From “BLACK AND BRITISH: A FORGOTTEN HISTORY” BY DAVID OLUSOGA, (pages 491-6)
In June 1946 the British Cabinet Manpower Working Party determined that in order to meet her post war target, Britain would need 940,000 additional workers. By the end of the year they had raised their estimate to 1,346,000. To help fill this enormous shortfall, over 100,000 members of the Polish armed forces and their families, who had lived in Britain during the war and fought against the Nazis, were given the right to settle permanently. A further 80,000 European ‘Displaced Persons’, mostly Ukrainians, Latvians and Poles, who were being housed in miserable camps in Germany and Austria, were also recruited under the European Voluntary Workers scheme (EVW). Throughout the immediate post-war decades the British labour force was further expanded through an influx of Irish immigrants. However, the government actively discouraged immigration by black West Indians.
In early 1947 the Colonial Office dispatched an official to the West Indies to dispel rumours that there were thousands of job vacancies in Britain. One glaring problem with this strategy was that the newsagents of the islands stocked copies of British newspapers like the “South London Daily Press”, and West Indians were able see for themselves the pages of classified advertisements for positions in British firms. Incredulous local governors and journalists were informed that these were not real openings but “paper vacancies”. That June, an official from the Ministry of Labour rightly warned that “It may become extremely embarrassing if at a time of labour shortage there should be nothing but discouragement for British subjects from the West Indies while we go to great trouble to get foreign workers.” Yet the Ministry of Labour remained stridently opposed to recruitment in the West Indies.
In 1947 the Ministry embarked upon an evaluation exercise that was ostensibly designed to determine the potential of what officials described as “surplus male West Indians”. The findings were predictably negative. The report suggested that black West Indians would be “unsuitable for outdoor work in winter owing to their susceptibility to colds and more serious chest and lung ailments”. However, it simultaneously concluded that West Indians, despite being accustomed to the tropics, would be unable to work in British coal mines as they would find the conditions underground “too hot”. In the view of the Ministry of Labour the temperature range within which black people were capable of working was extraordinarily narrow, despite the fact that in 1940 Britain had dispatched six hundred men from tropical British Honduras to work as foresters in the frozen north of Scotland, and that thousands of West Indian airmen had successfully endured sub-zero nights in unpressurised RAF bombers on missions over Germany.
That same year, a hundred and ten Jamaican workers arrived, unexpectedly, in Britain on the former troopship the ‘Ormonde’, having ignored the Home Office’s untruths about “paper vacancies”. Among their number were ten stowaways. Rather than being welcomed to labour-starved post-war Britain, as thousands of European Voluntary Workers had been, the Jamaicans were categorised as a problem. The next year, British governors in the West Indies warned London that thousands more West Indians were applying for passports. The new Colonial Secretary, Arthur Creech Jones, did his best to inform his colleagues that “West Indians are well aware of the labour shortage in Great Britain, and it is known to them that it is proposed to employ thousands of [European] Displaced Persons….. In these circumstances there has been a natural and immediate demand for the employment of British West Indians, who are British subjects and many of whom have had experience of work in Britain during the war years, to relieve the labour shortage in Britain”.
The demand among West Indians for the chance of employment in Britain was made more acute by the fact that when the thousands of men who had fought for Britain during the war returned home, they found that their homelands’ economies had been devastated. In Jamaica a hurricane in 1944 had caused devastating floods. The destruction had been especially severe in St Thomas parish, which in the 1940s, as it had been in the 1840s, was the island’s poorest. It was also the parish in which the Morant Bay rebellion had broken out and from which a high proportion of the post-war migrants to Britain were to come. The labour shortage in Britain and the economic crisis in the West Indies were the pull and push factors that inspired a wave of West Indian migration which the British government proved unable to prevent, though not for want of trying.
In June 1948 the ‘Empire Windrush’ arrived at Tilbury docks and four hundred and ninety-two men from the West Indies came ashore. A report of their arrival in the imperial ‘mother country’, in the “London Evening Standard”, carried the headline “WELCOME HOME”………..
The government, however, regarded her as an embarrassment. There were instant recriminations in Whitehall and behind the scenes attempts were made to ensure that the ‘Windrush’ did not create a precedent and inspire further migration. Arthur Creech Jones was heavily criticised for having allowed her to set sail. He stood accused of failing to have “kept a lid on things” and permitting this “invasion” of Britain by West Indians. The Minister of Labour, George Isaacs, was quick to stress that the West Indians had not been officially invited to Britain, and warned colleagues that “the arrival of these substantial numbers of men under no organised arrangement is bound to result in considerable difficulty and disappointment….. I hope no encouragement will be given to others to follow their example.” There had even been attempts to prevent the ‘Windrush’ from leaving Jamaica; Attlee, the Prime Minister, had made enquiries as to whether she might be diverted to East Africa, and the West Indian migrants offered work on groundnut farming projects there. When it became clear that the government was unable to prevent the ‘Empire Windrush’ from docking, or to prevent the migrants from coming ashore- given that they were British subjects carrying British passports- they changed their strategy. The ‘Windrush’ migrants were to be dispersed across the country and while this was being arranged they were warehoused in an old deep-level air-raid shelter near Clapham South underground station, which was reopened to accommodate them. While the government certainly did not welcome their arrival, British industry evidently did. Within a month the government had found work for all but twelve. The rest were hard at work in undermanned and essential industries across the country, from Scotland to Gloucester.
Around half of the migrants on the ‘Empire Windrush’ had been in Britain during the war, serving in the RAF or the army or working in munitions factories, and might therefore be better thought of as being returnees than immigrants. Three days after their arrival the Labour MP Tom Driberg, who had challenged Winston Churchill over the abuse of black GIs in 1942, warned the men from the islands that Britain was “not a paradise. There may be difficulties” he told them, “caused through ignorance and prejudice, but don’t let it get you down. Try to stand on your own as soon as you can.” ………
On the day the ‘Empire Windrush’ reached Tilbury, eleven Labour MPs sent a letter to Attlee requesting that he put in place controls to limit black immigration to Britain. They wrote:“The British people fortunately enjoy a profound unity without uniformity to their way of life, and are blessed by the absence of a colour racial problem. An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our people and social life and cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned. In our opinion colonial governments are responsible for the welfare of their peoples and Britain is giving these governments great financial assistance to enable them to solve their population problems. We venture to suggest that the British government should, like foreign countries, the dominions and even some of the colonies, by legislation if necessary, control immigration in the political, social, economic and fiscal interests of our people.”
These suggestions were profoundly at odds with a bill that at that moment was making its way through Parliament. During the summer of 1948, as the ‘Empire Windrush’ was crossing the Atlantic, the British Nationality Act was in the latter stages of becoming law. It received Royal Assent on 31 July, five weeks after the West Indians landed at Tilbury. The act, which was in part a response to Canada’s introduction of Canadian citizenship, gave the people of the empire who had formerly held the status of British Subject the new status of Commonwealth Citizen. This gave them the right to enter and settle in Britain, which was seen as the necessary continuation of a long British tradition of open borders, which was deemed fitting for a nation at the centre of a vast (if rapidly collapsing) empire. By modern standards, post-war Britain’s immigration laws and her reaffirmation of citizenship rights to hundreds of millions of her colonial subjects were incredibly liberal.
Yet MPs of all parties imagined the act would simply enabled to continued flow of two-way traffic between Britain and the “old dominions”- Canada, South Africa, Australian and New Zealand- which were sometimes called the “white dominions” or the “old commonwealth”. The act was intended to ensure that British people remained free to settle in the colonies and commonwealth citizens were free to reside in Britain. The people the government envisaged making use of the rights of entry and residence enshrined in the 1948 Act were white people of “British stock”, to use the common phrase of the time, who were coming “home” to Britain. These rights of entry and residence in Britain were regarded as exceptionally valuable bonds that held the empire together, and were essential if Britain was to maintain her position as the lode star around which the colonies orbited. Furthermore the traffic between Britain and the old dominions flowed both ways. Most of the seven hundred and twenty thousand Britons who left their war-ravaged homeland between 1946 and 1950 headed for new lives in the old dominions. Australia was the most popular post-war destination for Britons weary of austerity and frustrated by continued rationing. Like many political decisions made in the immediate post-war years the underlying objective was to ensure Britain remained a significant world power, but the emotional appeal of the idea of the old dominions and their deep historical roots to the ‘mother country’ was immensely powerful in the 1940s and 1950s.
However, as all commonwealth subjects were theoretically equal, the same rights of entry and residence applied to the non-white peoples of what was called the “new commonwealth”, which included Africa and the West Indies, as well as Asia. Few politicians believed that large numbers of non-white people from the “new commonwealth” would make use of the new rights to reside in Britain, yet that is exactly what they did. Quite unintentionally, the post-war government that had been busily discouraging immigration by non-white people from the West Indies had signed the warrant for exactly the sort of mass migration they so vehemently opposed. As the bill was debated, men across the West Indies, who had fought for Britain during the war, applied for the British passports to which they were entitled and which, after 1 January 1949, when the Nationality Act came into force, guaranteed them right of entry and residence in Britain.
“Black and British: A Forgotten History” was originally published in November 2016, and in Paperback in August 2017 by Pan Macmillan.