June 22nd marks the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush in the UK. In 1948, Empire Windrush set sail on a historic voyage from Trinidad to London, carrying 1,027 passengers including two stowaways. The passengers were boarded in Trinidad, Jamaica, Mexico, Cuba and Bermuda and comprised British citizens returning to the UK after working in the Caribbean, passengers going on holidays to the UK and Europe and one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom.
It is the experiences of this last group that are commemorated on this June 22nd anniversary. In the face of discrimination and racism the “Windrush generation”, as those who arrived in the UK from Caribbean countries between 1948 and 1973 became known, forged a life for themselves and left a lasting legacy on the nation’s demographic and cultural landscape.
Migration has been a defining characteristic of human history, shaping cultures, societies, and nations. For centuries people have migrated both voluntarily and forcibly throughout the Atlantic World with waves of migration driven by various factors such as economic opportunities, labour shortages, the transatlantic slave trade, and historical ties between different regions. Bermuda’s migration connections with the Caribbean, North America, Africa, Latin America, Europe, Southeast Asia and the United Kingdom are keenly felt and vitally important in understanding the diverse cultures which contributed to our island heritage.
For as long as I can remember I have been travelling back and forth from Bermuda to the UK, whether visiting family or for school. It is an experience I’m sure many Bermuda residents are familiar with. A 6ish hour flight from LF Wade to Heathrow lands you right in London at the start of rush hour should you brave travelling on a weekday.
It is a trip that feels almost second nature and not one that I ever thought much about, until recently that is. Last year while visiting family in London, I was able to visit the Museum of London Dockland’s exhibit “Feeding Black: Community, Power and Place”. The exhibit explores the role food plays in Black enterprise and identity in South London’s African and Caribbean communities. Filled with objects, recipes and audio stories from the community it highlights the connective power of food. It connects us around a dinner table or within a community via a favourite restaurant. For those starting new lives far from their home country it also ties to a shared cultural heritage. Reflecting on this exhibit kick started an interest in stories of immigration. What do you take with you when you move? Beyond the usual tangible items, clothes, family mementoes, and recipe books, there are the intangible things. Memories, stories, songs, traditions, often tied to the tangible, play an integral role in formulating and binding senses of community and identity in places that can often be hostile to new arrivals.
Louise Tannock’s beautiful reflection on her Aunt’s immigration to Bermuda from St. Kitts, “The Ties That Bind” crafted as part of the Museum’s Digital Storytelling workshop illustrates the interconnectedness between food and place.
Unfortunately, I was unable to time a trip to the UK this year to experience the commemorative Windrush Day events, marking the 75th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush to the UK. But my recent interest in migration stories offered an opportunity to re-examine Empire Windrush through a Bermuda lens.
Anyone familiar with the story of Empire Windrush may recognise the video of Calypso legend Lord Kitchener signing “London is the Place for Me” to a reporter as he stepped off the ship in 1948.
What fewer may know is that he and other performers onboard almost performed in Bermuda during Empire Windrush’s last stop before its arrival at Tilbury. The concert was organised by Dr. E.F. Gordon, an emigrant to Bermuda from Trinidad himself, but unfortunately was unable to proceed as unforeseen repair work which had delayed the ship’s departure was completed quicker than expected.
Originally a German cruise ship named MV Monte Rosa, the ship was seized by the British government as a war prize in 1945. In 1946 she was renamed HMT Empire Windrush. “Empire” following the naming pattern for other British-controlled merchant ships and “Windrush” after the River Windrush, a tributary of the River Thames. Given the role she would play it could not be more aptly named.
The Empire Windrush arrived in a deeply racially segregated Bermuda. Two years prior to the ship’s arrival, Dr. Gordon travelled to London to present a landmark petition signed by executive committee of the Bermuda Workers Association, calling on the British authorities to establish a Royal Commission to investigate the social, economic and political conditions in Bermuda. It would take another thirteen years before Bermuda would be desegregated.
Though Empire Windrush is primarily connected with those that boarded in Jamaica, those that boarded in Bermuda made up the third largest group of passengers and consisted of both locals and Royal Naval Dockyard workers looking to return to the UK or go on holiday.
Roger Bendall was almost 5 years old when he boarded Empire Windrush in Bermuda with his mother, father, and brother. Bendall’s father, Bill Bendall, a shipwright posted to the Royal Naval Dockyard in Bermuda to work on the Floating Dock, and mother, Freda, had been living in Bermuda for 12 years. The trip on Empire Windrush was the beginning of a three-month holiday in England, an opportunity to introduce Bermuda-born Roger and David to their family in Plymouth. Roger recently shared his memories of that time with me :
In June 1948 I was about to turn 5 and my brother, David was 8 years old. I remember little of the voyage, but I have retrieved photos taken by my father at the time of our departure from Bermuda. David remembers the times on board when we listened to the wartime stories of the soldiers who were guarding the staircases between and within the decks. David also remembers the way I embarrassed my mother by loudly shouting as we entered the dining room on the first evening of our voyage “look at all those knives and forks”. We share memories of games on the deck, losing a ball overboard and sliding on mats in the passageways as the ship rose and fell and rolled across the Bay of Biscay.
Our somewhat unusual Windrush story left me wondering about our memories. Neither of us remember a division of whites and blacks on board or at embarkation and disembarkation. And yet there must have been segregation in Bermuda and there must have been a huge number of immigrants from the Caribbean when we arrived at Tilbury. It is what we didn’t remember that has both of us somewhat perplexed.
I think the onboard segregation illustrated by the presence of soldiers guarding the staircases and the memories of games on an open deck was class segregation rather than simply racial. Given the dining room story we were obviously travelling First Class although I’m not sure why as my father was still a shipwright on the Floating Dock at the Dockyard.
It is my understanding that the races were still segregated in Bermuda in 1948 and persons entering and leaving the Dockyard Islands of Boaz and Ireland Island needed to carry identity cards denoting Black or White. It has been reported that much to the surprise of the Caribbean passengers on the Windrush arriving in Bermuda they were not allowed ashore if they were black. The ship was moored out in the Sound for preparation for the onward voyage and the White passengers were picked up from the Dockyard Wharf.
But the racial question that neither I nor my brother can answer is why neither of us remembers seeing any Caribbean or Black passengers at Tilbury. We think the answer is that at our very young ages we saw the presence of black people on docks as perfectly normal. Our family photo album shows my father working alongside fellow shipwrights and labourers of all races. The Dockyard apprentices were black: the dockyard workers were of mixed races. The Island of Bermuda outside of the Dockyard may have been racially segregated but the Dockyard in which we lived and played, and in which our father worked, was desegregated. Mixed races within the Dockyard were a part of our normal lives in Bermuda, at Tilbury in England we didn’t notice.
In a post-war economy the declining British Empire was faced with the devastating impact of the war and labour shortages. It needed people to rebuild, and in the aftermath of the war the movement of people across nations became more common. Many people in the Caribbean who had served in British forces during the war faced economic difficulties, limited opportunities, and a lack of resources upon their return to their home countries. As a result, many sought better prospects in other parts of the world, particularly in the “motherland”, Britain.
There were no immigration restrictions for British subjects from its colonies prior to 1962 and in 1948 the British Nationality Act provided a pathway for citizens of British colonies to gain British citizenship and protected their right to enter and reside in Britain.
The ‘Windrush’ generation took up jobs in the NHS and other sectors affected by Britain’s post-war labour shortage. The desire for economic opportunities, and the historical influence of the British Empire created a new wave of migration that would reshape the United Kingdom, though it was not the first to forge this path it became symbolic of post-war migration.
Though the Empire Windrush arrived with fewer than 500 passengers from the Caribbean, its significant coverage in the British press turned the ship and its name into the defining symbol of postwar Caribbean migration. The ship’s arrival kicked off a wave of Caribbean migration to Britain and brought attention to the challenges faced by the Windrush generation, including discrimination, racism, and difficulties in securing housing and employment.
Waves of migration have often been met with racism and xenophobia, impacting not only the lived experience of migrants but also the legislation of racially driven immigration policies. In both Bermuda and the UK, immigration policies have been used as tools to control the demographics of the population. Before emancipation, forced exile of the black population was employed by the Bermuda legislature as a means of demographic control. Later in the 19th century, the Bermuda legislature introduced immigration policies to recruit European migrants, aimed at disenfranchising black Bermudians (Hodgson, 2008). The emigrants that arrived in Bermuda faced discrimination themselves and similar tactics were used in the UK, in response to the Windrush migration in the 20th century. The results of these policies and public perception lead to racial tensions, discrimination, and incidents of violence.
Despite these obstacles, the Windrush generation made significant contributions to the rebuilding of post-war Britain and the development of a multicultural British society and their story is one with Bermudian voices.
Thanks to the Evewright Arts Foundation (EAF), Bermudian Carlton Leroy Darrell’s story has been preserved as part of their Caribbean Takeaway Takeover project. Reflecting on his experiences of a segregated Bermuda and migration to England, Darrell’s interview offers insight into not just the history and experience of segregation in Bermuda but also an as yet under-researched element of the Bermuda experience, migration to other parts of the Atlantic World.
The legacy of the Empire Windrush extends beyond its symbolic significance. It serves as an example of globalisation and migration in the modern Atlantic World, reflecting the struggles of empires in transition and the complexities of managing diverse populations, and underscores the enduring impact of racial and economic inequalities that drive migration. It highlights the interconnectedness between Bermuda, the West Indies, and the UK, showcasing the economic, cultural, and historical factors that shaped migration movements. The experiences of the Windrush generation, their contributions to post-war Britain, and the challenges they faced shed light on the complexities of migration, racism, and the enduring legacy of this historic event. It is a legacy that the UK is still grappling with as evidenced by the treatment of Commonwealth citizens who had emigrated the UK in the later half of the twentieth century and the recent investigations into the Windrush scandal in 2018.
By understanding this history and critically investigating Bermuda history from multiple perspectives, we can foster a deeper appreciation for the diverse communities that have shaped the Atlantic World and Bermuda. We can cultivate empathy for immigrants and shape a compassionate and inclusive future, where we learn from the past to forge policies that honour the dignity and contributions of all individuals seeking a better life.
If you or a family member were on the Empire Windrush and would like to share your story, please contact email@example.com
For more information about Bermuda’s connections with the West Indies, visit the Bermuda & the West Indies exhibit in Commissioner’s House or check out Dr. Clarence Maxwell article Exodus.
If you would like to share your family photos and stories of immigration to Bermuda, we invite you to submit to the Bermuda Family Scrapbook.
If you are researching your family history and need tips to help on your journey of discovery, check out our Tracing Our roots/Routes free toolkits.
Hodgson, Eva (2008). The experience of racism in Bermuda and its wider context: Reflections of Dr. Eva Hodgson. Hamilton: Government of Bermuda