A Study of Windrush: Poetry, Prose, Pictures and the Preservation of Generational Histories

A Study of History 

History is the academic study of our past. Some might even say that archives are the ‘microscopes’ of historical enquiry. They provide a lens through which details surrounding historical periods, events, and personalities can be studied. Forms of historical assessment that are considered more mainstream and ‘reliable’ involve objective archives such as statistics, newspaper articles, and written accounts. Often, more subjective forms of expression such as poetry, music, fictional writings, and photographs are constrained to the realms of literature and art, despite being critical sources of understanding the socio-political and economic climates of the past. 

The Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, for example, has been publicly denied to have ever occurred by the Chinese Government. Despite attempts to erase this tragedy from the collective memory of the nation, the famous ‘Tank Man’ photograph revived the memory of the Tiananmen Square Incident as the only act of protest caught on camera. Several other examples of artistic expression and literary work that act as historical sources include The Charge of The Light Brigade and the Diary of Anne Frank. Even fictional works such as the Great Gatsby reflect themes such as ‘The American Dream’ that suggest volumes of the historic economic boom in America and its effects on the socio-cultural attitudes and values at the time. 

Windrush 

Enigma of Arrival is a travelling exhibit that was on display in the cloisters on St. Salvator’s Quad for the month of February. It was originally produced by the University of West Indies and facilitated by the University of St. Andrews BAME student network alongside Dr Kate Keohane from the School of Art History. It aimed to highlight the arrival, settlement, and legacy of the ‘Windrush Generation’ of migrants from the Caribbean into the United Kingdom. 

A virtual edition of the exhibition displayed on the quad can be found on the following link: here. A virtual edition of the original exhibition can be found on the following link: here. 

Prior to the Second World War, Caribbean people had an extensive history of migration in the search for better job opportunities. The war, however, created a tremendous loss in the British labour force. In 1948, the British Nationality Act was enacted to encourage cheap labour from various commonwealth countries to fill this gap. This led to a mass exodus of working populations from various Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1971. This first generation of immigrants are known as the ‘Windrush’ generation – after the MV Empire Windrush ship that brought the first of several thousands of immigrants from countries such as Jamaica, Trinidad, and Tobago to the United Kingdom. It is the life and struggles of these people that the exhibition archives via pictures, familial histories, poetry, and prose. 

Visual Stories of Settlement and Acculturation 

Photographs play a critical role in reflecting nuanced yet important historical information. We see this extensively in the case of Windrush. The first example being that of demographics. Several images present an extremely young population of migrants – young families and many children. Virtually none of the pictures are of aged populations, given that many of them had migrated in search of well-paying labour that they would send back as remittances to support their families back home. 

Several written accounts also suggest that before arriving in the UK, the only form of exposure that residents of the Caribbean had to its culture was via radio shows, the television, and popular media. This led to a certain romanticized view of the country, its culture, its promises, and the crown. This is reflected in the attire of the migrants – stereotypically British with the suits, dresses, and top hats. Such signs of attempts to acculturate physically in order to gain social acceptance is a dynamic only visible through these pictures. 

Social acceptance was, however, far from reality. Their arrival led to a large demand for accommodation. Additionally, widespread racism led to an even greater housing crisis for this community. The blatant prejudice is visible on one of the images in the exhibit of a door that reads “Room to let. No coloured men”. Eventually, this forced the creation of tightly-knot geographic communities where migrant communities of young people separated from their families found solace in each other’s company. The neighbourhood of Brixton, as pictured, is a locality famed for this reputation. 

Words Against Hostility

‘The Lonely Londoners’ is a book by Samuel Selvon from Trinidad that highlights the social isolation felt by working-class, black people in poor living conditions. Similarly, George Lamming’s ‘The Emigrants’ is a fictional tale that follows the protagonist right from the journey to settling in and adaptation. Small Island, an award-winning book by Andrea Levy highlights certain intersectional problems of Jamaican women, having lost their husbands to war and migrating to England with falsely romanticized perceptions of the country. All of these books, albeit semi-fictitious, are key sources that highlight the struggles of Caribbean migrants and their lived experiences. A vast majority of information regarding the formation of communities and networks of support between old and new migrants can be obtained from such literary works. 

This short-term solution, however, did not protect the community from the institutional and governmental discrimination that was to follow. 

The political attitude towards the migrants in the 1950’s was largely welcoming, especially with the economic benefits they brought with them. However, in the 1980’s, with the rise of conservatism and the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell in the UK, the political climate became increasingly hostile against them. Political personalities began to oppose and criticize mass immigration and the legal security for immigrants that came with the 1968 Race Relations Bill. Moreover, the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrations Act which sought to restrict immigration from all commonwealth countries furthered the racial divide and tensions in the UK. 

Di Great Insohreckshan is a poem by Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson that provides the immigrant perspective of the 1981 Brixton riots. In the literary realm, it is widely studied for its insight into the Jamaican dialect and its use of rhythm. However, it also informs us of the violence and casualties of the protests, the role of the police and its use of force and brutality, and the motivations of fear, anger and resent towards the government that led to the rioting. 

New-Age Archives and Generational Histories 

The nature of a Caribbean migrant’s citizenship in the UK has undergone a whirlwind of development over several years. Ancestors of the Windrush generation till date, have faced prejudice on a social and governmental level. In the August of 2018, the government was forced to apologize for threats made to strip these migrants off of their citizenship unless they are able to prove their ties to the UK, despite having lived here for several generations. 

This initiative also aimed to document and archive the familial histories of these generations whose experiences are, undeniably, widely different from that of an average British Citizen. It is extremely damaging to view a country’s history as a monolithic narrative and ignore the individual experience of different populations with it. 

This initiative, therefore, provides a website (https://www.eu-lac.org/vmcarib/map/) through which anyone can upload and archive their own family histories and heritages as children and grandchildren of the Windrush generation. It might be interesting to view some of the local histories listed around Scotland:

“The most familiar of the handful of black actors able to sustain a career in British… Norman Beaton became particularly associated with spirited patriarch roles… Born 31 October 1934 in Georgetown, Guyana (then British Guiana), he did some amateur acting while training as a teacher… Arriving in Britain in 1960, he became Liverpool’s first black teacher.”

“Floella is best known to a generation as the presenter of the BBC’s pre-school children’s programme Play School, alongside mute co-stars Humpty, Jemima, and Little Ted… Born in Trinidad, she immigrated to the UK as a child in the early 1960s, where her family settled in the south London suburb of Beckenham.”

Conclusion – The Future of History

The academic study of historical enquiry has made tremendous strides in the past few years, moving away from purely objective archives as sources of single-perspective histories. The blurring of lines between literature, art, and the past, when tread carefully, can enhance our understanding of historical events and periods. Moreover, this form of archival raises interesting questions on the role that technology might play in broadening and diversifying our knowledge of individual, familial, and communal narratives. It seems to become increasingly convenient to record, collate, and publicize formerly oral and personal histories to a wider audience.