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Friday, June 19, 1998 Published at 17:11 GMT 18:11 UK


Windrush: Ticket to a new Britain

London's Notting Hill Carnival: A British festival where everyone is welcome

When the Empire Windrush sailed into Tilbury on June 22 1948 it brought with it a great change - for both its 500 Jamaican passengers and for Britain.

Windrush Welcome from BBC Poet in Residence John Agard (1' 59")
Most onboard only intended to stay in the 'Mother' country five years. The then foreign secretary reassured that country they 'would not last one winter'.

Half a century on and many of them are still here.

These were the first West Indian immigrants to Britain. Afro-Caribbeans still only make up an estimated 1% of the population, but they have become integral to British society. And have transformed the meaning of Britishness in the process.

The rough ride

But 50 years of integration have seen much hostility.

At first, the immigrants received a generally cordial if cautious welcome. But this was post-war, bombed-out London.

[ image: Evangelism: West Indian church worship brought to Britain (copyright: Savana Picture Library)]
Evangelism: West Indian church worship brought to Britain (copyright: Savana Picture Library)
Accommodation was short. And it was not long before nationals began to resent the immigrants in the struggle to find a home. Many immigrants were turned away from lodgings. Six in one room was not rare.

Tensions came to a head in the race riots of 1958 in London's Notting Hill. Bands of agression-hungry Teddy Boys picked up on the undercurrent of public irritation. They waged a war of pseudo-patriotism on the West Indian community for almost two years. It only ended with the widespread shock at the death of a young Jamaican.

Citizenship by BBC Poet in Residence John Agard (2' 22")
Race relations were a political hot potato for ten years, culminating in Conservtive front-bencherr Enoch Powell's famous "Rivers of Blood" speech. His words pictured black immigrants as alien invaders and re-ignited angry nationalistic feelings, bringing to the forefront a strong anti-racism movement.

It was not until the mid-1970s that things really started to improve. Aided by the Race Relations Act and equal opportunities bodies, Caribbeans began to participate in the institutions to which they had access - trade unions, councils and professional and staff associations - and to establish themselves as part of the British population.

The living legacy

Someone who has lived this history is 85 year-old Oswald 'Columbus' Dennison. As one of the Windrush passengers, he has survived and thrived in Britain on a mentality of live and let live.

[ image: Oswald
Oswald "Columbus" Dennison: "I want people to like me for who I am, not my colour."
But it was not like that for all the passengers. Oswald says: "Many were disappointed to find prejudice here. Being snubbed - it affects some people badly."

Full interview with Oswald

And the biggest blow to the people of the Windrush was that Britain, the 'Mother' country, did not want its Caribbean children. Oswald describes what it meant to Jamaicans to be British through his experiences in Panama.

"When we heard "Dong dong, this is London Calling" on BBC Radio, I felt superior to every Panamanian because I was British - that was the kind of feeling we grew up with. Imagine then what it felt like to be shunned."

There was plenty of work in Britain's growing industrialised economy. Many skilled immigrants, however, were disenchanted at their low status in Britain and returned to Jamaica.

But many others stayed and forged a life for themselves.

"Airbrushing history"

Given this background, one might ask why Windrush is being celebrated up and down the country.

[ image: Trevor Phillips:
Trevor Phillips: "The rise of multi-racial Britain is irresistible."
Broadcaster and journalist Trevor Phillips has been central to the celebration of the Windrush anniversary.

He says: "I wanted it to be an object of pride for the black community but what I have maintained all the way through is that this is a British history."

Howdoyoudoo: British quirkiness from BBC Poet in Residence Jon Agard (1'46")
"There are certain strands of British history that have been airbrushed out. This is one of those strands. And it is important not just for the people who lived it but for everybody else."

Voyage into the future

[ image: Britain's integrated future (copyright: Savanna Picture Library)]
Britain's integrated future (copyright: Savanna Picture Library)
For the children of the Windrush generation, the experience of living in Britain has in many ways been more difficult.

Like their parents they feel they have had to deal with being treated like foreigners.

The difference is that they were born in Britain. They have known no other home.

What Trevor hopes this anniversary will do is let these young people understand that there is more to the world than the experience they have had.

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19 Jun 98 | UK
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