Though black communities have existed in the British Isles for centuries, after the First and Second World Wars when people started to settle in higher numbers, a new, distinctly Black British generation emerged. This was accelerated by the introduction of the British Nationality Act in 1948, which granted British citizenship to those residing in previously Commonwealth nations—including Caribbean island-nations. At around the same time, the United States, which until the 1950s had been the natural outlet for Caribbean migration, instituted the McCarran-Walter Immigration Act, limiting the amount of people who were allowed to move to the US from each Caribbean territory. This flow of people was reverted from the US to the UK, laying the foundation for the strong British Afro-Caribbean communities we have today.
RECIPE: Guinness Punch
Though not the first, arguably the most famous of the many transatlantic voyages to Britain was the Empire Windrush of June 1948. Costing £24 for a one-way ticket (in today's money, around £700), it arrived into Tilbury Docks carrying 492 passengers to a frenzy of front page newspaper headlines. Many were from Jamaica but a small number came from other Caribbean islands, tempted by advertised employment opportunities in Britain. Other vessels followed, bringing highly skilled workers—mainly younger men—who took up employment in London and in the towns and cities across England's industrial heartland. By the 1960s, the British Afro-Caribbean population had ballooned from a few thousand to nearly a quarter of a million.
But as the country's post-War Afro-Caribbean communities were establishing themselves, many struggled to adapt to the hard times and harsh climates of the British Isles. Samuel Selven's 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners and Linton Kwesi Johnson's poem "It Dread inna England" eloquently depicted the homesickness experienced by many of the migrants trying to build new lives for themselves in Britain. They longed for old familiarities. For survival as much as nostalgia, people held on to what they could of their old lives, largely through culture, language, and of course, food.
At this time, produce from the home islands was not readily available. The majority of supermarkets, grocery stores, and street markets did not offer even basic Afro-Caribbean produce like plantain, yams, or green bananas due to import costs and slow transport times. Any produce that did arrive in Britain was often stale or in bad physical condition.
Caribbean cafes, bars, and social clubs stepped in to offer people a taste of home as early as the late 1920s, notably the Caribbean Cafe in Cardiff and Florence Mills Social Parlour, which was opened in 1929 on Carnaby Street by a team that included Amy Ashwood—political activist and first wife of Marcus Garvey. As historian Colin Grant writes, guests were attracted to Florence Mills "by the rice 'n' peas West Indian cuisine."
This establishment of British Caribbean culture was not without its frictions. Racist housing policies and underemployment of highly skilled Caribbean immigrants seemed to exacerbate racial tensions, with a number of riots occurring across the country in the late 1950s. Seeking to calm tensions, Notting Hill Carnival was born. Political activist Claudia Jones, Trinidadian Boscoe Holder, and community leader Rhaune Laslett all added to the vision of what we see at the event today. Carnival's early years were humble in stature but over time, it became a place to showcase Caribbean culture. As one observer noted, by the early 1980s, it was "an important commercial venue for the sale of Afro-Caribbean foods as well as drinks."
Events such as Carnival, as well as Afro-Caribbean cafes and shops, not only provided sustenance but also began to serve as social spaces for communities beyond the focal living room, as highlighted in Michael McMillan's, The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home. Although there were public spaces for congregation for the Afro-Caribbean diaspora in Britain, these places remained far and few between before the 1960s. People still faced discrimination in public leisure spaces and often found themselves excluded from white male-dominated pubs and clubs. Hence, entertainment often took place in the home, with music played on the radiogram. Residential spaces were often converted into spaces for gathering, combined with the sale of home-inspired food and drink.
The first notable wave of eat-in Afro-Caribbean establishments emerged in the late 1960s, as youth of the Windrush generation started to come of age. These included Trinidadian-born political activist Frank Crichlow's Mangrove Restaurant in Notting Hill, which opened in 1968, and Dougie's Hideaway club and West Indian restaurant in Archway. More than just restaurants and bars, these eateries were places of cultural importance that built strong bonds of friendship between customers.
As transport technology improved and overseas shipping became faster, by the mid to late 1970s, places such as Roy's Butchers on Ridley Road Market in Dalston, Lloyds Groceries in Harlesden, Cliffs in Brixton, Miss Henry's Grocery shop in Luton, and Wenty's Tropical Foods in Forest Gate had sprung up as established Afro-Caribbean grocers. These businesses were able to source and import more home grown tropical foods from across the Atlantic, as well as products from major Caribbean brands like GraceKennedy.
Cooked Caribbean food was often in high demand late at night, as people departed some of the emerging nightclubs and shebeen-style bars of the time.
While opening a bricks-and-mortar cafe or shop was difficult, due to financial restrictions from prejudiced loaners and uncooperative landlords, many saw this concentration of Afro-Caribbean people late at night as a business opportunity and served home-cooked food out of the back of cars, or formed deals with the clubs to cook on the premises.
By the 1980s, Britain's economy experienced a downturn and migration figures far exceeded that of the 1960s. What were a few thousand migrants became over 1 million by 1970, leading to an increase in competition for housing and employment. This sparked the race riots of the era, with notable clashes in Brixton, the Midlands, and Liverpool. Many Afro-Caribbean social cafes and restaurants were targeted by the police and constant friction eventually led to the closing of places, including Crichlow's Mangrove Restaurant. This apparent purge of Afro-Caribbean social spaces was made worse by compulsory buyouts and rent increases.
As tensions began to ease in the 1990s, the number of Caribbean-owned eateries increased. Celebrity chefs deriving from the Caribbean made their way into the mainstream around this time too, most notably Rustie Lee and Ainsley Harriott. Simultaneously, Caribbean packaged goods brands like Cleone Foods, Sunrise Bakery, and Horizon Foods began to be sold nationally in mainstream supermarkets.
While chain Caribbean eateries also began to emerge at this time, including London's Peppers and Spice and later Aunt Sallys' in the West Midlands, the cuisine was still largely a retreat for local communities, unlike the food of Indian immigrants who had arrived in Britain during the same era. Caribbean restaurants were also largely found in areas that had historically high Afro-Caribbean populations and ingredients were limited to small grocery shops or "Rest of the World" sections.
Without devaluing the contributions of those who have pushed Caribbean food culture forward in Britain throughout the years, many claim that the cuisine was really brought into the spotlight in 2007 when Keith Valentine Graham, a.k.a Levi Roots, wooed a panel of investors with a song about his "Reggae Reggae" jerk chicken seasoning on BBC business investment show Dragon's Den. National awareness was brought to one of the Caribbean's pivotal meals, helping to introduce people to the wealth of other dishes that derive from the islands.
Aside from Levi Roots' Reggae Reggae Sauce—now thought to be worth around £35 million—and nationwide chains like Turtle Bay, the majority of the Afro-Caribbean food businesses in the UK have remained small and independent, but fiercely loved by customers. Over the years, cafes, restaurants, and bars have stayed as important social hubs for Afro-Caribbean communities, as well as places for DJs, musicians, theatre groups, and others to promote cultural events. What has and continues to link all of these Afro-Caribbean food institutions is the fact that they represent a public place free from persecution. A place to see familiar faces; a place to ask "Wagwan!" and not feign an English accent; a place to touch fists; to see "Aunty"; or to gossip about anything from bereavements to infidelities, both here and "back home."
From chefs to restaurant owners and butchers, waiters and waitresses, bartenders and grocers; these people continue to promote Afro-Caribbean food culture in Britain. And for that, we thank them.
This is an abridged extract from Belly Full: Caribbean Food in the UK by Riaz Phillips, published by Tezeta Press and available to buy now. The book's launch party takes place on August 3 at Buster Mantis in Deptford, London.