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  • David Kwao Fianko

The fabricated history of the Windrush

Many falsehoods have been disseminated about the arrival of African and Caribbean communities in Britain, and by extension, the Black presence in this country throughout history. These lies have actively written Black people out of history.

Empire Windrush on fire near coast of Algeria, March 1954

The notion that Black presence in Britain began in June 1948, when the HMT Empire Windrush brought ~1000 passengers from the Caribbean, has become mainstream. This is completely untrue. The Black presence in Britain has been long standing for centuries – traceable as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. Africans in this period often worked as “skilled craftsmen or musicians, including in royal courts and households, and by all accounts were well paid and respected”.

Enrico Stennett, when speaking about his journey from Jamaica to Britain in 1947, stated that: “we continue to falsify history” from this period and argued that the historical fixation on post–war Black migration is misrepresentative. The West African Student Union (WASU) is one of many examples countering this narrative. Formed in London in 1925, WASU mobilised and protested against 'colour bar' policies and racial discrimination. WASU even created its own hostel to house Black people who were denied adequate places to live by racist landlords and a lack of protective legislation.

The mythologisation of the Empire Windrush has obscured all other narratives of the migration and settlement of African and Caribbean communities in Britain. In fact, other ships transporting Black migrants were active well before the Windrush. The SS Ormonde docked 241 African and Caribbean people in Liverpool on the 31st of March, 1947. Later in the same year, the Almanzora docked a further 200 people in Southampton. Moroever, 1948 was not even the first time the ship had arrived on British shores from abroad. It was actually a year prior when the vessel was renamed from Monte Rosa and acted as a troop carrier between Southampton and countries as far away as Singapore.

As we tackle these misrepresentations, it is important to also critique the language used to describe the arrival of Africans and Caribbean communities in Britain. A core part of the myth is the peddling of the idea that Britain was ‘welcoming’ arrivals with open arms. Terms like ‘invitation’ and 'welcomed' are constantly used in popular re-tellings of this history – ignoring the bigotry Black communities faced upon their arrival. Racism and xenophobia were deeply entrenched in the daily lives of Black people who arrived in Britain in the early 20th century. The 'colour bar' and other discriminatory policies prohibited migrants from participating in normal political, economic, and social life. For example, banking services were made inaccessible to many migrants due policies around credit history. Housing and employment were also points of struggle, as the first piece of legislation to address racial discrimination was only enacted in 1965, which was 17 years after the major wave of Windrush arrivals.

It is my view that African and Caribbean people were rused into coming to Britain through a number of manipulative methods. Caribbean communities were economically exploited and expected to fill in the labour shortages after WWII, but for little pay and labour protections. Whilst the British Nationality Act of 1948 stated that those born in Britain or in a British colonial territory were both equally citizens of the UK, the British government initially did little to extend equal civil rights to all regardless of race. For instance, eleven Labour MPs wrote racist letters to then Prime Minister Clement Attlee, demanding immigration restrictions to prevent the arrival of more Caribbean migrants. Attlee himself suggested that the ship should be diverted with passengers working to produce groundnuts in East Africa, per African and Caribbean people in Britain: A History.

It is important to question the construction of Windrush in Britain’s collective and national memory. We have to ask ourselves when writing these stories:  How does our choice of language impact representations of the histories we are telling? Ultimately, we have to look before, within, and beyond Windrush to truly understand Black British history. 


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