Freedom Rider: Windrush and Britain’s crimes against black people

“P.M. [Churchill] thinks ‘Keep Britain white’ a good slogan!”—Sir Harold McMillan

It was true that the sun never set on the British empire. The voracious appetite for resources and wealth, including human property, made Britain one of the most criminal nations in all of human history. From Australia to Africa to India to the Caribbean the British empire committed numerous genocides and thefts on a massive scale.

Among its most valuable possessions were the Caribbean colonies where plantation economies produced enormous riches. For nearly 200 years planters in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and other lands used an enslaved African population to create the very foundations of a capitalist nation that is still one of the largest economies in the world.

But the enslaved rebelled many times. Revolts in Barbados in 1816, Guyana in 1823 and Jamaica in 1831, proved that the project stood on shaky ground. It was the inability to guarantee protection for a far away minority population which ended slavery in British possessions. The official narrative of benevolent abolitionists does not tell the true story of how the most vulnerable population in the world freed themselves through determined efforts.

In 1833, Britain abolished slavery in its territories but paid huge compensation to the slave holders. The amount, £20 million, the equivalent of £308 billion today, comprised 40% of the treasury. It was such a large sum that it wasn’t paid off until 2015. Not only were slave holders compensated in 1833 but they were also given five more years of free labor through the apprenticeship system. The slavers first received cash and then more free labor, wealth on top of wealth. This history is important to keep in mind when examining Britain’s scandalous treatment of Caribbean immigrants that has recently come to international attention.

On June 22, 1948, the ship HMT Empire Windrush arrived in the United Kingdom with 492 people from colonies in the Caribbean. The passengers were British subjects and thus had the right to emigrate. They had in fact been invited to live in the United Kingdom, recruited in the years of the post war labor shortage. They were the first arrivals of those who came to be known as the Windrush generation. They and their children had the right to live and work in Britain.

But laws are always malleable when black people depend upon white power structures to protect their human rights. In 2014, the new Immigration Act brought new rules which destroyed the lives of thousands of Windrush generation migrants. Prime Minister Theresa May was then home secretary and, in her words, she was determined to create a “hostile environment” for migrants. For good measure she added, “Deport first, hear appeals later.”
People who arrived as children and who had lived in the United Kingdom for up to 50 and 60 years were suddenly informed that they were in the country illegally unless they could prove residency in 1973 or earlier. To add insult to injury the government had destroyed thousands of archived documents which migrants could have used to prove their arrival dates.

The difficulty in producing proof of attendance at schools that no longer existed or residence in housing that had been demolished meant that citizens were made stateless overnight. These individuals lost permission to work, acquire housing, and receive government benefits such as access to the National Health Service. Most of the impacted people were workers who had spent their adult lives as contributing tax payers. Some of them became homeless while others were billed thousands of pounds for health care, disability and other social service payments. An unknown number were deported to countries they left in childhood and where they had no means of support.

The work of activists and good reporting from the media brought their story to public attention. Protest and an upcoming Commonwealth nations summit in London forced May and the ruling Tory party to backpedal. She apologized and committed to make compensation for monetary losses “where appropriate.”

May’s apology should not be taken at face value. The work of activists and journalists and the refusal of the immigrant community to meekly submit and leave the U.K. forced the change in government policy.

But laws are not separate and distinct from the rest of history. The welcome mat had been pulled away long before 2014. In 1962, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act restricted immigration rights of commonwealth subjects. Additional legislation passed in 1968, 1971 and 1983 whittled away at citizenship claims and rights to live in the country.

Outspoken racists made curtailing migration a political issue for many years. Member of Parliament Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 was a call to white supremacy, warning of a day when “the black man will have the whip hand over the white man.” Like his brethren around the world he predicted disaster for white Britain if black and brown people weren’t shown the exit door.

Britons who proclaim whiteness as their identity aren’t much different from others of their ilk around the world. Donald Trump and his supporters want to build a literal wall on the border with Mexico. Political parties emerged in France and the Netherlands for the sole purpose of keeping people of color out.

The black people who were victimized by the Tory government are not just descendants of immigrants. They are descendants of enslaved people who built Britain into an economic powerhouse even as they labored without compensation. Their taxes also paid for the giveaway to the slaveholder descendants and, in return, for playing by the rules they lost all of their rights.

The legacy of oppression should not be forgotten. The right to health care is the very least the Windrush descendants are owed. In a truly just system neither they nor anyone else would suffer from austerity programs or retrograde immigration policies. The compensation paid to slave holders didn’t disappear. Many wealthy families owe their station in life to being on the receiving end of payment made 200 years ago. In return they send their money to offshore tax havens and ensure increased wealth for yet another generation.

Governmental mea culpas can’t hide the truth. In nations where white people live by identifying themselves as such, there is always political advantage in beating up on those who aren’t white. So blatant was the crime that the usual invectives against spongers and users doesn’t even apply. The need to keep whiteness on top turned people who were contributors into paupers. The goal was to get them out and that is usually a winning political strategy.

The 80th anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush is imminent. It should be a time for black people all over the world to reflect on their position in the United Kingdom or the Caribbean or the United States of America. We live with the legacy of brutality and the ill gotten gains which impact us all to this day. That is the most important lesson of this deliberate cruelty. The affirmation of whiteness will always ruin black people’s lives. Naivete about being British or American or Canadian won’t erase the past. A passport or a document won’t save any of us in a world where the prerogatives of whiteness still rule.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in BAR, and is widely reprinted elsewhere. She maintains a frequently updated blog as well as at Ms. Kimberley lives in New York City, and can be reached via e-Mail at Margaret.Kimberley(at)

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