Afro-Caribbean communities

Afro-Caribbean communities
   In the early period of postwar reconstruction, when Britain like all European countries was desperate for labour, there were too many jobs and too few workers. This gave rise to the Nationality Act of 1948, which granted United Kingdom citizenship to citizens of Britain’s colonies and former colonies. Along with the ownership of a British passport came the right of lifelong residence in Britain. Despite the demand for their services, and a legacy of colonial rule that had left large-scale unemployment in the British Caribbean, no dole or social security, and a cost of living that had almost doubled during the war, West Indians’ response to Britain’s invitation was slow. On 22 June 1948, 492 Jamaicans arrived at Tilbury in the ex-troopship Empire Windrush. Among them were singers, pianists, boxers and a complete dance band. Between thirty and forty of these first arrivals had already volunteered to work as miners. In October 1948, the Orbita brought 180 Afro-Caribbean workers to Liverpool, and three months later 39 Jamaicans, 15 of them women, arrived at Liverpool in the Reina del Pacifico. Next summer the Georgic brought 253 West Indians to Britain, 45 of them women. A few hundred came in 1950, about 1,000 in 1951, about 2,000 in 1952. Over the next four years larger numbers of Afro-Caribbean people arrived, including the wives and children of men settled in Britain. Ten years after the Empire Windrush there were in Britain about 125,000 Afro-Caribbean arrivals since the end of the war, and British industry gladly absorbed them.
   In some industries, the demand for labour was so great that workers were actively recruited in their home countries. In April 1956, London Transport began recruiting staff in Barbados. They were lent their fares to Britain, and the loans were deducted weekly from their wages. Within twelve years, 3,787 Barbadians had been taken on. By 1966 London Transport had begun to recruit in Trinidad and Jamaica as well. The British Hotels and Restaurants Association recruited skilled workers in Barbados, and a Tory health minister, Enoch Powell, welcomed Afro-Caribbean nurses to Britain.
   A great majority of the Afro-Caribbean settlers were in their twenties, with plenty to offer Britain. Of the men and women who came, a mere 13 percent had no skills; of the women, only 25 percent, one in four, were unskilled and half the women were non-manual workers. Almost half of the men, 46 percent, and over a quarter of the women, 27 percent, were skilled manual workers, but the newcomers found themselves in most cases being offered those jobs that local white people did not want: sweeping streets, general labouring or night shiftwork. In the 1950s, more than half the male Afro-Caribbean population of London held jobs with a lower status than their skills and experience fitted them for.
   As a result of a colonial education system in which Britain was revered as the ‘Mother Country’, many of these new workers took their British citizenship seriously and saw themselves not as strangers, but as kinds of Englishmen. Disappointment and disillusionment of many kinds became part of the daily black experience of life in Britain. Prejudice against West Indian people was widespread. More than two-thirds of Britain’s white population held a low opinion of black people or disapproved of them. Half of this prejudiced twothirds were only mildly prejudiced. The other half were extremely antagonistic and their extreme prejudice meant that they resisted the idea of having any contact or communication with black people, objected vehemently to mixed marriages, would not work with black people in factories or offices, and generally felt that black people should not be allowed in Britain at all. In many industries, white trade unionists resisted the employment of black workers or insisted on a ‘quota’ system limiting them to a token handful, generally about 5 percent. Managements often had an understanding that the ‘last in first out’ rule should not apply to whites when black workers were employed, and that black workers should not be promoted over white. Most people viewed the plight of the Afro-Caribbean settlers with indifference and complacency. Every encounter with white people presented a new set of problems. In the sphere of housing, racist discrimination operated by keeping blacks out of the housing market and herding them into bedsits in decaying inner city areas. Colour bars operated to keep black people out of pubs, clubs and dance halls where, ironically, black and black-inspired music was very popular. Churches and their congregations also displayed a plangent racism towards Afro-Caribbeans. Black workers began to meet in barbers’ shops and cafes and on street corners. Here they began to set up their own clubs and churches and welfare associations. On occasions there were also efforts at collective action on the factory floor. Such action often took the form of petitions and appeals regarding working conditions, facilities, even wages; but, unsupported by their white fellow workers, these efforts were often ineffectual. In 1951, for instance, skilled Afro- Caribbean workers in an ordinance factory in Liverpool met secretly in the lavatories and washrooms to form a West Indian Association which would take up cases of discrimination. The Merseyside West Indian Association went through a period of vigorous political activity, taking up cases of unfair dismissal or treatment and the more general cause of colonial freedom. After being ousted from the workplace following discovery by employers, they switched headquarters to a barber’s shop; then, as membership outgrew the barber’s, they moved into the white-owned Stanley House in Toxteth. This is an example of the way in which many associations became community based concerns. The response to the denial of decent housing led to the reliance on Jamaican ‘pardner’ or Trinidadian ‘sou-sou’ systems, whereby a group of people (often from the same parish or island) would pool their savings and lend out a lump sum to each individual in turn. Thus savings circulated among their own communities, and did not go into white banks or building societies. This was a sort of community banking system engendered by tradition, but enforced by racial discrimination. The prices that black settlers had to pay for the houses and the interest rates charged by the sources that were prepared to lend to them forced many people into overcrowding and multi-occupation, invoking further racial stereotyping and, in later years, the stringencies of the Public Health Act.
   The postwar independence of India, and the impending loss of the West Indies and Africa, had spelled the end of the Empire and the decline of Britain as a great power. All that was left of the colonial enterprise was the ideology of white supremacy. The new settlers were seen by many white people as heathens who practised headhunting, cannibalism, infanticide, polygamy and ‘black magic’. Blacks were seen as backward, uncivilised and inherently inferior to Europeans, eating strange foods and carrying unpleasant diseases. The common belief was that most black settlers were ignorant, illiterate and lacked proper education.
   Oswald Mosley’s prewar British Union of Fascists was now revived as the Union Movement and was matched for its racist propaganda by a rash of other organizations: A.K.Chesterton’s League of Empire Loyalists, Colin Jordan’s White Defence League, John Bean’s National Labour Party, and Andrew Fountaine’s British National Party. In between these, together with various other organizations concerned with ‘racial preservation’, and the right wing of the Tory Party, white racism blossomed. Racial attacks became a regular part of the life of the Afro-Caribbean communities in Britain. In 1954, in a small street of terraced houses in Camden Town, London, Afro-Caribbeans were subjected to a spate of racial violence that lasted for two days, culminating in a petrol bomb attack on the house of an Afro-Caribbean settler. In August 1958, large-scale riots broke out in Nottingham where 2,500 Afro-Caribbeans and about 600 Asians were living. Following an attack on a black miner and his wife as they were leaving a cinema, there was fighting between blacks and whites for ninety minutes in St Ann’s Well Road. Many attacks, and the clashes that often followed, were stimulated by fascist propaganda urging that black people be driven out of Britain. On weekend evenings in particular, gangs of ‘teddy boys’ cruised the streets over a wide area of London (armed with iron bars, sticks and knives) in a systematic and pitiless pursuit of isolated black victims. Many of these youth groups were directed by Mosleyites and the White Defence League, under the watchful eye of the police (the Notting Hill riot was a result of this). Many members of the Afro-Caribbean community in Britain talked seriously about going back home at this time. Others organized militant groups to defend their homes and their clubs. Outside London, an identical pattern emerged in virtually every area of black settlement: cowardly hit-and-run attacks on individuals or houses, with an occasional eruption of mob violence such as the Middlesbrough riot of August 1961 when thousands of whites, chanting ‘Let’s get a wog’, smashed the windows of black people’s houses and set a black-owned café on fire. Labour Party chairman Tom Driberg told the Trades Union Congress: ‘there are only 190,000 coloured people in our population of 50 million—that is, only four out of every 1,000. The real problem is not black skins, but white prejudice.’
   Soon after the 1959 general election, a group of Tory MPs from Birmingham set up a lobbying organization for the introduction of immigration controls. Three years later, the first Commonwealth Immigrants Bill became law in 1962. This measure restricted the admission of Commonwealth settlers to those who had been issued with employment vouchers. This was a decisive political turning point in contemporary British race relations. Blackness was officially equated with second-class citizenship, and the status of ‘undesirable immigrant’ was given official approval. The 1962 Bill’s ‘unstated’ and ‘unrecognized’ assumption was that black people were the source of the problem. Two years after the 1962 Act there came the next turning point when Peter Griffiths, Tory candidate for Smethwick, defeated a Labour minister with the slogan ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour vote Labour’. Racism was thus legitimated as the basis of an electoral appeal by the candidate of a major political party.
   By the mid-1970s, two out of every five black people in Britain were born in the country. In the key areas of employment, housing and education, those born in Britain of Afro-Caribbean parents still faced a substantial amount of unfair discrimination, and the issue of police racism has become a major subject of debate. In 1966 Joseph A.Hunte’s report to the West Indian Standing Conference on police brutality, ‘Nigger Hunting in England’, was published with little reaction. By 1972, a select parliamentary committee on relations between black people and the police received a memor-andum from the West Indian Standing Conference warning of the consequences if police racism was allowed to go unchecked. It was largely ignored, as was the work of sociologist Maureen Cain, whose book Society and the Policemen’s Role, (1973), found that policemen generally believed that ‘niggers’ or ‘nigs’ were ‘in the main…pimps and layabouts, living off what we pay in taxes’. In 1979, a further, comprehensive account of police-black relations also fell on largely deaf ears. Beatings and forced confessions are part of what has been described by the British Black Panthers in 1970 as a deliberate campaign to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate. Between 1976 and 1981, thirty-one black people in Britain were murdered by racists. In January 1981, thirteen young black people perished after a firebomb attack on a birthday party in Deptford. Three months later, 15,000 black people demonstrated. They protested against police handling of the inquiry, and demanded justice for black people. The police response, as seen by many members of the Afro-Caribbean community, was ‘Swamp 81’, the first part of a London-wide exercise known as ‘Operation Star’. In six days, 120 plain clothes policemen stopped 943 people, 118 of whom were arrested.
   After an entire decade of police harassment aimed at suppressing black resistance, black and white youth exploded together in the summer of 1981. The action started in Brixton, then spread to Southall and other parts of Britain. The unrest in Toxteth, Liverpool, lasted four days, during which 150 buildings were burnt down and 781 police put out of action. The popular backlash spread to Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton, Stockport, Maidstone, Aldershot, Chester, Newcastle, Knaresborough, Derby, Edinburgh, Reading, Stoke, Gloucester, Halifax, Wood Green, Hackney, Bristol, Portsmouth, Luton, Walthamstow, Bedford, Hull, Nottingham, Birkenhead, Blackburn, Shrewsbury and elsewhere. This major uprising was followed by the Scarman Report, which investigated the possible causes of the disturbances. Unemployment and police brutality were outlined as two major causal factors, yet in 1991 Lord Gifford’s report ‘Loose The Shackles’, based mainly on Liverpool, showed little if any alleviation of the problems outlined ten years earlier. The lessons to be learned from what happened in 1981 are to some extent still being digested, both by Britain’s Afro-Caribbean communities and by the white population in general.
   Further reading
    Fryer, P. (1984) Staying Power: The History of Black People In Britain, London: Pluto (an invaluable resource, in terms of its volume of information, its primary sources and its perspective).
    Lambeth City Council (1988) Forty Winters On: Memories of Britain’s Post-War Caribbean Immigrants, London: Lambeth City Council (this is a commemorative book, with an introduction by Stuart Hall, marking the fortieth anniversary of the docking of the Empire Windrush with the first settlers).
    Phillips, M. and Phillips, T. (1998) Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, London: HarperCollins (a valuable history as well as a companion to the BBC television series of the same name).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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