Jason Hewitt visits the Windrush exhibition at the British Library.
Tucked away in one of the many audio recordings at the British Library, a Caribbean woman describes her first experience of the ‘strange’ English custom of eating fish and chips out of newspaper. It is one of the hidden gems within the British Library’s new Windrush exhibition, sitting alongside leaflets that explain to those coming to England the importance of afternoon tea and the etiquette of queuing – all part of the British propaganda designed to fill the requirements of a workforce depleted after the war. For most, of course, the experience when they arrived was very different. They faced open racism, poverty, broken dreams and promises, and yet many of them stuck it out, finding love here, work and a home, their place within a society that had eyed them with suspicion; whilst also retaining their own collective cultural identity, eventually melding Afro-Caribbean heritage with an urban British vibe.
This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival at Tilbury Docks in June 1948. On board were over 800 workers and children from the Caribbean. However, the Windrush was just one of many boats that brought migrants to England from the late 40s to the 60s, some of which had already visited before, tempted over as part of the war effort and the promise of work for the ‘mother country’. The experiences of this generation lie at the heart of this exhibition but it also stretches back providing vital context – the abolition of slavery in 1833 – right through to the present day with the death of Stephen Lawrence and the recent Windrush scandal.
Unsurprisingly, the main focus is on the leading lights of arts and culture that came over as part of the Windrush generation. Many of the better-known voices on display – writers such as George Lamming, Derek Walcott, Andrew Salkey and V S Naipaul – used their experiences to produce some of their finest work. There are also items loaned by Andrea Levy – the experiences of her parents were the inspiration for her prize-winning novel, Small Island – as well as exhibits on the founding of the Notting Hill Carnival, the birth of the Caribbean Artists’ Movement, and many personal stories including that of Una Marsen, the Jamaican feminist poet and first black woman employed by the BBC. The best treasures though lie within the video footage and the rich sound archive, where you can listen to not only the spoken word but also to the rich music that formed such a vital part of the Windrush culture – from steel bands and calypso to the rise of the Black British music scene.
The last section of the exhibition, bringing us into the 1980s with the Brixton riots and beyond, highlights all too painfully the progress still to be made in terms of Black equality, but also the determination of individuals to create that fairer society. Seventy years on the Windrush is seen as the symbol of a generation of migrants trying to make England their home, and yet the complexities of migration remain – the continuing debate on the rights of UK immigrants in the face of Brexit and the continuing European migrant crisis are both testament to that. Whilst the exhibition doesn’t shy away from these challenges, as faced then by the Windrush generation, it is the vibrancy, resilience and pride of that Caribbean spirit that ultimately shines through.
Jason Hewitt is the author of The Dynamite Room and Devastation Road. He is also a playwright and actor. His first full-length play, Claustrophobia, premiered at Edinburgh Fringe and had a London run at The Hope Theatre in 2015.
- Photos of Windrush passengers via British Library
- Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased on board ship by Winston Levy © Andrea Levy