They came suited, booted and full of hope – and we betrayed them

They came suited, booted and full of hope — and we betrayed them: Fascinating history books reflect on the Commonwealth immigrants who arrived in Britain from the 1950s

  • Two books reflect on the Commonwealth immigrants who came to Britain 
  • Amelia Gentleman details descendants being classified as illegal citizens
  • Colin Grant shares first-hand accounts, of migrants in the 1950s and afterwards

HISTORY

THE WINDRUSH BETRAYAL

by Amelia Gentleman (Guardian Faber £18.99, 336 pp)

HOMECOMING

by Colin Grant (Cape £18.99, 320 pp)

From a ship to a scandal, from Commonwealth immigrants full of hope to elderly people shamefully traduced by the system, the name Windrush resonates through decades.

Both these valuable books give voice to the families of those who travelled to Great Britain from the West Indies in search of a better life in the chilly place they had always been told was the ‘mother country’ and which actually needed them.

Drawing on scores of first-hand accounts, Colin Grant (born in Britain of Jamaican parents) offers oral history at its finest, while Amelia Gentleman’s very different book is a testimony to the dogged energy of one of Britain’s best investigative journalists whose anger at injustice spills on to the page.

Two fascinating history books reflect on the people from the West Indies who migrated to Great Britain in the 1950s and afterwards, pictured: Three Jamaican men arrive on Empire Windrush in 1948

We’re all familiar with those iconic pictures of serious, well-dressed black men in trilby hats, suits and ties, disembarking from the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock in 1948. But Colin Grant reminds us that ‘the popular image . . . has also reduced the story — not least because it excludes over 200 women who were also passengers.’

Significantly, he points out that it can get in the way of ‘the bigger picture of the impact of mass migration’, as ‘some 300,000 adventurers made their way to Britain’ from all the West Indian islands over the next 15 years. Grant was spurred to record people ‘before their stories disappeared’.

His interviews reveal natural courage and style enough to face down even the vile racism encountered on the streets of Notting Hill in the 1950s and afterwards.

Soon after he began recording, ‘the British government gave a new twist to the story ensuring that the name “Windrush” will now also forever be associated with scandal.’

Coincidentally, at the same time, prize-winning Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman was revealing the scandal of how the government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy for illegal immigrants led to thousands of Windrush descendants being wrongly classified as living here illegally.

Many lost their jobs, some were deported, all were hurt and enraged by their appalling treatment at ‘the mother country’. One quotation encapsulates a bewilderment that can never be assuaged: ‘How do you pack for a one-way journey to a country you left when you were 11 and have not visited for 50 years?’

Whose fault was it? Gentleman paints a searing picture of a Home Office not fit for purpose and politicians who exist within a self-centred Westminster bubble of party politics. It’s impossible to read her account of the step-by-step betrayal without feeling ashamed that it was done in your name.


Pictured left: HOMECOMING by Colin Grant (Cape £18.99, 320 pp) Pictured right: THE WINDRUSH BETRAYAL by Amelia Gentleman (Guardian Faber £18.99, 336 pp)

But despite real admiration for this book, she and I part company on some of the broad strokes of her postscript. For example, she seems determined to see the scandal as symptomatic of widespread endemic racism rather than shocking bureaucratic bungling and negligence.

But, she asserts, it suits the government to present what took place as ‘a small predicament affecting a niche-group of retirement-age Caribbean people who had no papers.’

Gentleman quotes a Guardian colleague: ‘It has yet to fully sink in that what was wrong for the Windrush generation is wrong for all immigrants’. Is it? All? Should peoples be lumped together in this way?

There were/are very real public concerns about the true extent of immigration to these shores — the latest projections suggest the population will hit 70 million by 2031 — and its effect on infrastructure.

These cannot be dismissed as ‘xenophobic, anti-immigrant conviction’ and ‘a gradual withering of empathy.’ Yes, the Home Office was wrong, wrong, wrong.

But the Windrush generation shouldn’t be shoehorned into a wider outrage that arguably chips away at their very special status.

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