), as the bill continues through parliament, we will stand up and show that our communities want Hospitality Not Hostility for people seeking sanctuary in Britain. Taking action to oppose the sort of hostility faced by my father and his fellow migrants 75 years ago would be a fitting tribute to them.