What Happens Back Home
The Windrush generation witnessed the Caribbean colonies from which they had emigrated achieve independence. Despite being an ocean away, they were not passive observers.
In September 1947, Caribbean politicians and British colonial officials met at a conference in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Those gathered at the Conference on the Closer Association of the British West Indian Colonies (or, Montego Bay Conference) included Norman Manley and Grantley Adams, future prime ministers of Jamaica and Barbados respectively, and Arthur Creech Jones, Secretary of State for the Colonies. The delegates agreed that the British West Indies would move towards political independence.
Barely one year later, in June 1948, a former German troopship taken by the British during the Second World War and renamed the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex. Having set sail from Australia, Windrush had docked in Kingston, Jamaica in May 1948, where many West Indians took advantage of an advertisement placed in the Daily Gleaner offering transport to Britain. Before 1962, there were no immigration restrictions for British subjects from the colonies, and the British Nationality Act – which gave equal citizenship rights to Britain’s colonial subjects – was imminent. Though Windrush arrived carrying fewer than 900 West Indians, due to significant coverage in the British press, the ship, and its name, would become the defining symbol of postwar Caribbean migration to Britain. Tens of thousands of people from the Anglophone Caribbean would follow in the decades after the boat’s arrival: it has been estimated that there were nearly 9,000 West Indian people living in Britain in 1931; by 1958 there were 80,000. But though the growth of Britain’s Caribbean community after 1945 is now a well-established story, the fact that it coincided with growing calls for self-government in the West Indies is often forgotten. The so-called ‘Windrush generation’ witnessed the Caribbean colonies from which they had emigrated achieve political independence, and not simply as passive observers from across the Atlantic Ocean.
The West Indies Federation
Calls for West Indian independence had been heard in the Caribbean since the 19th century at least. By the 1930s, following widespread labour uprisings across the region, demands for workers’ rights combined with critiques of empire to develop a nascent Caribbean nationalism. In the following decade, reflecting independence settlements in former British colonies such as Australia and Canada, Caribbean nationalists focused on establishing a self-governing federation. This proposition envisioned all Anglophone Caribbean territories as self-governing states within a federated West Indian nation. In 1947, the Montego Bay Conference declared that federation and self-government was in sight.
But it was not. It would take 11 years; not until early 1958 did the British Caribbean achieve federal self-governance. And only four years later, in 1962, the experiment failed. The West Indies Federation formed in 1958 had been fragile from the very start. The priorities of the region’s biggest territories, namely Jamaica and Trinidad, clashed with those of the Federation itself, and led to a weak federal government which had no power over taxation or economic development. The British government reduced the financial aid it had previously promised. This resulted in a small federal budget which, in the eyes of Jamaican and Trinidadian politicians, only increased the economic assistance they would have to provide to the region’s smaller territories. These tensions raised concerns throughout the West Indies, but particularly in Jamaica, which began to question what value, if any, it gained by remaining in a federal unit. By 1961, following a referendum, the Jamaican people voted to secede from the Federation and attempt independence alone.
Endeavours were made to sustain the Federation without its largest unit, but these quickly collapsed. As hopeful visions for a Caribbean nation faded, one-by-one individual West Indian territories became independent alone: Jamaica and Trinidad in 1962, Barbados and Guyana in 1966. The remaining, smaller territories would achieve independence throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s.
The view from Britain
As this was happening in the West Indies, the Windrush arrivals were facing an often hostile reception in their new home, epitomised by the infamous ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs’ signs, the Notting Hill riots in 1958 and widespread police violence. Yet the demands for Caribbean independence ‘back home’ loomed large in the minds of West Indians in Britain. For many, the experiences of exclusion they faced reflected the fact that the Caribbean remained, until the early 1960s, a colonised territory. For much of the Windrush era – usually considered to span 1948 to 1971 – Caribbean people in Britain remained a colonised people, part of an empire that, while on its knees, was still a colonial power. It is in this context that, into the 1970s, multiple West Indian-led organisations in Britain publicised and supported calls for Caribbean independence.
The emergence of such groups predated Windrush. In 1948, just before the ship’s arrival, two Caribbean anti-colonial groups were established in Britain. One was the West Indies Committee of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), established in London in February that year. Many of its founding members had recently arrived in Britain and had been politicised by the 1930s labour uprisings and the anti-colonial discourse growing throughout the West Indies. Hoping to continue their political activism, they looked to progressive British organisations, such as the CPGB and the Labour party. As Trevor Carter, a Trinidadian writer and political activist, said: ‘Those of us who came to Britain had grown up in a period of sustained political activity at home … when we came to Britain, we considered the left and labour movement to be our natural allies.’ But, at this time, it was the CPGB rather than the Labour party that held the most progressive anti-colonial stance.
The West Indies Committee of the CPGB was formed with the explicit goal of establishing ‘close contact with and help[ing] progressives in [the] West Indies’. As well as Carter, its membership included figures such as Forbes Burnham, future president of Guyana, Ranji Chandisingh, future vice president of Guyana, and Billy Strachan, the unsung Jamaican political activist and former Royal Air Force pilot. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-American communist, would become a member in 1955. From 1948 until at least the early 1960s, the West Indies Committee dedicated itself to supporting left-wing, anti-colonial groups in the Caribbean, establishing financial and political links between the British and Caribbean left. Between 1949 and 1953, the group published a monthly pamphlet called the West Indies Newsletter which circulated in Britain and the West Indies, and which hoped to ‘give news of the struggle of the West Indian people against imperialism’.
The Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC), the main regional labour organisation in the Caribbean, formed its own branch in London in May 1948 at Holborn Town Hall. Many members of the West Indies Committee also worked with the CLC’s London Branch, and early meetings attracted people including George Padmore, the Trinidadian pan-Africanist, Ulric Cross, the Trinidadian RAF pilot, and David Pitt, the Grenadian activist who would eventually become a Labour MP and member of the House of Lords. Like the West Indies Committee, supporting West Indian independence was the CLC’s priority. As such, its members lobbied British MPs on Caribbean political issues, spoke in the House of Commons regarding independence and federation, and raised the profile of the national movement among the British press and public. In 1950, for example, the London Branch of the CLC petitioned James Griffiths, Secretary of State for Colonies, demanding independence for the Caribbean: ‘SELF-DETERMINATION is our goal’, the petition stated, ‘and with the march of time the West Indies must now take its place amongst the nations of the world.’
The CLC’s London Branch also sought to develop the organisational skills of West Indians in Britain, believing they would strengthen the anti-colonial movement on their return to the Caribbean. Early Windrush migrants often viewed their time in Britain as temporary; many hoped to return and settle down in the West Indies after earning money in the metropole. In the CLC’s view, the whole of Britain’s Caribbean community could be mobilised in service of Caribbean independence. To this end the London Branch tried to engage the West Indian community in anti-colonial politics. The group held public meetings which discussed constitutional changes in the Caribbean and the development of the region’s labour movement. In 1952 it began publishing its own pamphlet, Caribbean News. By the early 1950s, the CLC had established branches in Leeds and Birmingham, cities with growing West Indian populations.
Both the CLC and the West Indies Committee acknowledged the struggles that West Indians faced in Britain, especially employment and housing. Yet for both groups, this plight was always seen within the broader struggle for Caribbean independence. Migration away from the Caribbean was an economic necessity for many West Indians, one that would only be removed once the Caribbean ceased to be a British colony and could prioritise the interests of its own people. As Billy Strachan, secretary of the CLC’s London Branch wrote to A.G.D. Leigh, secretary of the Birmingham Branch, in October 1951: ‘If you keep up the good work it will immensely shorten our period, before standing as lords in our own lands free from foreign interference & all the horrors of imperialism.’
But by 1956, the CLC in Britain had disbanded. This was partly due to financial problems. Throughout the 1950s, the escalating Cold War caused anti-communist rhetoric to spread throughout the British Empire. Left-wing, anti-colonial groups were increasingly repressed. In the Caribbean, limitations on anti-colonial activities placed more responsibility on pressure groups in the diaspora. The CLC was a volunteer-led group funded through membership fees and newspaper sales; it struggled to carry this additional burden without increased financial support. But these economic issues also combined with the shifting priorities of the West Indian community.
While in the early 1950s many Caribbean arrivals believed their time in Britain would be temporary, by the middle of the decade, long-term settlement had become the reality. Moreover, racial discrimination had begun to draw the gaze of some away from the Caribbean and towards what was happening in Britain. In 1958 and 1959, the Nottingham and Notting Hill riots saw racist violence inflicted on West Indian communities. In Notting Hill, overcrowded housing and rumours of inter-racial relationships between black men and white women fostered racial and economic tensions. Violence broke out in late August 1958 as groups of white men began attacking the black community; some were chased through the streets by gangs, while others had bricks and milk bottles thrown at their homes. On the same weekend, violence erupted in Nottingham as similar tensions led to clashes between groups of white and black men. The following year, again in Notting Hill, a young Antiguan man, Kelso Cochrane, was stabbed and killed in a racist attack. These events galvanised the West Indian community in Britain. More than 1,000 people attended Cochrane’s funeral on 6 June 1959, while multiple organisations focused on improving race relations were formed, such as the West Indies Standing Committee and the Afro-Caribbean-Asian Society.
What happens at home
While the problems of life in Britain came to the fore, the parallel movement for Caribbean independence was by no means forgotten. In March 1958, six months before the Notting Hill riots, the West Indies Federation was finally established. This was met with widespread celebration by British West Indians. In April 1958, the West Indian Gazette reported on a ‘sparkling, star-studded Federation Gala’ held at St Pancras Town Hall in London to celebrate the inauguration. In Jamaica, the Daily Gleaner described how from Bristol to Derby, Liverpool to Birmingham, and Sheffield to Aberdeen, church services, dinners and dances were held to commemorate the Federation. In Manchester, according to the Gleaner, ‘West Indian artists’ performed ‘a cabaret and dance on Saturday night … followed by the screening of films on the Caribbean’ on Sunday.
With the prospect of Caribbean self-government imminent, a number of Caribbean organisations in Britain made supporting the Federation a priority. In 1957, the West Indian Workers and Students Association (WIWSA) was established, by activists including Claudia Jones and the Jamaican pan-Africanist Amy Ashwood Garvey (first wife of Marcus). At its inaugural committee meeting, the WIWSA declared: ‘As British West Indians … we are deeply concerned with what HAPPENS AT HOME, AS OUR PEOPLE MOVE toward greater self-government, Federation and Dominion status.’ While the group hoped to address what it called the ‘problems’ of West Indians in Britain, its main purpose was to do ‘everything to support the struggles of our people’ and to enable the success of the Federation.
One of the WIWSA’s major contributions to Caribbean anti-colonial politics was the formation of the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian News, a monthly newspaper. But while the Gazette is regularly associated with its response to the race riots of 1958, the inauguration of the Federation was integral to its creation. As a report from the Gazette’s first annual general meeting, held in 1958, stated, the newspaper was established ‘for helping to build a united movement at home, roused by the Federation’. The Gazette was an inherently anti-colonial, Caribbean nationalist publication. Throughout its pages it consistently referenced the Federation and the goal of West Indian self-government: ‘We associate ourselves with the ancient dream of West Indian stalwarts and fighters for West Indian Federation.’ As the problems of race relations in Britain intensified, the dream of Caribbean nationhood endured.
Throughout the 1960s, Caribbean independence remained integral to the concerns of West Indians in Britain. By 1960, a London branch of the West Indian Federal Labour Party had been established and by 1963, there was a West Indies Sovereignty Committee publishing a bulletin on Caribbean affairs from north London. Soon, organisations dedicated to aiding independence movements in both British Guiana and British Honduras, the two West Indian territories not part of the Federation, were also formed.
In 1962, the Federation collapsed and shortly after the infamous Commonwealth Immigrant Act was introduced, legislation which severely limited the ability of Commonwealth citizens to migrate to the UK. For the West Indies Standing Committee, both events deserved equal attention. The group protested the limitations on immigration in one breath, while lamenting the fall of the Federation in another. Although the failure of the Federation was partly the result of tensions between West Indian territories, in Britain a strong pan-Caribbean identity remained. Some groups even actively resisted the secession of Jamaica. According to a press release from the Office of the Commissioner for the West Indies, British Guiana and British Honduras, in 1962 over 300 students based in the UK, from ‘all the territories of the West Indies’, supported a resolution which argued that the British government was ‘acting dishonourably and unconstitutionally in proposing the dissolution of the Federation … to permit the … individual accession to independence of Jamaica’. Similar opposition was voiced by the West Indies Standing Committee, which argued that the legacies of colonialism were to blame for the issues facing the Caribbean. These were issues that ‘cannot be solved by each little unit acting in isolation’. Federation and regional unity had to be preserved: ‘The various territories in the Caribbean must come together in some form of grouping if they are to play their full part in the world of today and tomorrow.’
For the Windrush generation and their descendants, Caribbean independence had not only been central to their political activism but in many ways became a force around which people from different territories could unify and construct a pan-Caribbean identity. Despite the failure of the Federation, such anti-colonialist, nationalist sentiment continued throughout the 1960s and pushed beyond 1971, the year traditionally used to mark the close of the Windrush era. Even with self-government for some Caribbean territories in the mid-1960s, by the end of the decade, new post-colonial Caribbean governments had fallen short of addressing the centuries of under-development and inequality that had plagued the region. The discontent this caused combined with global anti-racist movements to produce widespread calls for Black Power across the Caribbean.
Yet the ideal of Caribbean unity was not forgotten. As Wally Look Lai of the New Beginning Movement in Trinidad wrote in 1971, the objective of his organisation was to translate ‘the Pan-Caribbean ideal into some kind of working reality’. Calls for Black Power in the Caribbean were taken up by black people in Britain, who continued to face systemic racism. Numerous British Black Power groups were established throughout the 1960s and 1970s, such as the United Coloured People’s Association, the British Black Panthers and the Black United and Freedom Party. British Black Power groups regularly protested and lamented the repression of similar groups in the Caribbean. Deep into the postcolonial era, the Caribbean diaspora in Britain continued to understand their own politics as intertwined with that of the Caribbean region. At a conference on the Rights of Black People in Britain held in London in 1971, one speaker declared: ‘The success of any Black revolution – especially in the Caribbean – will have an enormous impact on our own situation in this country.’ For the Windrush generation and their descendants, the future of the Caribbean region could never be separate from their own.
Elanor Kramer-Taylor is completing a PhD at King’s College London. Her research explores the transnational connections between the Caribbean diaspora in Britain and West Indian decolonisation.
This article has been updated to replace the picture of George Padmore. The original image showed George Arthur Padmore, the Liberian Ambassador to the United States.