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Culture and Festivals
"I tell all of them who coming, "why all you leaving the country to go to England? Over there it so cold only white people does live there." But they say that it have more work in England, and better pay. And to tell you the truth, when I hear that Tolroy getting five pound a week, I had to agree."
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (Longman, 1956)
The history of Caribbean settlement in Britain can be divided into a number of different phases. Initially, the Caribbeans who arrived in Britain had been slaves, imported as domestic servants. After the end of slavery, during the 19th century, the Caribbeans who arrived and stayed in Britain were a scattering of seamen, students and entertainers. They lived mainly in the seaports, and although their presence was frequently noted in contemporary commentaries, they were not a noticeably separate community.
After the beginning of the First World War, however, thousands of Caribbeans arrived to work in the war industries and the merchant navy. They established themselves in the seaports and major cities, where their presence sparked off race riots in the years immediately following the First World War.
Many remained in Britain, forming the nucleus of substantial but ghettoised communities in such cities as Cardiff, Liverpool and London. The final phase of Caribbean settlement took place after the Second World War, when approximately a quarter of a million Caribbeans arrived to settle permanently in Britain between 1955 and 1962.
When Caribbean people first came to Britain between the 17th and 19th centuries, most of them arrived as slaves in the domestic service of planter families. After the end of slavery, during the 19th century, the Caribbeans who arrived and stayed in Britain were a scattering of seamen, students and entertainers. Individual men and women became well known contributors to British life. One of the best known was Francis Barber, who left the Caribbean as a young boy to join Dr Samuel Johnson's household as a manservant. He spent most of the rest of his life in England. Mary Seacole travelled from Jamaica in 1854 to offer her services as a nurse in the Crimean War. When she was rejected, this determined woman found her way to the Crimea and served there for three years before returning to London. Read more about the incredible Mary Seacole.
By the early 20th century, several thousand people of Caribbean origin were well established in Britain. This experience is vividly recounted by Esther Bruce. See some photographs from 'Aunt Esther's Story'.
A few became well known boxers or sportsmen, like Walter Tull, who played for Tottenham Hotspur, and was later killed in action, fighting in the Middlesex Regiment at the second Battle of the Somme. See Lt. Tull's service record. Read more about Caribbeans living in England during World War One.
The advent of the First World War brought substantial numbers of Caribbean servicemen to Europe. Over 15,000 Caribbean men joined the British West Indies Regiment, which served in Europe mainly employed in a non-combatant role in Europe and the Near East throughout the conflict. Thousands came to Britain to work in the munitions and chemical factories, or the merchant navy. Smaller numbers of women came to work as nurses.
In major northern industrial cities and seaports, Caribbean people enjoyed a new prosperity, because the merchant service and the shore jobs associated with it were expanding. But the good times were temporary; when the war ended, hundreds of Caribbeans were immediately thrown out of their jobs, to make room for white servicemen returning home.
Competition for jobs, especially seafaring jobs, focused white hostility. There was a wave of riots in Cardiff, Liverpool and London between 1919 and 1921. White seamen's unions carried out an intensive lobby against the employment of 'coloured aliens', resulting in The Aliens Order of 1920, and the Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order of 1925.
Caribbean people were not 'aliens'. Constitutionally, they were citizens of the Empire. Nevertheless, many Caribbean seamen were harassed. Passports - often their only proof of identity - were confiscated. Unable to prove their status, many were threatened with deportation or denied employment.
As the riots and the subsequent legislation demonstrate, there were thousands of Caribbeans competing for jobs in the decades following the First World War furthermore, he contraction of work in the coalfields and factories also meant that many Caribbean workers were migrating to seaports and the capital in the hope of finding employment.
Exact numbers are difficult to ascertain as many were encouraged or forced to register as aliens. But between the First and Second World Wars, routine, intense racial discrimination resulting in unemployment reduced most of the Caribbean population to poverty, especially in the occupations where work had usually been available. For example, in June 1936, of 690 unemployed ship's firemen in the Cardiff Docks register, 599 were Black.
The League of Coloured People
In response to the situation, Dr Harold Moody, a Jamaican doctor founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 and its journal The Keys in 1933. The League of Coloured Peoples helped Caribbean and African people in trouble. They took the case of sacked seamen to Parliament; they defended people in court; they raised money to help hundreds of destitute Black children, made sure children in homes had holidays; and found work for the unemployed.
In 1934, for instance, the LCP staged a play, At What Price , written by Jamaican Una Marson to raise funds. Performed at the Scala Theatre in London, it starred two of Dr Moody's children. On the other hand, as difficult as conditions were, small numbers of Caribbean people continued to arrive in Britain in the twenty years between the two World Wars. In 1938 the League of Coloured Peoples gave evidence to a Royal Commission on conditions in Jamaica. Read more about the League of Coloured Peoples.
By the time the Second World War ended, Britain's labour market was depleted. The government began attempts to attract workers from all over the world. Caribbean people were no exception. Nurses and engineers, as well as other industrial workers were in great demand. Many veterans of the recent war returned. All of these were English speakers, who were already familiar with British working practices, and they were largely welcomed. In 1948, for example, the Daily Express greeted the SS Empire Windrush arrivals with a friendly headline: 450 arrive- Get pep talk: 'Things will not be easy', followed by a sympathetic article. Others, such as the Acting Governor of Jamaica, were not so pleased by the prospect of Jamaican arrivals.
Read more on the acting Govenor of Jamaica.
In the 1950s, more Caribbeans came to England than did Africans, Indians and Pakistanis. After 1948 Caribbean arrivals numbered between 500 and 700 a year. Between 1951 and 1953 they increased to between 1,750 and 2,200. In 1954 the number was 10,000, and in 1955 it was 27,550. By 1956, a little over 40,000 Caribbeans had joined their compatriots already living in Britain. But, unlike the Poles, for example, who had settled in large numbers by 1960, Caribbeans were more visible.
Part of the reason was the relative concentration of Caribbean migrants in specific areas. After alighting from 'boat trains' at London stations such as Paddington, Victoria and Waterloo many of them dispersed to industrial centres such as Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Nottingham, Leeds, Bradford, Leicester, Walsall, Wolverhampton, and Luton. The majority, however, stayed in London. Read about the British Indo-Caribbean community.
The atmosphere of post-war welcome began to change as larger numbers of Caribbean migrants arrived. They were no longer welcomed as workers; instead, they began to be seen as a social problem. The British Caribbean Welfare Service, established in 1956 was, two years later, granted a 'more definite social status', which reflected a growing official concern about the migrants' situation. Renamed the Migrant Services Division of the Commission in the United Kingdom for the West Indies, British Guiana and British Honduras, this body, supplied with information from West Indian governments, increasingly aided Caribbean arrivals. Welfare officers were appointed to monitor their interests.
"When Moses did arrive fresh in London, he look around for a place where he wouldn't have to spend much money, where he could get plenty food, and where he would meet the boys and coast a old talk to pass the time away - for this city powerfully lonely when you are on your own."
The Lonely Londoners by Sam Selvon (Longman, 1985)
In London, local authorities had attempted to cope with the problem of racial discrimination by accommodating the first arrivals in hostels and temporary camps. Housing was in short supply as wartime bombing had decimated housing stock. For years, many people living in cities lived in hastily assembled, temporary, 'pre-fabricated' houses. There was almost no local authority housing available for newcomers, and racial discrimination on the part of landlords was routine and unchallenged. Typically, many landlords displayed signs and notices that stated clearly 'no Blacks' or 'no coloureds'.
Many migrants went to areas where compatriots were already settled and housing was more available or landlords more tolerant. Trinidadians, for instance, went to Notting Hill. Vincentians were to be found in High Wycombe, while Jamaicans from the district of Mandeville flocked to Wolverhampton. Guyanese lived largely in Tottenham in London and in Manchester. On the other hand, the migrants most often found homes in areas, which had been slum districts for a century or more. In these districts, notably Notting Hill in London, some landlords exploited the housing shortage by expelling long-term residents and packing their properties with migrants paying exorbitant rents.
Throughout the late 1950s, right wing parties and racist politicians like Sir Oswald Mosley exploited the widespread resentment, which followed, in a series of street corner meetings in East and West London. During August 1958, two weeks of civil unrest in Nottingham were followed by a week of rioting in Notting Hill. Triggered by the activities of Teddy Boys (the 1950s equivalent of skinheads), the Notting Hill riots saw large scale, mob violence against Caribbean people in North Kensington.
The Notting Hill riots set off a public debate about the scale of immigration. In the Caribbean, these rumblings prompted a rush to migrate before the doors closed. As a result, the bulk of Caribbean migration took place during the late 1950s and early 1960s. A quarter of a million Caribbeans arrived in seven years. After this, subsequent legislation closed off the possibility of migration on the scale of the post riot years. The majority of new arrivals were dependents of people already settled in Britain, and the arrival of these dependents tapered off substantially in the next two decades, so subsequent numbers of immigrants have never matched the initial volume of migration.
By this time however, Caribbean people had begun to settle down. Migrant communities began to evolve their own style and institutions, which featured various festivals and celebrations. The most notable was the Notting Hill Carnival, which began as a gesture of defiance after the murder of a Jamaican man in Notting Hill at the end of the 1950s.
A distinctive domestic style began to emerge in Caribbean households. Whether people had houses or small, crowded rooms, pride of place belonged to a large radiogram and pictures of their country of origin. Small businesses were created to import Caribbean food, and young people began to evolve their own distinctive style of dress and dance.
Citizenship and Self Help
During the 1960s and 1970s, migrant attitudes to the issue of nationality went through fundamental changes, which were shaped, by a number of important influences. First, was the series of immigration Bills, which limited incoming numbers, but were also accompanied by further legislation, which outlawed overt racial discrimination. This series of Bills mostly dealt separately with immigration and discrimination, but were promoted in Parliament and to the public as twin strands of the same policy. Later legislation in the late sixties and early seventies, while closing the door even tighter against immigration (even from the 'white Commonwealth') also, at the same time, and in the same Acts created an outline of British citizenship and clarified the process of becoming a citizen of the United Kingdom.
This constitutional definition of British citizenship and the rights associated with it was one of the most important effects of Caribbean migration on the country as a whole. As far as the migrants were concerned, it confronted them with a decision about what nationality to adopt, and from the beginning of the 1970s, growing numbers of the migrants committed themselves to registering as UK citizens. But it was increasingly obvious that racial discrimination undermined their legal status as citizens, generally shutting them out of opportunities in education, housing, employment and the justice system.
On the other side of the coin, religion, various forms of Christianity, Rastafarianism and African nationalism were important influences in the community, all of them strengthening the idea of 'self help' in welfare and education.
These influences were central to a series of protests during the 1970s and 1980s, initially sparked off by the notorious, 'sus' laws which allowed police forces to question or detain anyone they decided looked suspicious. Young Black people were disproportionately affected by these laws, and throughout the 1970s, protests against this and similar issues became fiercer.
A decade of virtually open conflict between young Black people and the police culminated in large-scale riots in the inner cities during the early 1980s. These were followed by the Scarman Enquiry whose recommendations outlined many of the problems and issues affecting migrant communities.
At the same time, the Caribbean community was beginning to acquire a presence in local and domestic politics. In the 1970s local councils embarked on urban regeneration, improving housing and job opportunities under the encouragement of a growing number of Black councillors and local interest groups. The community's first national mass circulation newspaper 'West Indian World' was published in the early 1970s, and a number of small businesses, notably import-export firms and travel agents began to flourish.
The confidence of the Caribbean communities was reflected in the mass media. In the 1960s Caribbean characters began appearing in popular TV dramas like Emergency Ward 10 and Z Cars. Children's television presenter, Floella Benjamin became a well-known figure, and the BBC documentary series Black Man in Britain (1972) traced the history of Black settlement.
After the Scarman Enquiry migrant entry into domestic politics and the locally based anti-racism work increased. In Greater London and Birmingham, local councils set out to secure the loyalty of the Caribbean population, creating a coalition of voters around the issue of racial discrimination. The decade ended with the entry of two MPs of Caribbean origin, Bernie Grant and Diane Abbott, into Parliament, paving the way for a new sense of entitlement and a new sense of belonging.
Creators: Mike Phillips
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