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By Jason Michael
As someone who has both studied and taught history, it is to my shame that until very recently I was ignorant of the ship the Empire Windrush and its story. In primary and secondary school we learned of other ships; the Golden Hind, the Santa Maria, the Mayflower, and of course the Titanic. These were the vessels of our history; our glorious memories of white European imperial expansion. In Britain, overshadowed as it is by global domination, our textbooks are replete with the proud tales of British ships and their crews – HMS’ Victory, Beagle, and Hood, to name but a few.
Other ships, non-British ships unassociated with any nation’s naval imperial adventures, seldom break through this triumphalist presentation of “history.” In fact, so rare are these, I can name only two; the Jeanie Johnston, one of many “coffin ships” that ferried people to America from Ireland during the Famine and Highlanders during the Clearances, and the St. Louis, the ship that sought in vain for a refuge for German Jewish children during the Holocaust. All of this was white people’s history, and what I learned of ships was a white people’s history of ships.
Empire Windrush was never part of “British history.” This boat, like the people it brought to our shores and those who followed, was not welcome to a full page, and – as far as the state was concerned – its passengers were not welcome here at all. We always knew Afro-Caribbean people came to Britain from 1948 until the rules were changed in the early 70s. How could we not know that, what with the lasting, toxic effect Enoch Powell and Tories of his bent had on our society? What we didn’t know – what was unimportant to our history – were the details of these people’s lives; where they came from and the details of how they came here.
As Britain hastily cobbles together a black history of Britain the coming of the Windrush generation is being framed as an invitation. It was nothing of the sort. The British Empire was imploding. In order to offer a lifeline to its predominantly white imperial ruling caste in the colonies it granted citizenship to former subjects, not thinking that the native populations and the decedents of former African slaves would take up the freedom this citizenship offered with such relish. No longer imperial subjects, but British citizens, they decided to go to the land that had been built on their backs. The invitation did not long remain open.
Here we are decades later. The children of that generation are now grandparents. For many of them life in Britain has always been hostile. The “hostile environment” created now for them by Theresa May and Amber Rudd is but a development of the hostility they are used to from the British political and bureaucratic establishment. But this development has brought with it something new – the realisation of Powell’s “ministry of repatriation.” People who have lived here all their lives; who know no other country than the one they have grown up in, are being told that this is not their home.
Innocent British citizen are being locked up under threat of deportation and the two politicians responsible curren… twitter.com/i/web/status/9…—
(@LBC) April 24, 2018
As ever, the bureaucratic state is put to the service of the racial state. Technically there is no issue. People who came as part of this great migration can gain leave to remain or indeed – for those who travelled on their parents’ passports – citizenship. All they need is to prove they have been resident in the UK since before the date of the rule change, and people can do this by providing documentation for each year they have lived here. But who keeps a payslip for fifty years?
In this instance the government can’t assist them. Yes, they disembarked at British ports after crossing the Atlantic, and official records were taken of their arrival. Normally this would be proof of the years they have spent in the UK – contributing to our shared society, but no, part of the British government’s hostile environment programme was the destruction of these immensely important social and historical records. You see, to Britain’s powerful political establishment, these records are an aberration; they are evidence of a black British history. They were destroyed.
Windrush, as a symbol of the ugliest face of British racial and cultural supremacism, teaches us that the current war on immigrants – on the Muslim other and the EU national alike – is nothing new. Brexit has only let all this bile out of the tin, but it was always there – and we have always known it to be there. Britain has always been a hostile environment because Britain is a hostile environment. Since the absorption of Wales and again since the unions with Scotland and Ireland “Britain” has been about the exclusion of the dominated guest; the Welsh, the Scots, the Irish, and every other people sucked in and jammed under its boot.
This horror sheds a bright light on the essential nature of the British imperial and colonial project. It tells us all we need to know of the state we hope to leave. But more troubling than this by far, it informs us of what we can expect of Britain and Britishness once it has finally exited the European Union. We are looking at a diseased and twisted ideology of state and power that has been laid bare for all to see in how it has treated even those people who consider it home. Our hope, as vain as it may prove to be – like Grenfell – is that this will become a real part of British history; offering Britain the chance of redemption for its future generations.
The Windrush Generation: Why people invited to UK faced deportation