Windrush Anniversary Reflections: Hauntings and the Longer View


Joan Anim-Addo, Professor of Caribbean Literature and Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London, discusses the legacy of the Empire Windrush and the long history of the UK’s ‘hostile environment’. Here are excerpts; please read the full article at the Lawrence & Wishart (LW) Blog.

In Caribbean diasporic history, the ship that came to be known as the Empire Windrush certainly ranks among the top ten for long-term impact in connection with Caribbean lives. Of the many contenders for a place on such a list, the British slave ship Zong comes immediately to mind, famed for its jettisoning of some 130 Africans in the Atlantic for their insurance value. Lord Mansfield’s memorable remark, that ‘the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard’ serves as a reminder of the often implied and only sometimes stated value of black bodies, then and now. In this light, one might count The Jesus of Lubeck, notoriously linked to Admiral Sir John Hawkins’ slave-trading in the name of his patron, Queen Elizabeth I, and the Henrietta Marie, which sailed out of London, once the leading slave trading port in England. However a list is drawn, the Empire Windrush can certainly be counted after Columbus’ Santa Maria which heralded chattel slavery and the enforced transportation of black bodies as items of trade. It should begin to be clear that the ‘hostile environment’ of twenty-first parlance in relation to black bodies in Britain actually claims a long and pernicious history.

Each ship mentioned, above, relates to aspirations of conquest and except for the Empire Windrush, each has played its part in the conquest and colonization of the Americas, including Caribbean islands and territories colonised by the British.  Most importantly, conquest based on the sale of black bodies and their enforced labour afforded Britain (like other European colonisers) the resources – through Atlantic slavery and later, indentured labour – to accelerate the development of capital and modern economic growth.  Sadly for the enslaved and for their offspring who would later travel on the Empire Windrush and other lesser known vessels, a deep reluctance persists to acknowledging their crucial and long-term value to the British economy. More specifically, at a public and political level, there remains little acknowledgement that Atlantic slavery formed the underbelly of modernity and that colonisation together with slavery were indeed profoundly constitutive of modernity. [. . .]

‘What manner of men are these the Empire Windrush has brought to Britain? And what has made them leave Jamaica?’ The questions posed by The Guardian’s Special Correspondent following the famed landing are still worth addressing, not the least because over hundreds of years, much has been invested in misrepresenting the identity of the formerly enslaved.  Firstly, Africans were said to be not people but c(h)attle and it should be remembered in relation to such pre-determining of a group’s identity, that great minds such as Mansfield’s reinforced through many learned pronouncements, the c(h)attle view of Africans of the period.  C(h)attle are not expected to be capable of thinking or to have recourse to human emotions and on that basis not only can they, justifiably be denied all human rights, but also they can be routinely punished to ensure compliance with the demands of those considered to be humans, a higher order of being. Laws first placed on the statute Books of Barbados, in the seventeenth century declared black people chattle. As if to cement the hostile environment, they would not be paid for their labour but would rather be subject to draconian and invariably degrading punishment for not immediately providing their labour, a state of affairs that continued for a couple of hundred years. This had to be justified by the creation of a ‘hostile environment’. And it was hostile.

While such was the order of the day on Caribbean plantations, certainly today, no intelligent person could convincingly argue that Africans are not readily recognisable as humans. It remains deeply troubling that – for reasons of profit-making – this view achieved British (and European) consensual status, supported by an elaborate legal apparatus, variously duplicated – until the nineteenth century when British slavery was abolished. I have argued elsewhere that, in effect, this amounts to recognition of black people as humans only in the nineteenth century with the dismantling of Atlantic slavery and its deplorable legal underpinnings.

In the face of such monumental denial of a common humanity, ‘race thinking’, as Paul Gilroy terms it, required not only intricate elaboration but to be acted upon in a way that ensured black people were kept at the bottom of the chain. Thus each stage of colonialism in the Caribbean was predicated upon race thinking, finessed in some measure, by pseudo-scientific claims. In the first stage, the British coloniser took possession of land and black bodies as c(h)attle in a process that eminent Caribbean historian, Sir Hilary Beckles refers to as founded on principles of ‘plunder and extraction’. People were plundered and taken to the Caribbean so that the entire region became best known as colonies.  The second stage normalised utterly exploitative, brutalised and racialised practices through forced labour, without remuneration, on plantations. By the third stage in the nineteenth century, after Atlantic slavery ended, a more paternalistic colonialism gradually emerged in which the colonised was encouraged to consider the self as subject – with expectations of loyalty – to a distant ‘mother country’. [. . .]

The irony of the Empire Windrush’s homecoming to the mother country is that World War II had forced Britain to break with its practice of keeping its colonised black people at a safe distance away  ­– ‘beyond the seas’ – from the seat of Empire.  Indeed, Britain’s invitation to its West Indian colonies to support the ‘mother country’ at war brought with it the first waves of loyal subjects to serve in both World wars. In many ways they were different again from the miniscule minority of privileged colonials who had been carefully vetted in earlier times for the purposes of study. Britain’s colonial subjects dedicated to ‘service’ to the ‘mother country’ in the 1930s would find themselves effectively opening the gate that had hitherto been carefully manned to keep West Indian subjects.  As many of the new migrants replied when questioned on landing in Tilbury, or arriving later at Victoria Station, the fact was that they were, ‘British subjects’.  [. . .]

[Painting above: J. M. W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship.”]

For full article, see

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