Born German, adopted by Britain and serving mostly as a humble troop carrier, the Empire Windrush would have been no more than a footnote in history, if that, but for its one and only trip to the Caribbean. Instead it has become forever linked with the 500 or more people she carried from Jamaica to Britain in June 1948, still fresh faced and smart looking after their 30-day journey across the ocean. Today ‘Windrush’ is a shorthand description for a generation of Caribbean migrants who arrived in the UK in the decades after the war, a term made all the more poignant by the recent immigration scandal that rendered thousands of them stateless overnight.
With that scandal still echoing in our ears, Paul Arnott sets himself the task of looking beyond the iconic name to unravel the story of a ship that began life in Hamburg in the 1930s and ended up at the bottom of the Mediterranean some years later. His account is peppered with an array of characters who came into contact with the ship, from former Southwark mayor Sam King who made the momentous1948 voyage to teenager Dave Green, a National Service conscript bound for Korea two years later. The likes of demon propagandist Joseph Geobbels and Norwegian resistance hero Max Manus are also thrown in during Arnott’s many interesting detours into wider history.
First things first, though – the vessel that left the Blohm&Voss shipyard spanking new in 1931 was originally known as the Monte Rosa. The British renamed it after they seized it from the Germans as a spoil of war in 1945, Windrush being a minor tributary of the Thames in the Cotswolds.
Designed for 1,541 passengers and crew, the former Monte Rosa spent her early days making the return trip to Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina mostly carrying those fleeing Germany, struggling after the First World War, in search of greener pastures. Of the 140,000 Germans who settled in South America during the 1930s, 30,000 sailed on the Rosa, laying down the ratlines for fleeing Nazis a few years later.
The rise of the Third Reich steered the boat in a different direction when it became part of Geobbels’ Strength Through Joy travel programme, conducting Nordic and Mediterranean cruises for party members. Amazingly, in 1936, the cruiser entered British waters for the first time when she began her 20 return trips between Hamburg and Greenwich.
On the outbreak of war, the Rosa served as a troop carrier and supplies ship before being used to transport Jews to Germany from occupied Norway. Most of them ended up in Auschwitz. Finally, as the war came to an end, the soon-to-be Empire Windrush was seized in Kiel harbour and taken, battered and bruised, to Glasgow to be refitted, re-emerging as a troop carrier for National Service recruits and for bringing expat workers and their families home from India, then on the cusp of independence.
Plenty has been written about the Empire Windrush’s arrival in Tilbury 71 years ago, and Arnott, a former Independent journalist, covers familiar though nostalgic ground. The Windrush was not the first ship to carry black people to the UK after the war – two had docked unheralded in Liverpool and Southampton in the months beforehand – but she was the one that received all the attention because the numbers on board were slightly higher, causing undue alarm among the authorities. This fed itself into the press, hence the huge welcome party of sorts of reporters and cameramen as the ship steamed into the Thames.
In 1950, Empire Windrush turned troop carrier again following the outbreak of the Korean War. These long and arduous journeys to a pointless conflict would take their toll on the ship’s now struggling engines, notes Arnott ominously. Her final voyage took place in 1954 when it was tasked with dropping off troops in Mombassa to counter Kenya’s Mau Mau uprising en route for the Far East. It was on the return trip to Southampton with 1,493 people on board that her engines caught fire early one morning just north of Algiers, killing four of the crew. Having led a roller coaster of a life, the ship sank a kilometre beneath the waves, re-surfacing, so to speak, many years down the line as the symbol of a new era.
Windrush: A Ship Through Time by Paul Arnott is published by The History Press
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal group of newspapers in July 2019