Barbadians and many other Caribbean people are no strangers to forced migration and expulsion amid multiple levels of discrimination – a fact that makes experiences of the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’ just another installment of injustice suffered.
Beginning with the involuntary departure from the shores of sub-Saharan Africa, to the pull of economics coupled with the push of colonizers who thought the island was overpopulated, Barbadians have come and gone, hardly of their free will, to Panama, Cuba, Dominican Republic, the United States of America, before sailing off to Britain to help rebuild that war-ravaged land.
Such were the sentiments voiced by Oxford Brookes University Professor Emeritus, Mary Chamberlain, during a lecture-discussion on the travails of Barbadians who answered the call to step aboard the SS Empire Windrush, to be followed by those who flew, to England between 1948 and 1971.
“I think we have been here before,” said Chamberlain, an author of several studies on 20th Century Caribbean history. Her publications include, Empire and Nation-Building in the Caribbean: Barbados 1937 – 1966; Narratives of Exile and Return; and Family Love in the Diaspora: Migration and the Anglo Caribbean Experience.
Delivering an instalment in the Barbados Museum and Historical Society’s lecture series in the Walled Garden themed, From Invitation to Deportation: 70 Years of the Windrush Generation, Chamberlain traced a path of harrowing migration of Barbadians, along with others of the Caribbean, that held a common characteristic of struggle in the face of malevolent discrimination because these emigrants possessed a strong economic need.
In her presentation, which at no time suggested that the rejection Windrush Generation survivors felt in England marks the end of this sorrowful journey for Bajans, she interspersed descriptions of various societies in which the voyaging Barbadian found himself with first-hand testimony of those who endured.
“They didn’t come out of Panama because they wanted to,” said a Barbadian voyager named Roy, whom she interviewed.
“They were thrown out… [So] imagine me in Britain and I’m not writing to my brother, my niece… should I be surprised if when I come here now, they resent me?
“Or imagine that I going to be in England forever, in the English way of life, then… circumstances dictate and… I have to be back here?” was the way Roy captured the thinking of the unsettled Bajan journeying from country to country, ever mindful to maintain closeness to family home because of the inevitable eventuality of being kicked out of the adopted land.
With the help of a phalanx of changed and new laws, British authorities abruptly and wrongly deported some of that Windrush Generation, detained a number of them, and by various means caused these and others to lose their jobs, homes, medical and social benefits to which they were entitled in their sunset years. Another untold number lived under the threat of deportation until work by activists and the British media halted the inhumane action forcing the government to apologise and set aside a compensation fund last year.
“Barbadians and other West Indians are no strangers to the histories of invitation and deportation,” Chamberlain said as she detailed that “between 1904 and 1914 approximately 50,000 Barbadians – one in four of the population – migrated to work in the Panama region”.
“Some returned to Barbados, some re-migrated to Central and South America, or to Cuba and the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean. Many more went to the United States, swelling the ranks of those who were already there. Between 1899 and 1931, 107,892 Caribbean born people had emigrated to the United States.”
She spoke of Bajans and others surviving in Panama despite pressure of that country’s president Harmodio Arias, who “complained bitterly about the ‘many coloured old timers’ here… [who] had retained their British language, culture and customs and… had affiliated themselves to the various local West Indian Colonial Associations”.
She said that similarly affected were the 10, 000 or so West Indians in the Dominican Republic and cited an example of the ultra-nationalist President Rafael Trujillo’s 1934 legislation “which, as the British legation noted, ‘[does not] endear them to the Dominicans who profess to regard them as aggressive and quarrelsome’”.
Collectively, the acts of oppression pushed the Anglo-Caribbean emigrants into various social and development groups for their survival.
“The rationales for such assertive and protective behaviour in Panama, Cuba and the Dominican Republic, were similar to those operating in the United States: racism and economic discrimination,” she said. Bajan and other Caribbean migrants, to this day, maintain their US survival groups.
“The second largest wave of migration from Barbados after Panama [was] to Britain in the 1950s and 1960s when over 27, 000 or approximately 10 per cent of the population migrated within about a decade.”
Chamberlain disclosed that in addition to the British’s need for post-war labour, the Barbados colonial authorities were struggling to find some place to send citizens owing to a perception of overpopulation of the island. So while Bajans thought they were voluntarily going to help England, they were tacitly being pushed off the rock.
“Throughout the 1940s, the ‘overpopulation problem’ was a major preoccupation if not of the Colonial Office, certainly of its representatives on the ground,” she said.
“While Barbadians may have been enthusiastic about the possibilities offered by Britain, the British had been, and remained, more ambivalent. Although the colonial secretary had welcomed the possibilities migration offered to reduce the population problem in Barbados in the first two decades of the 20th Century, [there was no] welcome for the increased political awareness that followed in its wake.
“But Barbadians had survival skills honed elsewhere in previous migrations. They had entered networks of kin and close friends in Britain who ‘received’ them in the new country and provided accommodation, money, local knowledge and, down the line, more formal financial support in the shape of benefit and mutual aid societies.
“Both informal and formal support were based on levels of trust forged through village connections back home and neighbourhood connections in ‘foreign.’ In the early days, they shared accommodation, creating households of mutual support, sharing resources and responsibilities, creating micro-neighbourhoods.
“Barbadians came to Britain with expectations about migration and the Mother Country which were at variance with what the Mother Country thought about migration and West Indians,” Chamberlain said.
“Imagine… that I going to be in England forever, in the English way of life,” Roy, the Bajan voyager had said to Chamberlain, “then… circumstances dictate and… I have to be back here.”