|home | about this site | stories | the gallery | schools | migration histories | tracing your roots | search|
Culture and Festivals
It was Britain's colonial relationship with the Caribbean that set the scene for inward migration. Caribbean people began arriving in Britain as early as the 17th century, very quickly after colonies were established in the region. Many arrived as slaves, usually in the domestic service of planter families returning to Britain from the Caribbean. They were joined in time by other Black people; African traders, freed slaves and war veterans, who lived in the major cities and seaports, particularly London and Bristol.
Current research indicates most people who arrived from the Caribbean in the eighteenth century were seamen, labourers or domestic servants. Later immigrants in the nineteenth century included students, professional men, artists and entertainers. By the 19th century, a Black Caribbean man was almost universally assumed to be a sailor, popularly known as 'Black Jacks'; others lived by their wits, beggary, or by menial forms of employment, such as street sweeping. A revealing glimpse into contemporary attitudes comes from William Makepeace Thackeray's novel Vanity Fair, where, when a character is urged to marry Miss Swartz, a rich Black woman from the West Indies, he replies, 'Marry that mulatto woman? I don't like the colour Sir. Ask the Black that sweeps opposite Fleet Street, Sir.'
Caribbean people continued to journey to Britain throughout the 20th century. A steady stream of migrants settled in the seaports, alongside the African and Asian sailors who made up the bulk of the communities there. Nevertheless, their numbers were relatively insignificant. Read more about migration between Jamaica and the United Kingdom.
The Second World War changed this picture. Thousands of Caribbean men flocked to join the Allied forces in Europe. Early in the conflict (1939 - 1941) young men who were already trained as pilots or came from a highly qualified educational background joined the fighter squadrons, notably during the Battle of Britain, as well the bomber squadrons of the Fleet Air Arm.
Dudley Thompson was sitting in a dentist's chair when he heard of the call to arms on the radio: 'I heard that Hitler said Black people were inferior. I thought, alright, I'll show you how inferior I am.' Later on in the conflict, (1943 onwards), and as plans for the invasion of Europe developed, Caribbeans from a variety of different backgrounds arrived to serve as technicians, maintenance staff and skilled ground crews in British aerodromes and bases. Read more about the Caribbean men who served in the RAF during the war.
After the war and by the end of the 1940s, there were already large numbers of foreign workers entering and settling in Britain. They came from Poland, the Ukraine, and even Germany. The 1948 Nationality Act was an important development for Caribbean migrants. It made them more than mere citizens of the Empire, effectively conferring UK citizenship to any member of Britain's colonies. Civil Service and government officials could now recruit workers with no insurmountable barriers. Read more on Immigration legislation in Britain. And young Caribbean people, like Jamaican artiste Richard Riley, were eager to experience the excitement of the outside world.
"So I booked a passage on the very first ship to leave Jamaica after the war and landed in London - 14th January 1946 ... we were fairly well off and money for the passage was not a problem ... to leave Jamaica at the time you had to get an exit permit ... which I was able to get, because before I left Jamaica, I registered at a dance school in London - Madame Verischka's Dance School in London ... I left Jamaica on an educational permit ... one had to put down a bond of £500 to pay your return passage if it didn't work out ... The money was to be lodged in Jamaica [and] was later returned to me ... I came straight to the Colonial Office in Trafalgar Square and registered there as a student. They provided me with digs... at the student hostel in Tavistock Square."
In addition to the traditionally adventurous and aspiring young middle classes, the soldiers, sailors and airmen who had served with the Allied Forces in Europe were eager to return. After demobilisation, a few hundred of them left Jamaica on the former troopship, the SS Empire Windrush. See the passenger list in full or read a first person account of their journey.
Their arrival at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 represented the start of a period of migration from the Caribbean to Britain that would not abate until 1962, when the first immigration legislation in the history of the Empire would attempt to curb it. Read more about the Home Office's attitude to the entry of the men on the SS Empire Windrush.
Popular belief suggests that the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush inspired an immediate flood of Caribbean immigrants. In fact, the travellers who arrived on the SS Windrush, and those who followed them until the middle of the 1950s, only amounted to a trickle. But several factors intensified Caribbean migration in the seven years between 1955 and 1962.
The McCarran-Walter Act, passed by the American government in June 1952, limited the numbers of Caribbean migrants allowed into the United States. During the ten years which followed, the prospect of colonial independence, along with the growing threat of immigration legislation in Britain made the situation more urgent - prospective immigrants had to leave the Caribbean immediately or not at all.
The statistics of annual arrivals tell the story: in 1955, migrants coming from the Caribbean to Britain numbered 27,550. By 1960, the numbers of Caribbean migrating to Britain had risen to 49,650; and the rate had increased to 66,300 during the following year. By the time the Commonwealth Immigrants Act was passed in 1962, limiting immigrant entry, the number of arrivals had decreased to 31,800. After this, Caribbean arrivals numbered only 3,241 in 1963, peaked at 14,848 in 1965 and began falling rapidly to less than 10,000 in the average year.
The SS Orbita, the SS Reina del Pacifico and the SS Georgic followed the Windrush. On Tuesday 2 August 1955, the SS Auriga left Kingston, Jamaica with 1,100 people on board, an unprecedented number of passengers. Within a day or two, the SS Castle Verde followed with another full shipload. From this moment, ships from a variety of countries got into the business, making regular journeys between the Caribbean and Britain. Read about the Commonwealth Immigration Act.
'I always wanted to know the mother country.' Lord Kitchener, Calypso singer as quoted in Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, by Mike Phillips (Harper Collins, 1998)
The migrants sailed in a mood that veered between regret and expectation, but largely, attitudes were hopeful and optimistic. While many of them saw the British Empire as an oppressive, colonial system they had also grown up with the idea that they were citizens of an international network, which linked them to the rest of the world. In the circumstances 'the mother country' was an expression that reflected Britain's central role and its influence in shaping the life of the colonies.
In the beginning most of the migrants were men, (according to popular legend there was one woman stowaway among the Caribbeans on the SS Empire Windrush), but the proportion increased throughout the fifties as male family members established themselves and accumulated the resources they needed to bring over their wives and children. Mary Seacole was one of the very few Black women to publish an account of her life during the 19th century. Read more on Mary Seacole. Contrary to popular legend, no one expected the streets to be paved with gold, and almost every migrant had heard travellers' tales about how cold the climate was, and how difficult the conditions could be. For instance, during the fifties in the Caribbean, there was a brisk trade in the sale of second hand overcoats.
Equally Caribbeans were by tradition, highly adaptable and totally familiar with the idea of travelling abroad to seek employment. By 1955, 18,000 Jamaicans had migrated to Britain. According to journalist and novelist Donald Hinds, this was a figure 'equal to the entire population of Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. If there [had been] a scheme for helping Jamaicans to emigrate, whole parishes would have been uprooted in a few months.' As one migrant aboard the SS Auriga put it, 'Emigration was at the time a life belt thrown out to a drowning generation.'
Apart from colonial independence, migration to Britain in the middle of the 20th century was arguably one of the most important events in the history of the West Indies. Ever since this mass migration began, Caribbean's artists and commentators have focused on the extraordinary outward flow of the population. In 1998, the Trinidadian Calypso singer, Lord Kitchener, echoed the sheer bravado that many of the migrants felt as they set out in his song London Is The Place For Me .
London is the place for me
The people who came wanted jobs, and they wanted adventure. This group of migrants came from a multiplicity of backgrounds. Some were professional people who migrated to England to further their careers, but the majority were unskilled and semi-skilled workers: tradesmen, farmers, and young people with neither specific qualifications nor training. Read about the Colonial Office's proposals to recruit workers from the West Indies.
A minority were recruited and subsidised by London Transport or by the hospitals of the new Health Service, but the majority came of their own accord, paying fares of up to £85, for ship cabins they typically shared with half a dozen other travellers. At the lower price range, conditions were worse, and cabin accommodation could be shared among a score of passengers. Read about the agency established to help Barbadian immigrants.
The journey, exciting as it undoubtedly was for many migrants, was also a dislocating experience. Esther Jones, a passenger on the SS Colombie in the summer of 1960, echoes the mixture of emotions about a future in the 'motherland'.
"My father and various other elderly relatives came to the docks to see us off. I wondered if I would ever see them again, England seemed so far away both in terms of distance and money. The journey ... was not very pleasant. It lasted for two weeks. Some of our fellow travellers were from the French West Indies and were bound for France. I had my first taste of a cigarette; it was my last. The accommodation was pleasant; we had four beds and our own ablution facilities. We were overwhelmed by the freedom we felt. We were the envy of our friends back home, we were bound for the land of freedom and opportunity. I was 16 years old in charge of three siblings. We did not feel frightened in any way but were seasick most of the time. We were hungry all of the time as the food served was unfamiliar to us. Beef seemed to be on the menu every day; as Hindus, we were unable to partake. At least we could eat the bread and drink water. Finally, the morning came when I stood on the deck looking at the horizon. The port was in sight; a mixture of feelings hit me. My mother - it would be good to hug her - and a sense of awe at the history of my motherland. The home of Drake, Raleigh, the Wars of the Roses, Cromwell and Dick Whittington."
For most of the migrants the end of the journey was both an anti-climax and a surprise - both an ending of the journey and the beginning of a new life. Once off the boat, they travelled to cities across Britain by train. Seeing brick buildings and chimneys for the first time, many assumed that the houses they were going past were factories.
The authorities were not completely unprepared. The Civil Service was part of a widespread and highly experienced imperial network, partly shaped by the wartime years in which it had been handling the routine arrival of thousands of foreigners. At first, the colonial civil service, which had its headquarters in Britain, mobilised its worldwide network of local governors and administrators to gather information about each shipment of migrants.
The Colonial Office, as part of its work, already supported hostels like Aggrey House in London, and the Civil Service despatched its most Black officer, Ivor Cummings, to meet the SS Empire Windrush and many of the following boats. On the other hand, the interaction was to become more complex and important than anyone imagined. The journeys that Caribbean people made in the mid 1950s were different from anything that had preceded them - few migrants knew it at the time, but these were not the journeys of exiles or transient travellers, visitors who might stay in Britain for a while and then return. The migration of the mid 20th century was a prelude to a new pattern of settlement, which was to bring about important changes in the British social landscape.
Creators: Mike Phillips
|contact us | help | site map||copyright | privacy|