In the light of recent BLM protests across the globe, there have been renewed calls in London and the UK for some kind of permanent memorial to commemorate multicultural Britain and acknowledge the enormous contribution that BAME communities and individuals have made to this country. One of the more unusual proposals involves the ship Empire Windrush, which became a symbol for Caribbean migration to the UK and which gave its name to a generation of Black British people. There’s just a slight problem…
The Windrush’s famous voyage from Kingston to Tilbury Docks in June 1948 is historically significant as it coincided with the debating of the British Nationality Act 1948, which gave citizenship to people born in British colonies, including the West Indies. People with this new status were then able to live and work in the UK. The voyage marks a defining moment in British history, and the black-and-white photographs of migrants arriving at Tilbury and then at London’s Waterloo Station have given a powerful visual identity to the early days of Britain’s postwar Black community. It gained even greater poignancy when the status of some of those arrivals was denied by the government in 2018, in what became known as the ‘Windrush scandal’.
So the Windrush is in many ways the perfect embodiment of the complex history of African-Caribbean migration to the UK. Unfortunately, it’s currently located off the coast of Algeria, at the bottom of the sea. In 1954, it was sailing in the Mediterranean when it caught fire and sank.
Last year, cultural historian and activist Patrick Vernon proposed locating the wreck of the Windrush and recovering its stern anchor, with a view to erecting it in London as a monument to generations of migrants: ‘the ship’s anchor would symbolise migration, racial equality and shared history of belonging and citizenship’.
At the time, the campaign petitioned the UK government and Royal Navy to mount the salvage operation. Now, a crowdfunder is looking to raise £500,000 to conduct an initial search for the wreck and assess the feasibility of bringing the anchor back to the UK, in the hope of attracting other major contributors to the project. The ultimate aim is to complete the monument by June 2023, the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Windrush’s voyage. Its location remains up for debate, though the campaign to put a memorial in Brixton’s Windrush Square is gaining momentum.
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