Let’s start somewhere in the middle.
Why is it the “Windrush scandal?” We’ll get to the scandal part in a bit.
The boat that brought the black people.
They reckon there weren’t any before then. For sure, these boats carried black people in their crowded hundreds, but they were largely deposited at the slave auctions in the New World, if dysentery, mutiny or cruelty did not lead to their weighting and drowning. The boats themselves, they returned to England full of something much more valuable. Cotton, tobacco, indigo, sugar.
That’s where the story ends, the final page in the old school textbook. Back when I was there it was mandatory to turn and study all of those pages, but its only optional now. It’s now only national lore that gives black people their place on this island. And that starts with Windrush.
But there were some black people on those early boats too. They came with the goods, some came as goods, and these people were keystones in the building of Liverpool, Cardiff, Bristol – cities constructed with the capital extracted and extorted out of the muscles and bones of their friends, families, enemies and rivals. The differences didn’t matter anymore, they were now just one category, whilst the sugar came in a thousand shades of grey.
We’re still a commodity, something to be weighed, measured, and calculated.
I’m one-quarter sugar,
The rest had its own local hardships, but they can be rubbed out.
The malaise of national erasure does the first part of the job nicely. You weren’t even here, how could you possibly be British? The longer your family has worked, shopped and bred here, the further away you are.
Shhhh! Even if you are one of the good ones.
Know about James Peters? He was the first black England international, in 1906. Rugby union of all sports. Never heard of him? He was better known as “Darkie” Peters. Unfortunately he was forced out (and eventually banned), as England sought to save face against the Springboks. Peters was forgotten everywhere outside of Barrow and Saint Helens. Gone.
Never mind them, they’re now with the ages. Their descendants are now sunk into descended from Windrush, who are descended from slaves, from far away colonies.
It’s these old Caribbeans who are being depatriated now.
And the onlookers shout –
You can’t deport them they are already citizens!
How do you mean, citizens?
What was the Caribbean to the Empire?
It was no extension of British soil. The French claimed their possessions were part of France, they still do, but ils portent des oeillieres. The British rarely held such pretensions. The islands were at best off-shore assets for absentees. For those who went west, they were sandboxes of sadism for sweetness and rum. Thomas Picton could do what he wanted to Louisa Calderon – he was British in a land held to no such standard, she had rights only when it suited the Pictons of the world.
Meanwhile…Enoch Powell needs “rescuing” from the dust of the past, so his Rivers of Blood will flow in full on the radio for the first time since it was spoken. They think it needs resurfacing to understand the present day, to understand Brexit. Such things came as a shock to those who viewed Britain as “past” all of those things – or worse, as a completely different entity nowadays, a different nation entirely.
This is the different Britain that announced itself to the world stage in the 2012 Olympics, a gleeful and moving retelling of Britain from below, a celebration of the unsung heroes in the making of the modern nation, and at the heart of it all, were the Windrush Generation. Boyle’s ceremony told an important story, and stirred the hearts of a nation about to embrace the greatest sporting festival there is, but it was a story told in a sparkling, ridiculously priced stadium, surrounded by luxury flats and mighty shopping centres, amidst a London neighbourhood wrenched by poverty. It is a story that played into the myth of modern liberal Britain, the same place where I would be told, repeatedly, that there’s a sea change in racial attitudes because a British prince has married a mixed-race American woman. AFTER Windrush.
Within the history of this myth there is no space for those with black blood between 1807 and 1948.
There is no room for the fate of Louisa Calderon, she no longer exists. Picton’s abuse subsumed her twice, first in person, and then in the redactions of history. There are no longer black soldiers in the Great War. It is too late, perhaps, to remind everyone of Walter Tull, for his feats in war already seem fantastical in the minds of too many.
Why must black Britain always leap between these historical boundaries? Why do we stop at 1807, when an Act of Parliament stopped the (legal) trafficking? What is the first name that comes into your head when you think of that moment?
We were once taught at school (when it was required learning) that the slave trade was ceased [redacted] after a crescendo of activism in British political circles. And then the lessons stopped.
Why opinion changed at that moment in time has very much more to with events in the Caribbean than in the corridors of power. Haiti’s triumph over all the armies of Europe had chilled the sugar barons to their very core, and changed the hearts of their metropolitan financiers. The will to persevere with the trade was wounded.
Meanwhile, slavery continued.
The trade continued, just not under the British flag. The USA already had a reproducing population of slaves (the utter misery of those words), and, in any case, British attention now looked to the sunrise, beyond which lay new lands and people to mine and pillage. France largely withdrew from the Americas, flogging the lands west of the Mississippi to Jefferson, whose faith and indulgence in the peculiar institution still flourished. The Spanish rushed in to fill the Haiti-shaped hole in the sugar market, and Cuba boomed as the human cargo clogged the market.
The British finally ended slavery in the colonies in 1837, as the issues and rebels set in motion by Haiti continued to chip away at the shackles. On the islands, as elsewhere, emancipation did not mean freedom. Slavery was ended pre-emptively on the terms of the landowners, piece by piece, grounding many to the lands that had bound them, and ensuring there was little opportunity for the pursuit of a different life.
For more than a century, the black Caribbean, although no longer a slave, could still not call as their own the island they stood on, the island that their ancestors had been removed to, their home. Except in Haiti. There, Dessalines had returned to the island its old name, to claim by right that land as a place of black freedom, earned through their avenging of the Americas (although some things, dare we romanticise too blindly, are easier said that done).
Within this history, with all of its denial, erasure and contradiction, any freedom to reside as anything close to equal has always been conditional – as a gift, or a concession – never a right. The love bestowed to the Windrush Generation by the Danny Boyles of the world was earned by the “contribution” made to post-war British life (as if nothing had been given before). The freedom from shackles was a hollowed hulk of a concession, granted only by the Empire as one half of a deal, wherein the slave-owners were paid handsomely for each slave they “lost” in the mass manumission. Freedom was a commodity, just part of a quid pro quo.
The Hostile Environment recognises this, as it strips our grandparents of their legal identity to reside as British, as it tears Britain away from any complicity or guilt toward its colonial past. The national blank spot as to the existence of black British people before 1948 legitimates the expulsion as “immigration policy”. for enacting this policy.
And it’s boosted more by the policing of cultural identity, for when you are descended from Empire, its very tricky to be accepted as British without variation. Gruesome Tebbit tests ignore how cricket was/is a beautiful vestige of self-discovery for Indians, Windians and Pakistanis, and instead places all the onus on “failure to integrate” on generations and generations of imperial descendants as if, like in the Opening Ceremony, we were always welcomed with open arms. Please, brown kids, support our (significantly South African) national side, or else we send your granddad back to Jamaica.
That’s the crux of it, the message it sends – it’s cultural blackmail. Legal identity now confirms what cultural identity has decreed, as those who know way more about it than us have explained. You’d better be #British as hell, make all your phone calls from red telephone boxes, watch every second of the royal wedding, and slather the union flag all over your Last Night of the Proms party, or we’ll make you feel even less welcome. You were born here, after all, start acting like it. It’s another reminder that citizenship is not consistent, and nor is it permanent. Those who cry “citizenship!” in defence of The Expelled cannot know what’s really going on.
There ain’t no asylum here.
I have on occasion been asked about “blending in” – whether I should use my lighter-skinned privilege to pretend I’m Spanish or a dark Celt who’s just returned from chilling in the desert for a while, or something like that.
Truth is, for the most part, the idea I have a choice in the matter is a fiction. If somebody assumes I am One of the Good Ones for whatever reason (usually my false-posh accent), then challenging that (and I always do) does little to change their feeling toward me. If somebody assumes I am [pick your prejudice] the same pattern plays out. WE fits with me because, as much as my passport, my name, my accent, and my lighter skin make my path through British life easier, I have been made to feel this way – I did not choose it. Conditioned to feel different, uncanny, misshapen, a burr on a smooth. It makes me part of the immigrant struggle even if I cannot relate to it in any way in the present, because it is part of my past.
And this is why I am not in any way surprised that, in spite of all the bluster and outrage, nobody really cares about the Windrush scandal. I am deflated, but unsurprised that it did not even cause a flutter in the government’s approval ratings. The same way that I am deflated, but unsurprised that nobody really cared about Oxfam’s sex extortion in Haiti, in the long run. The same way I am deflated, but unsurprised, that the outrage over Grenfell has petered out. The same way I am deflated, but unsurprised about the outspoken xenophobia of the age. It’s nothing new, but has recently rediscovered its wolf’s clothing.
It’s that which makes me feel trapped between those that believe in a Britain that never was, and those that believe in a Britain that will never come to pass.