Windrush, CLR James and the Radicals from the Caribbean

Posted by Pete on 4th Dec 2018

When the Windrush scandal broke a few months ago and we discovered the Home Office was hounding long established members of the British Afro-Caribbean community, telling them they had to leave, countless people came to their defence.

It was a pretty inspiring reaction, actually.

Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party turned the screws on this callous government in Parliament, and in the newspaper columns there was a healthy revisiting of our Afro-Caribbean history right back to the 1948 arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush (which began its sailing life today in 1930).

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The rights of the Windrush Generation 

Progressive elements were united in saying something like "this is an outrage - these people have a right to be here."

One of the more common reasons given for why they have that right caught my eye: the Windrush Generation and their ancestors served Britain in wartime.

This was, after all, the same logic of Clement Attlee's British Nationality Act (1948) which gave all subjects of the empire British citizenship and the right to move here - it was a reward for their role in the Second World War.

But this rationale isn't exactly ideal.

While Caribbean men and women did serve bravely - like Trinidad's Philip Louis Ulric Cross, who flew 80 combat missions over Europe with the RAF - that's not why they and their descendants deserve a place in the British Isles.

You shouldn't have to have carried a gun and killed for the state in order to be welcomed to a land - it's a bit too militarised a conception of citizenship for me.

Just being a fellow human being should be enough to belong and be welcome.

Few have caught this principle better than Emma Lazarus, as she called out to the world from New York:

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A long tradition of radicalism in the Caribean 

As such, it'd be nice to take a quick break from focusing on military service for the state. Let's take a moment to celebrate the dissidence and revolutionary history in Britain's Afro-Caribbean heritage instead.

Olaudah Equiano - born in West Africa, where he was abducted and enslaved to work in the Caribbean before acquiring his freedom and moving to England - did not serve the British state. He actually caused it a great deal of trouble as he agitated for the abolition of the slave trade in the late 18th century.

Long after the slave trade and slavery had been formally abolished in the British Empire under the pressure of Equiano and his comrades, a high note of courage in Jamaican history was struck with the Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865.

Protesting, poor freedmen marched against the harsh facts of 'post-slavery' life in the Caribbean, including the exclusion of most from the electoral franchise by high poll taxes.

Their rebellion was put down with fire and blood by the white state - the force of repression was such that many in England, including Charles Darwin and John Stuart Mill, called for the British governor to be tried for murder.

CLR James: the true Afro-Caribean rebel 

Moving into the 20th century, the little island of Trinidad provided Britain's Afro-Caribbean community with one of its greatest voices of dissent: Cyril Lionel Robert ('CLR') James.

James's writing was eloquent and has proven everlasting. Black Jacobins - his 1938 book on the Haitian Revolution - remains a fundamental text of postcolonial literature, and World Revolution (1937), charting the decay of Communist internationalism under Stalin, was loudly praised by critics like George Orwell.

In political practice, James tirelessly fought imperialism. In the 1930s, he campaigned for West Indian independence from Britain and led international solidarity with Ethiopia after Mussolini invaded in 1935.

Considering all this, then, I would say that people like Equanio and CLR James - as figures of anti-colonial dissidence - should stand next to that of the West Indian in army uniform when considering the richness of the Afro-Caribbean contribution in Britain.

The value of these Afro-Caribbean rebels' critiques of capitalism and empire to the lives of Britain's workers, minorities, and shackled colonies is immeasurable.

But they still get us no closer to the real reason why the Afro-Caribbean people of Britain should be able to feel at home in the British Isles.

If we could ask a proper humanist like CLR James (he died in 1989) why diaspora communities 'deserve their place' in Britain, he would agree that it's nothing to do with their historic 'contributions', radical or not.

It's because they - the Windrush Generation, the Jewish and South Asian communities of East London, Syrian refugees - are human beings.

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