Mon | Jan 21, 2019

Desiree Baptiste | The other Windrush scandal

Published:Sunday | April 29, 2018 | 12:00 AMDesiree Baptiste
Jamaican immigrants welcomed by RAF officials from the Colonial Office after the ex-troopship HMT Empire Windrush landed them at Tilbury in 1948.

No one's talking about the other Windrush scandal.

I can't think why. It, too, involves the discarding of historical material, only not by the Home Office, by the BBC. It happened on April 2 when the Beeb's renowned commitment to facts fled the scene during a Windrush-themed documentary on the Commonwealth.

Lenny Henry: The Commonwealth Kid saw the popular British comedian visit the Caribbean. In Jamaica, his ancestral home, Sir Lenny explored his family's origins and the footprints of slavery through the prism of the Commonwealth, which enabled his parents' Windrush-era move to Britain in the 1950s and "made me who I am." (hence: Commonwealth Kid).

Only it didn't.

Jamaica joined the Commonwealth in 1962 after Independence. Lenny Henry's parents moved to the UK in 1957. He was born a year later. They weren't "part of a newly formed Commonwealth" as he declares in the opening frame.

Nor was it "newly formed". The Commonwealth officially came into being, by statute, in 1931.

Nor were Jamaicans "entitled to settle in the UK because of a strange thing known as the Commonwealth".

These false claims bolstered the show's persistent insistence on a causal link between the family's migration and the Commonwealth, with Sir Lenny even calling the move "my family's Commonwealth story".


Public deserves better


Surely, we, the public, deserve better than to have what is really an empire story slyly collapsed into a "Commonwealth story", especially in light of that promise, only last June, by BBC Factual Controller Alison Kirkham to offer "in a world of false facts ... a trusted lens through which to view the world".

Jamaicans who moved to Britain in the 1950s were not migrating from one Commonwealth member state to another. They were relocating from the "periphery to centre" of the Empire, to quote the late Stuart Hall. They were British passport holders, coming home, as many saw it, to the mother country. As Hall writes in Familiar Stranger (2017), a first-hand glimpse of post-war Britain (Hall left Jamaica in 1951 for Oxford University):

"Jamaicans came as colonials, drawn by an invisible gravitational pull to the 'absent centre' which had defined life in the colony for centuries."

And they were entitled to settle in the UK even before the Commonwealth was formed. That right had merely been codified (not created) in the lifetime of Sir Lenny's parents by a new act of Parliament: The British Nationality Act, 1948.

It outlined a new category of British nationality:

"Citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies: for the United Kingdom and non-independent countries." (CUKCs). That applied to Jamaica, still a colony until 1962.

Another provision of the act related to the Commonwealth and granted British nationality to "Citizens of the Independent Commonwealth Countries" (CICCs).


Rights to settle


Both CUKCs and CICCs were British subjects under this new act, and both groups were equally entitled to settle in the UK. But as Professor Randall Hansen, political scientist and historian at the University of Toronto, tells me, that right to settle, now codified, "had nothing to do with the Commonwealth as such. It was UK nationality legislation".

But the 1948 act did underpin a historic shift. By 1961, the number of UK-born children of West Indian parents leapt from ZERO in 1951, according to the census, to 26,000. Lenny Henry was one of those 26,000 born to parents from Caribbean colonies, not the Commonwealth, which makes the premise and title of the show, well, unfortunate.

But it's the facts I feel sorry for.

They were lucky to get out of this documentary alive!

Successfully strangled, though, and destined to join the heaving graveyard of murdered facts across the globe in recent years, was a most important one, that the main enabler of the mass migration was transport. After WW2, the cost of international travel collapsed, a bit of history that wasn't mentioned. Is this what Alison Kirkham meant when she promised, in her speech last year to focus on "untold stories?" Keeping them untold?


A day of national shame


"Why is any of this even important?" I hear you ask.

The rescue narrative that this documentary helped to promote, the idea that the Commonwealth enabled Sir Lenny's family to escape poverty, is already deeply embedded in the British psyche. It is why Labour MP David Lammy, British-born of Guyanese parents, got told, in a hateful letter, to "be grateful we have taken you in as a black man", after he spoke passionately in Parliament, declaring the Windrush scandal a "day of national shame".

That saviour story is not only false, it is dangerous. And disrespectful. And the parallel with the current scandal is fascinating. In the Windrush debacle, we find that the British government has discarded documentation, wiped out people's histories. In this documentary, we find the BBC rewriting a people's history, another erasure.

The Windrush generation, whose contribution to Britain is immeasurable, deserves better than to have their historical truth dishonoured. Some 300 of the souls who came on the Empire Windrush in June 1948 were ex-WW2 servicemen who fought for Britain. In Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners (1956), Moses speaks poignantly for them: "Is we who bleed to make this country prosperous."

The Windrush generation didn't come to Britain because of a favour by the Commonwealth. They came because of a birthright. To throw out the landing cards of history, theirs and ours, is an outrage. The BBC needs to join the queue and say sorry.

- Desiree Baptiste is a researcher and writer based in London. Email feedback to