LONDON – Seventy-five years ago, a ship landed at Tilbury Dock near London, carrying more than 800 passengers from the Caribbean to new lives in Britain.
The arrival of the Empire Windrush on June 22, 1948, became a symbol of the post-war migration that transformed the U.K. and its culture. The term “Windrush generation” has come to stand for hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in the U.K. between the late 1940s and early 1970s, especially those from former British colonies in the Caribbean.
Windrush Day is being marked on Thursday with scores of community and official events, including a reception hosted by King Charles III. Charles commissioned portraits of 10 Windrush passengers for the royal collection as a reflection of “ the immeasurable difference that they, their children and their grandchildren have made to this country.”
There also is a national church service, a Windrush flag flying over Parliament and a set of commemorative stamps from the Royal Mail.
Patrick Vernon, convenor of the Windrush 75 network that is marking the anniversary, said Thursday's events are a chance to “acknowledge the legacy of those first Windrush pioneers, the challenges they overcame and the contribution they made to Britain."
Behind the anniversary celebrations lies a complex story that is still unfolding.
WHO WAS ABOARD THE SHIP?
The Empire Windrush carried people from Jamaica, Trinidad and other Caribbean islands who were invited by the British government to help rebuild the war-shattered nation. Many had fought against the Nazis in World War II; they came to work as nurses, railway workers and in other key jobs.
Many settled in working-class neighborhoods, including the Brixton and Notting Hill areas of London. The new arrivals were welcomed by some but faced widespread discrimination in employment and housing.
In 1958, racially motivated attacks on Black residents in Notting Hill sparked days of rioting. The Notting Hill Carnival — now one of Europe’s biggest street parties — was founded soon after to celebrate Caribbean culture and to bring communities together.
A decade later, Conservative politician Enoch Powell made an infamous speech predicting “rivers of blood” as a result of mass immigration. The speech helped sparked a surge of protest and resistance by Britons of color.
HOW DID THE WINDRUSH GENERATION FARE IN BRITAIN?
Members of the Windrush generation and their descendants, from the Caribbean and other parts of the former British Empire, have had a colossal impact on British culture.
People like poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, DJ Don Letts and members of ska bands like The Specials fused Caribbean musical influences and urban youth rebellion in the 1970s and 80s. Their influence helped seed new styles of music including grime, a distinctly London form of rap.
In other art forms, major figures include Turner Prize-winning artist Chris Ofili, “12 Years a Slave” filmmaker Steve McQueen, and writers Andrea Levy, Bernardine Evaristo and Nobel literature laureate Abdulrazak Gurnah.
Prince William, the heir to the British throne, said Thursday that the contributions of the Windrush generation “cannot be overstated.”
“We are a better people today because the children and the grandchildren of those who came in 1948 have stayed and become part of who we are in 2023," he said.
WHAT’S THE WINDRUSH SCANDAL?
Commonwealth immigrants who came to Britain before 1973 had an automatic right to settle in the U.K. But decades later, thousands fell victim to the Conservative government’s aim of making Britain a “hostile environment” for illegal immigration.
In 2018, British news outlets revealed that people who had lived legally in Britain for decades had been denied housing, jobs or medical treatment because they could not prove their status. Many documents, including passenger cards from the Empire Windrush, had been destroyed by the authorities.
Dozens were detained or deported to countries they had not visited for decades.
After an outcry, the British government apologized to the Windrush generation, set up a commission to investigate what went wrong and established a compensation program.
WHAT DOES WINDRUSH MEAN TODAY?
Windrush today has multiple meanings. Onyekachi Wambu, editor of “Empire Windrush,” an anthology of Black British writing, said it wasn’t until several decades after 1948 that the word Windrush began to mean “something bigger than the people who came on the ship.”
“We began to talk about ‘Windrush’ and it became kind of institutionalized,” he said at a recent panel discussion. “There is now also an element of it that means scandal and betrayal.”
Many people caught up in the Windrush scandal say they are struggling to get compensation from a bureaucratic and inefficient government program. The government has declined to act on several of the recommendations of an independent review.
The current Conservative government of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is observing Windrush Day while legislating to criminalize and deport asylum-seekers arriving in Britain in small boats – a situation that stirs uncomfortable parallels for some.
Black Britons continue to have more poverty and worse health than their white compatriots, a gap bleakly exposed by higher death rates in the COVID-19 pandemic.
Britain is wrestling with how to deal with its imperial past, a debate spurred on when Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol in 2020.
“Britain has come a long way on race in the 75 years since the Windrush arrived, but with much further to go to complete that journey to inclusion,” Sunder Katwala of think tank British Future said in a recent report on the anniversary.