There were not as many, if any, stories of ‘Windrush Generation’ Barbadians being deported as was heard about Jamaicans, probably because of vigilance by diplomatic representatives, and efforts of two unnamed persons, a pastor and a district magistrate.
The ‘Windrush Generation’ comprised thousands of Barbadians, Jamaicans, and persons from Trinidad and Tobago who responded to a British call to emigrate between 1948 and 1971 to that colonial home country and assist in rebuilding it from devastation suffered from World War II.
The early waves of emigrants went by sea aboard the SS Empire Windrush from which was derived the categorization of all these British Commonwealth citizens who went there firm in the belief that as colonial subjects they held British citizenry.
An introduction of a succession of new laws, mainly the 1971 Immigration Act aimed at Commonwealth citizens and the 1981 British Nationality Act, came into effect without fanfare and effectively stated that the Windrush Generation – all who thought of the ‘Mother Country’ as their home, including some 27, 000 persons, or ten per cent of the population of Barbados, that left between the 1950s and 1960s – were in fact undocumented aliens if they did not present themselves to the relevant offices to validate their status. This also applied to their offspring.
“Most West Indians assumed that they were British citizens so when the 1971 legislation came about, assuming they heard about it… people didn’t think it was necessary to legitimize their status,” said Oxford Brookes University Professor Emeritus Mary Chamberlain during a recent 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.
Chamberlain, an author of several studies on 20th Century Caribbean history with a number of publications on the migration of Barbadians, was at the time delivering an installment 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’.
Her explanation on the assumption of the West Indians was in response to a question from the evening’s moderator Dr Tara Inniss who asked why did they not simply get themselves regularised.
“They assumed, and rightly as it is being shown, that they were here [in the UK] perfectly legitimately,” said Professor Chamberlain of the British betrayal.
But the British legislation stated differently, and this reality hit the Jamaicans, the largest group, and Barbadians and Trinidadians, in ways that abruptly halted the life they had come to know, or into which they were born.
Chamberlain explained that these emigrants who had laboured and paid taxes from the time Britain, in its state of devastation after the war needed them, suddenly found their legitimacy being questioned and challenged.
“It was queried not by the Home Office; this is what is really insidious about it,” she said, adding, “That kind of policing was devolved to frontline agencies, the National Health Service, the schools, employers, landlords to prove that whoever they were offering a service or employment to, were here legitimately”.
Those who did not legitimize themselves suddenly found they were no longer entitled to work, enjoy health care, and schooling for their offspring. Additionally, most were of pensionable age and that benefit was being cut off.
The rejection and accompanying despair over the years hit Caribbean communities by attrition, then came deportations, at which stage, the then Barbados High Commissioner to the UK Guy Hewitt mobilized the diplomatic community into a protest force that resulted in a British government apology and promise to make right the abuses towards those who were betrayed.
This government’s admission of fault, with a prime minister’s public apology, did not come about before multiple reports emerged of Jamaicans being deported and other compatriots being barred from re-entering England.
A likely reason for there being few or no stories of Barbadian Windrushers being deported was perhaps owed to the vigilance of another of this island’s diplomats, then High Commissioner and late Algernon Symmonds along with First Secretary John Hunte.
Within the audience for the lecture was a descendant of a Windrusher Coreen Chandler stepped forward to credit Hunte and the late diplomat with steadfast work alerting Barbadians to the need and urgency of getting themselves documented in 1981.
“He literally begged us. He explained that if we did not register as British, any children born will not be British,” she said.
“Many of us that evening said things like ‘Oh, I don’t really want to belong to them because they don’t treat us very well,’” Chandler related on the proceeds of a meeting with the Barbadian community in Reading. “But then others of us could see that we were going to be in trouble if we didn’t do it.”
Convincing the Bajans to get their documentation in order was the first and vital step of a two-step process, the other being to register.
Chandler spoke of the work of a district priest who couldn’t drive. “I think he had a heart condition. He would ride around on his bicycle and say ‘please, please tell your relatives, anybody you know, please tell them to register’. Then he actually arranged [it]. There was a magistrate in the district who would sign you up for free, and she would open up to 8, 9 and 10 o’clock at night so that we could avail ourselves of her service.”
Stressing the importance of the work done by the two diplomatic representatives, the pastor and the magistrate, Chandler who was a married adult at the time said, “I highlight the [High Commission] at that time for making an effort… I don’t recall the British Government disseminating information. So clearly, if other people’s embassies were not as vibrant as ours, those nationals missed out.”