The MV Empire Windrush started its life as a vehicle for the Nazi Party and ended its life under the control of the Allied forces, transporting 493 passengers from Jamaica to the UK, thus transforming it into a symbol of multiculturalism and tolerance. Patrick Vernon OBE, founder of 100 Great Black Britons, was the first to call for a national celebration of Windrush Day. Here Vernon explains why it matters.
With the success of the Olympic Games in 2012 and the latest census which highlights the current and future demographics of this country, it is time to commemorate and celebrate the contributions to Britain particularly over the last 60 years of Black, Asian and other minority communities. It reminds us that Britain has been and will always be a nation of migration, home for political refugees and asylum seekers.
Growing up in Wolverhampton, where Enoch Powell was the local MP and the National Front had regular marches, created constant fear and being under siege in a multicultural neighbourhood. This reminded you that every day that being Black and British was a struggle for acceptance and belonging.
Despite this we still made a difference and developed skills of resilience and tolerance. The growth of the Pentecostal and gospel movement in the UK started in Wolverhampton with the launch of New Testament Church of God by the late Rev Lyesight in 1953 subsequently creating stars like Beverley Knight. The bands in the Midlands like Steel Pulse, Weapon of Peace, The Specials and UB40 created a British version of reggae and ska. Later on jungle was created by local boy Goldie. The rise of bhangra music started in Wolverhampton with the band called Sahotas, which became part of Alaap. Meera Syal and Lenny Henry (OK, so he was from Dudley) and others actors have influenced comedy, television and theatre, while, at one stage, Wolverhampton women such as Tessa Sanderson and Sonia Lannaman dominated the British athletics team. This is just a small example of the impact of multicultural Britain just from Wolverhampton.
After making a documentary about the Caribbean contribution to World War II through the eyes of ex-serviceman Eddie Martin Noble, called A Charmed Life back in 2008, I suggested that 22 June, the day when the MV Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in 1948, should be a public holiday.
The MV Empire Windrush ship itself has an interesting history. First used by the elite of the Nazi Party, it began its life as a German cruise ship called the Monte Rosa, before becoming a German troopship during World War II and being captured by Allied forces in May 1945. Quite a journey from the fascist Monte Rosa to an enduring symbol of multiculturalism and tolerance.
The inclusion of the arrival of the Windrush in last year’s Olympic Opening Ceremony cemented it as arguably the most iconic symbol of migration and multicultural Britain to date. While we may be losing that first Windrush Generation, the sense of hope and of contribution and the building of a tolerant, respectful society especially must never be lost. That is why Windrush Day is important.
The 400-plus passengers on the Windrush were by no means the first to come to the UK, but they were perhaps among the first to come voluntarily, neither fleeing persecution nor coming to Britain against their will. Windrush has been consumed in the mainstream narrative reflecting the hopes, aspirations and values of all migrant communities.
There was undoubtedly anxiety about immigration in 1948, as there is now. However, those who believe we need to ethnically cleanse Britain to take the country back to the pre-1948 era are largely relegated to the sidelines.
Celebrations of Black History Month, Diwali and Eid are now mainstream, marked in our schools and in our streets. Windrush Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate all aspects of our migrant population and to appreciate the contribution, whether through sport or culture, business or medicine, of those who have made Britain their home.
Patrick Vernon OBE is a founder of Every Generation Media and creator of 100 Great Black Britons. He produced and co-directed A Charmed Life , a film about the life of war veteran Eddie Noble and the legacy of the Windrush Generation.
A service was held on Saturday 22nd June to commemorate the first Windrush Day. At the service Sam King MBE spoke about his hopes and experiences when he arrived in Britain on the ship in 1948. A celebration of the positive impact of immigration, the service took place at Bloomsbury Baptist Church, London. See images from the event below.