On Windrush Day

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On this Windrush day, we remember the huge obstacles Britain’s Afro-Caribbean population have had to surmount to claim their rights as citizens, and the enormous contribution the Windrush generation have made to cultural, social and economic life of the UK.

There have been black people in Britain for centuries, as Peter Fryer shows in his panoramic history of Black Briton Staying Power (Pluto Books, 1984), but the most significant change in what we might call the “racial geography” of the British city came with the migration from the Caribbean between 1948 and 1962 (when it was progressively curtailed by legislation, though it continued after).

The first ship bringing West Indian migrants to London was the SS Empire Windrush, which dropped anchor at Tilbury Docks in East London on 21 June 1948. The next day, 22 June, the majority of the passengers disembarked, including more than 500 who had come from Jamaica. These were the first of more than 300,000 British citizens from the colonies of the Caribbean to settle in Britain over the next decades, hence the name given to these first migrants and their British-born descendants: The Windrush Generation.

Of the migrants during this period, from all the British colonies of the Caribbean – Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad, St Lucia, Nevis, St Kitts, Guyana, The Grenadines – half settled in London. Of these 60 per cent were from the largest Island, Jamaica. 

This led to a profound change in the city as, for the first time, large numbers of black people from the imperial colonies – who held British passports and the right to settle – arrived in the ‘capital city of Empire’, and put the imperial rhetoric, that we were all ‘one under the Crown’, to the test. Migrants came to work: during post-war reconstruction, there were more jobs than workers in construction, on London Underground and in the National Health Service. Many West Indians (as they were known then) had been stationed in the UK fighting for Britain during WWII and many migrants came with warm feelings for the ‘mother country’, having been educated in the British system and assured that they would be welcome. 

It soon became clear that they were not. From the start, Caribbean migrants were denied access to much of the housing (‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’, as the notorious signs on lodgings had it) and job markets, or expected to do menial work and subjected to rising levels of everyday racism. Migrants in Brixton found themselves faced with rising racial resentment and graffiti urging ‘Keep Britain White’. 

‘Keep Britain White’ by Neal Kenlock

A rising tide of popular racism was formalised in 1966 with the formation of the National Front, a merger of a variety of fascist and pro-Empire fringe groups, with an explicitly racist and anti-immigration agenda, which fielded candidates in the 1969 local elections on a platform which barely disguised its virulent anti-blackness behind talk of fundamental incompatibility and the necessity for repatriation. With the notorious anti-immigration ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Conservative politician Enoch Powell in 1968, which predicted that blood in the streets would be the inevitable result of Britain’s “suicidal” experiment in multiculturalism, racial violence and anti-immigration sentiment increased. 

Racism was not confined to the political margins; MPs from all sides of the political spectrum, like Conservative MPs Norman Pannell and Cyril Osbourne and the Labour MPs George Rogers and John Hynd, pushed the anti-immigration platform in Parliament. Since the 1958 race riots in Notting Hill, which were really a concerted attack on the black community by racist thugs, during which the police signally failed in their duty to protect (black) citizens, it became clear to the black community in London that they could not rely on the forces of law and order for protection from racist thugs.

In fact, the police were becoming the most serious threat to black life and liberty. Through the use of the ‘sus’ laws, which disproportionately targeted black people in the streets (one report suggested that black people were 15 times more likely to be stopped that whites), and the deployment of riot patrol squads known as Special Patrol Groups and other paramilitary tactics, London’s black areas were, in the words of Paul Gilroy, “being policed like they were foreign territories”.  

Black populations in the city in the 1960s and 1970s were subjected not only to the violence of overt anti-immigrant politicians and right-wing racists – NF-supporting skinheads stalked the streets and assaults on the black population were common – but also to extreme forms of policing. Black cafes and social clubs like The Four Aces in Dalston and the Carib Club in Cricklewood were continually raided on spurious grounds. The Mangrove Café in Notting Hill, for example, was raided 12 times in 1969-70. A march to protest this harassment was met with a violent police response, resulting in the arrest of the so-called ‘Mangrove Nine’ who were tried, and eventually exonerated, in 1970 (Steve McQueen’s upcoming series for the BBC, Small Axe, includes a feature-length episode on the Mangrove trial).  

The use of the ‘sus’ laws (allowing police to stop and search anyone they suspected of likely to commit a crime) was used systematically to harass black people in the streets. SPG vans full of police were deployed in places like Brixton assumed to be ‘trouble spots’, and the police proved willing to perjure themselves in court to secure convictions.

Researching my book on London black music cultures, Dub producer Dennis Bovell, sound system operator Lloyd Coxsone, soul funk DJ Femi Fem, reggae DJ Dubplate Pearl, dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, and techno DJ Colin Dale all told me stories of harassment on the streets and in dances, and how police sometimes perjured themselves in court. Many of these were thrown out by magistrates, but Dennis Bovell was convicted and faced a three-year prison term, until the policeman who had falsely claimed he had incited a riot was himself arrested for corruption. 

Black communities – because of exclusion and the need for security – ‘clustered’ in certain areas of the city like Notting Hill, Brixton, Harlesden, and Newham in London. Here they built their own kinds of increasingly autonomous communities, named by Stuart Hall et al in Policing The Crisis as “self defensive black colonies”. Because black people were largely excluded by threats of violence and racist taunts from the zones of British working-class leisure – pubs, football – they built their own social institutions: markets and cafes, churches and social clubs and unlicensed drinking clubs called shubeens.

Bass Culture 2019 - we celebrate the culture on Windrush Day
Members of London’s sound system and black music scene, at the Bass Culture exhibition, London 2019

Here, music was a vital source of connection to home (Jamaica is a music Island, where you can hear the connection to Africa in the Nyabingi rhythms of reggae). Almost every West Indian home had a Blaupunkt Bluespot record player, which took pride of place in the sitting room, on which families could play records on Sundays, at parties, and holidays. 

In 1958, two Jamaicans had arrived in London – Wilbert Campbell aka Count Suckle and Vincent Forbes aka Duke Vin – who set up the first sound systems in the UK (based on the model of Tom the Great Sebastian in Kingston which they had both worked for in Kingston). These sound systems were massive hi-fis, with powerful bass speakers on which operators would play their records from black America – bebop, jump jive, r&b, soul – and increasingly, after 1964 and the huge success of Millie Small’s ska hit ‘My Boy Lollipop’, the music of the growing Jamaican music industry.

First it was ska, and then, by the end of the 60s, rocksteady and reggae. Sound systems proliferated in London and across the UK: by the early 70s, there were hundreds, probably thousands in London (Lloyd Coxsone claims to have a definitive list with thousands on it), from the small hyper-local sets to the massive rigs like Coxsone’s own Outernational sound, Neville the Musical Enchanter, Suffers HiFi, and Birmingham’s Quake City. Sound systems proliferated in all the cities in the UK with black populations: London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Bristol, and Huddersfield. 

Sound systems grew through the 60s and 70s to became the most important cultural institutions in black British life. Sound systems would stage ‘blues’ parties in private homes and squats, and larger ‘cup dances’ in church halls and municipal buildings, and, when they were able, nightclubs. In 1961, Count Suckle became the first sound system resident in the West End at the Roaring Twenties in Carnaby Street (which had been a black-run Soho club since the 1930s, as the Florence Mills Social Parlour run by Amy Ashwood Garvey).

At sound clashes and cup dances, sound systems from different areas would compete against each other, using volume, bass power and unique recordings known as dub plates or specials to win over the crowd who decided on the winner. Sound systems formed and maintained links between different black communities in the city and across the country and kept alive the link to Jamaica as the music developed into the golden age of reggae – Burning Spear, Dennis Brown, Bob Marley. Marley, Dennis Brown, Prince Buster, Lee Perry, and many other reggae luminaries were frequent visitors to and sometime residents in London.

London saw serious rioting in Brixton in 1981, and Brixton and Tottenham in 1985, which many have read as a response to everyday racism, over-policing of Black areas and, what the Macpherson Report into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1993 later described as “institutional racism”.

Though there was a racially mixed culture developing in Britain, cohering in what the sociologist Ash Amin terms the ‘everyday mixity’ happening in housing estates, comprehensive schools, the streets and, sometimes, the soul clubs of Soho and the suburbs, all of these things militated against the emergence of a genuine, (to use Paul Gilroy’s term) “convivial” multiculture in the city. 

The next phase of club culture in the capital in the 1980s, which used the sound system model and the music of Jamaica and Black America, opened up new possibilities, and triggered the development of a range of new musical genres in Britain, from rare groove and acid house, to dubstep, UK garage and grime, which would transform the creative industries and provide the blueprint for the global rise of club culture. 

The Windrush generation and their descendants faced unprecedented levels of racialised exclusion, racial violence and institutional racism. Yet they built lives, families, neighbourhoods and cultural institutions – like the sound systems – that transformed the cultural life of Britain’s cities and put potent strains of afro-diasporic art and culture into circulation, for the benefit of all. 

Much has changed since the overheated racial antagonism of the 70s and 80s, but as we are learning from the testimony of black Britons triggered by the BLM movement, racial discrimination remains deeply embedded in British life. The recent Windrush scandal, over the shameful treatment of British citizens arbitrarily denied the right to remain in the UK and transported “back” to Caribbean countries they had not been to since they were children, a policy the current government have still not successfully acknowledged or made restitution for, is merely the latest example of the British state’s unwillingness to recognise or to tackle its own imperial nostalgia and racialised public policy. 

As Linton Kwesi Johnson told me, the Windrush generation have made an incalculable contribution to building modern Britain – and this is not just Black history but British history. This history, starting with the Windrush, needs to be widely taught (sign this petition to demand that colonial history is taught in UK schools), remembered and celebrated as a vital part of the making of the contemporary nation.

Dr Caspar Melville convenes the MA in Global Creative & Cultural Industries at SOAS.

Want to find out more?

Reading

Paul Gilroy, Ain’t no Black in the Union Jack (1987, Routledge)

Caspar Melville It’s a London Thing: How rare groove, acid house and jungle remapped the city (2020, MUP)

Trevor Phillips and Mike Phillips, Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain (2009, HarperCollins)

Watching

Interview with dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, for the Bass Culture research project 

Interview with reggae DJ Dubplate Pearl, for the Bass Culture research project

Steve McQueen’s upcoming series on the Windrush generation, Small Axe

Listening

Bass Culture Podcasts: A series of interviews produced by the Bass Culture research project, featuring Paul Gilroy, Lloyd Coxsone, Asher Senator, Janet Kay, Red Saunders, Rodney P and many more

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