The British Caribbean community found itself at the centre of an international media outcry this week, as it emerged that Prime Minister Theresa May had forwarded new immigration rules that would effectively deport individuals of Caribbean descent who have resided in the country for decades.
In the middle of this furore is the Windrush generation, named after the HMT Empire Windrush Ship, one of the first large convoys that carried Caribbeans from the island nations to the UK from the late 1940s onward. Many of these passengers did not formalise their citizenship upon arriving in Britain, or lack documentation of their voyage. Unbelievably, in 2018, this now leaves them at risk of deportation.
Post-World War Two Britain was in desperate need of working labour to fill the gaps left by those lost in the conflict, and looked to its formerly colonised regions for help. British institutions including British Transport and the NHS placed adverts in Caribbean newspapers and on the radio, calling for people to migrate to the UK and serve their “Mother Country.” The legacy of Black and Caribbean nurses, doctors, bus drivers, engineers, and so forth can still be seen today. All this is in addition to the many Caribbeans and Africans who were asked to serve in the army during World War Two in return for British citizenship.
For a generation that was basically invited to come and save Britain from detriment, it’s a slap in the face to now be threatened with deportation back to countries where many hold no links after decades of naturalisation in the UK.
In addition to jobs, Windrush migrants were promised a better quality of life in the UK. This turned out to be very far from reality. On arrival, many found themselves ostracised from wider British society and were barred from public spaces, such as pubs and nightclubs. In reaction to this, the Caribbean migrants made their own social spaces. Missing family and sun, they recreated elements of island life in the UK’s cold climate, which often involved music and food. The sound systems of Kingston, Jamaica were recreated in home basements from West London to South Manchester. These parties centred on pulsating Ska rhythms and were fueled by homemade rice and peas, curried meats, fried dumplings, and rum. They ran on into the early hours of the morning.
The popularity of residential sound system "Blues" parties and shebeens bubbled up from the underground and eventually moved to the streets as carnivals in London, Leeds, and Bristol. With makeshift steel barrel jerk drums, Trinidadian rotis served from the back of cars, and Caribbean kitchens recreated in vans, the British street food phenomenon we see today has its foundations in Caribbean carnival culture.
As time progressed, scores of enterprising British Caribbeans used the food from their home islands as the basis of sustainable businesses that not only provided jobs for their community, but also became vital gathering spaces for displaced people.
For a generation that was basically invited to come and save Britain from detriment, it’s a slap in the face to now be threatened with deportation.
Though a handful of eateries peddling rice and peas date back to the 1940s, the first mass wave of eat-in Caribbean establishments came in the late 1960s, as youths of the Windrush generation era started to come of age. Places such as Trinidadian-born political activist Frank Crichlow’s now-closed Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, West London opened in 1968, and Roy Shirley and the Johnson Family’s R & JJ West Indian Restaurant in Hackney, East London followed in 1972. Dougie’s Hideaway Club and West Indian Restaurant in North London opened around this time too, as did the infamous Black and White Cafe in Bristol.
Other eateries opened by these first-generation migrants are no longer operating but live on in folklore. Names such as “Gees” in Birmingham, “Delores” in Leeds, and “Sam Sams” in Moss Side, Manchester lie heavy in the memory of local residents.
While these Caribbean eateries worked in tandem with active community centres as places of congregation, Conservative government cuts from the 1970s mean that today, they offer some of the only places outside the home left for Caribbean communities to socialise.
Areas like Notting Hill and Moss Side, which were completely derelict after the War, were injected with new vibrancy thanks to new Caribbean eateries and social clubs. As more people came over from the Caribbean islands, they gravitated towards these areas and helped further build them up from the debris of the War. Today, however, the neighbourhoods in which Windrush migrants first made their homes are at risk of being irrevocably changed through gentrification.
The current Conservative government’s treatment of the older British Caribbean community looks unnervingly like a long term strategy to have a group of people come and rebuild untouchable parts of the country, only to kick them out after the process is complete.
The Windrush generation’s legacy runs deep in British healthcare, education, and transport, but the impact Caribbean food had in rebuilding neglected parts of the UK—and, in the process, lighting the fire of street parties and street food (both ironically now turned into multi-million pound industries)—is just as important. This pioneering group deserves our praise and adulation, not deportation.