Windrush Women: Past and Present

Of the 1,000 or so passengers who were aboard the Empire Windrush, 257 were women; 188 of them of which travelled alone. Curiously their presence is almost absent from the Windrush narrative.

To celebrate those women who left everything behind for a better life for themselves and their families, literary magazine Wasafiri, in association with the British Library hosted an evening of poetry and discussion to explore the meaning and legacy of Windrush.

Introduced by Susheila Nasta, Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Wasafiri, the evening began with an excerpt from an interview with Guyanese writer, Beryl Gilroy in 1986, discussing literature, diversity and the importance of literature for children, to mark the launch of the Heinemann African and Caribbean series. The first black headteacher of a North London school, Gilroy’s career as a writer was one marked by determination and tenacity. While her male contemporaries Sam Selvon, George Lamming and V.S Naipaul saw their careers flourish, as their work was published to critical acclaim, Gilroy had her work rejected by publishing houses who saw no need to recognise a woman’s voice in post-colonial literature. It wasn’t until the 1980s when publishing opportunities began to open up for women, that Gilroy began to receive the recognition she deserved.

The poetry readings were led by contemporary poets, Jay Bernard, Hannah Lowe, and Valerie Bloom. Jay Bernard gave an evocative and powerful performance of poems from their poetry collection Surge: Side A. One of the poems, inspired by the New Cross fire in 1981, as much a defining moment in Black British history as Windrush, was lyrically haunting in content as well as delivery, and made even more poignant in the light of the recent Grenfell Tower fire.

Hannah Lowe’s memoir-like poems about her Chinese-Jamaican father, English mother and “racist nan” brought a humorous touch to the evening even as she spoke of the experience of being in an interracial relationship from her mother’s perspective. Valerie Bloom also delivered an amusing performance of Colonization in Reverse by Jamaican poet Louise Bennett.

But it was the panel discussion with Hannah Lowe, academic Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and Catherine Ross, founder of the National Caribbean Heritage Museum, that would bring into focus the meaning and legacy that Windrush has left us.

Hannah Lowe, Jay Bernard, Susheila Nasta, Val Bloom
Photo credit: Jalaikon

The panel discussed how Windrush is a word with many connotations: From a ship carrying hundreds of immigrants to Britain to a ‘catch-all’ euphemism for immigration, as well as a reference point for the Black presence and contribution in Britain. The Pathé Newsreel of suited young men gazing into the distance with hope and destiny in their eyes became the primary image of Windrush. The true diversity (i.e. women, children, as well as people of other ethnicities) of the migration to Britain via Windrush and other ships has been largely erased mainstream narratives about the period.

The reason for this was a determination rooted in racism, to present Caribbean immigrants as an invading force, which would be more persuasive with images of young men entering the nation en masse, playing on the fears of the British public. Twenty years after Windrush, Enoch Powell would allude to this in his infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech, and as recent as the Brexit referendum, the mainly negative image of Britain being flooded with (mostly) male immigrants is one that remains.

But it wasn’t just women who were rendered invisible by the Windrush narrative, other nationalities were also ignored. Windrush is largely seen as a story of migrants from the Caribbean, Jamaica in particular. This gave me pause to wonder about the other ‘hidden stories of migration’ from that period. For example, the several Indians and Chinese people from the West Indies also arrived during this time. Not to mention the thousands of Africans who came to Britain for work and study. Why we don’t have an ‘African Windrush’ narrative celebrating the contributions of many Africans from nations formerly of the British empire, probably lies within the idea of Windrush being used a catch-all reference for all Black people whether from the West Indies or not.

Highlighting the issue of the ‘invisible passengers’, to quote Maria del Pilar Kaladeen, and discussing the gendered narrative of Windrush, shows how much is lost through when we rely on the mainstream versions of history. Much of our stories are hidden within our own families and family legacies.

Catherine Ross referred to ‘stories in a suitcase’ as she talked about finding most of her material from things people had left behind after they had passed away. Unearthing the hidden stories and legacies from our collective history enables to better recognise and celebrate the diverse contribution we have made and continue to make to Britain.


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