The Empire Windrush
Seventy years ago, the Empire Windrush docked at the port of Tilbury with 802 Caribbean migrants on board. The arrival of the boat signaled the first major influx of Caribbean migrants to Britain. Since the arrival of the Empire Windrush, Caribbean culture has both enriched and become woven into the very fabric of British social and cultural life.
Caribbean migrants brought their carnival traditions to Britain and Caribbean carnivals flourished in many British cities and played a key role in the formation of black British identity. Just as the Trinidadian carnival was a vehicle for protest against colonial oppression, carnivals in Britain were – and continue to be – mediums through which British racism is challenged and opposed.
The Caribbean Carnival
Founding member of Leeds West Indian carnival Arthur France explains that the Caribbean carnival was established in Britain as a means of ‘taking the heat out of the racial strife of the day’ (quoted in Connor & Farrar, 2004 268). As Leeds-based scholar Max Farrar and the late Geraldine Connor, director of Carnival Messiah (1999), argue:
Carnival in the UK understands that the anti-human negativity of racism is effectively challenged by the embodied, human performance of art - an art which has been created ‘by the people and for the people’ which occupies and transforms public space.[i]
Leeds West Indian attracts around 150,000 people every year. Established in 1967, it is able to lay claim to being the first Caribbean street carnival in Europe run by Caribbean people. The London-based Notting Hill carnival, initially founded in 1959 by Claudia Jones, was an indoor event until 1966 and only run by British Caribbeans from 1970 onwards.
Leeds West Indian Carnival has enjoyed a very good relationship with Leeds City Council and other civic institutions, but has remained firmly in the control of the Carnival committee, a dedicated group of local people, predominantly ‘elders’ of Caribbean origin, who have shaped the carnival since its beginnings.
In July, Arthur France was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Arts by Leeds Beckett University in recognition of his contributions to the Caribbean community and the city of Leeds. Arthur readily describes the struggles he faced in convincing people to start the Leeds West Indian Carnival in 1967. He had to buy whole chickens from Otley market, pluck feathers for carnival outfits and transform local houses into ‘mas camps’. France and his supporters begged and borrowed costume materials and galvanized the support of the police and Leeds City Council.
On August bank holiday 1967 the sound of steel pan filled the air and the first Caribbean street carnival in Europe was ready to take to the streets. France states that he ‘decided it would be run by West Indians, full stop. We’re always labelled as not being capable of running things. We’ve proved them wrong’.[ii] The success of France and his cofounders in creating such a popular and long-lasting Caribbean-led carnival in Leeds based on these principles is a profound example of the success of an autonomous black struggle for recognition, respect and space in the British cultural sphere.
Harrison Bundey’s Mama Dread Masqueraders
A strong political vein runs through some of the mas performances in Leeds West Indian Carnival and my carnival troupe ‘Harrison Bundey’s Mama Dread Masqueraders,’ sponsored by a Chapeltown law firm that specialises in personal legal matters including criminal, family, child-care, immigration and inquests into deaths in custody, consistently take a strong political message on the road. The troupe ‘carnivalise’ contemporary social and political issues and past troupe themes have included ‘Free Dem - Close Guantanamo’ (2008), during which the troupe were stopped from entering the park as they were deemed ‘too political’ by the authorities, ‘Shame on You BP’ (2010), in the wake of the Gulf oil spill, ‘Blud ah go Run - Save the NHS’ (2012), which received a great reception from the crowd and ‘World Soca Soccer - Love Football, hate FIFA’ (2014), aimed at exposing FIFA corruption. This year, Harrison Bundey’s Mama Dread Masqueraders will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s voyage from the Caribbean to the UK and the contributions ‘generation Windrush’ have made to British life.
The troupe will also be drawing the attention of carnival crowds to the appalling treatment of the Windrush generation in 2017/18 by the British Home Office. Many migrants, who have lived in Britain for decades, lost their basic rights to work and live in the UK in a move which has been now dubbed ‘the Windrush Scandal’. As Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott explains: “the government has still not got a final figure on how many of our fellow citizens were deported, forced into so-called 'voluntary removals' or detained as prisoners in their own country.”
The troupe also recognize that there are alternative stories of Windrush by bringing attention to a number of Polish migrants on board the Empire Windrush. We also acknowledge that each migration story is different; while the arrival of the Empire Windrush is a convenient historical starting point for the exploration of the development of British Caribbean culture, we also believe that standardized narratives of Windrush must be challenged with alternative perspectives.
Final touches for our carnival #Windrush Bacchanal - sew and bling by young and old. Last dance rehearsal of #Jean&Dinah with Nillanthie @RJCDance this week. Thanks @ACE_National @Leedsinspired and INNE community committee #leedscarnival #bacchanal #leeds pic.twitter.com/wGJ9yCqbwq— HB Mama Dread (@HBmamadread) August 20, 2018
As usual, our troupe will be handing out postcards to the carnival crowds to spread our message and explain our troupe themes, costumes and thinking. Here is a sneak preview of our 2018 postcard:
WINDRUSH BACCHANAL 1948 — 2018
This year Harrison Bundey’s Mama Dread Masqueraders celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s voyage from the Caribbean to the UK.
- 'Bacchanal’ means ‘scandal’ and ‘argument’ in the Caribbean. The UK government has been scandalous in its treatment of the first generation British-Caribbeans.
- The Windrush had 1027 passengers. 802 of them had grown up in a Caribbean island as British Citizens. They’d been told that Britain was ‘the mother country’.
- Among them were Calypso musicians Lord Kitchener (“London is the Place For Me”) and Lord Woodbine (who taught Paul McCartney to play steel pan).
- Invited here to help rebuild Britain after the war, the Windrush generation worked hard in hospitals, transport and industry. They included artists, teachers, actors, intellectuals and radicals.
- ‘Bacchanal’ also means revelry and fun. The Windrush generation brought us the art of Carnival.
- Little known fact: 66 Windrush passengers were Polish, picked up in Mexico, invited to Britain under the Polish Resettlement Act of 1947.
If you would like to know more about Caribbean carnival in Britain Emily Zobel Marshall and Max Farrar have created a platform for research into Caribbean Carnival Cultures at Leeds Beckett University. You can find out more about the histories and cultures of Caribbean carnival by accessing the website here.
[i] Chapter in Riggio, Milla, C (ed.) (2004) Carnival: Culture in Action — The Trinidad Experience (London and New York: Routledge)
[ii] Interview with Farrar, 2014, np.