It was not the first ship to arrive on these shores with Caribbean migrants on board but its name has come to be symbolically linked with that generation of people who came to Britain in the post-years wars and changed it forever. Why we remember the MV Empire Windrush in such a way and not the others is down to one man, RAF veteran and former mayor of Southwark, Sam Beaver King.
King was one of the 500 passengers who disembarked the Empire Windrush at Tilbury on June 22 1948 following its month-long journey from his hometown, Kingston, Jamaica. The dramatics on board courtesy a boatload of larger-than-life characters, followed by a welcome party of flashing cameras and calypsonian Lord Kitchener’s impromptu performance on the gangway made it an unforgettable experience.
“Sam had a vision about the ship’s arrival as being as important as that of the Mayflower, explains King’s friend and colleague Arthur Torrington.
“Every American looks back on the Mayflower as part of their heritage, not the other boats that sailed to America from Britain before it, and that’s how he saw the Windrush,”
It was to Torrington that King took the idea of marking the 50th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival in the UK. The two set up the Windrush Foundation and spent the next 18 months organising an event that would go on to be a huge success, spawning books and a number of TV and radio documentaries.
That was in 1998 and since then the idea of the ‘Windrush generation’ has taken root, gaining poignant significance in recent years following the government’s self-styled hostile immigration policy that rendered thousands who came here as children from the Caribbean stateless.
The Windrush scandal gave the 70th anniversary celebrations a greater national focus and paved the way for the introduction of Windrush Day two years ago. The coronavirus lockdown means that the Windrush Foundation’s celebrations will be conducted via Zoom this year but Torrington, originally from Guyana and one of LBC’s first black radio broadcasters during the 1970s, believes this is no bad thing: “People are registering for the event from all over the world, not just the UK, and this means a potentially huge audience.”
It is hoped that Home Office officials will be attending to answer audience questions as a result of the Foundation’s recent interventions over the slow pace of the compensation scheme for those wrongly classified as illegal immigrants. “Very few have received any money and are still struggling to make ends meet,” he says. “The Home Office simply hasn’t got the personnel to deal with the claims because of cutbacks. They now say they want to speed things up by setting up a separate administration. I am convinced that Boris Johnson really means to hasten up the process.”
The recent Black Lives Matter protests in the UK over the George Floyd killing in the US has concentrated government minds, leading to an acknowledgement, on paper at least, that more needs to be done in “eradicating prejudice and creating opportunity”.
“George Floyd’s death was seen by people all over the world as a public lynching and a direct legacy of slavery,” insists Torrington.
“Black Lives Matters matters in a massive way and cannot be ignored. In essence, people are saying there has to be fundamental change at all levels of society.”
A core part of the Windrush Foundation’s work is in schools and over the years it has produced a number of education packs for primary and secondary pupils. One of them incorporates Windrush Pioneers and Champions, a book highlighting the individual stories of early migrants, including that of King himself, who died in 2016 aged 90.
“The book follows on from Sam’s vision,” explains Torrington. “He always kept in touch with the men and women on board the Empire Windrush and felt that their stories needed to be told. He wanted young people to understand where we were coming from.”
Demand for the resource packs have increased in recent weeks from both teachers and parents, and Torrington believes that this is in part in response to the re-ignited debate around institutional racism.
“I am not for statues being erected,” he says in answer to a question about what black figures he would like to see commemorated in stone or bronze. “They are very expensive and the money to build them would be better spent elsewhere, especially in schools, where black history needs to be a core part of the curriculum.”
For details of the Windrush Day Zoom events on Monday June 22 visit windrushfoundation.com. Tickets are free and available from Eventbrite
This article was first published in the Camden New Journal, June 18 2020