Bernard Headley | I could have been among Theresa May's disinherited (Part 1)
If you, like me, were born or grew up in rural Jamaica in the immediate post-World War II years, you would have in some way been close to the history of the male-led Great Migration to Great Britain from the island's peasantry.
Your own life story, like mine, could perhaps have intersected with the stories of these brave, pioneering men. If so, memory of those times makes it easy to connect vicariously with a now dispossessed Caribbean immigrant population. They are offspring of a generation - the so-called Windrush Generation - of mostly Jamaicans who migrated en masse to Britain in the years immediately following the end of the war.
They had migrated involuntarily with parents who had correctly believed that as then citizens/subjects of Britain's historical empire colonial project, they and their families had the right to live and work in the British 'mother country' as enduring, lifelong citizens. Currently, though, under two successive conservative Tory governments, these Windrush offspring, numbering several thousands, have been administratively subject to removal and deportation. This in Prime Minister Theresa May's government-created "hostile environment".
Looking back, had it not been for the seeming hard-headed obedience of my father to a central command of his new-found religion, Seventh-day Adventism, my siblings and/or I could have been among these upended and near-stateless people.
LEAVING MOUNT CAREY
Everyone in my tiny Mount Carey, St James, village of the late 1940s through early 1950s knew everyone else in the 30 or so long-standing, and extended, families that made up the base of the community.
The district at the time was being emptied of its able-bodied men. Practically every month one, two, or even three males were leaving for England. Our small landmark Mount Carey Seventh-day Adventist Church (SDA) was not immune from this exodus. Several of the Church's dominant men - elders, deacons, and youth leaders - said goodbye to their families.
I remember distinctly as a small child seeing the men from the church stopping by our house in the early morning hours on their way to the Anchovy railway station. They were on their way to catch the morning train to Kingston, walking the near two miles to Anchovy. The departing men, sometimes in groups of two, clutching firmly their dulciminas, would stop to say sad goodbyes and have my mother offer a word of prayer for divine guidance and protection. On their way out, Mama would surreptitiously tuck into each man's jacket pocket a five-shilling note. She would also hand them a bag filled with her home-made pastries for their back-to-back journeys ahead.
From Anchovy, the men would travel on the train through the Jamaican countryside, taking in what would be for most of them the last sweeping view of their majestic island home. They would get off the train at the end of the line in downtown Kingston, and the next day, walk the bruising, sun-hot distance over to the Queen Victoria Pier and board a ship for their near monthlong journey, which usually was up to Birmingham.
Talk of migration would fill Mount Carey families with nervous apprehension. There certainly was not much to look for economically in the district. Small-farm cultivation did not offer much for jobless men, and the meagre incomes that they may have brought was not enough to feed growing children, and definitely not enough to give the children a shot at a good education. Going to Britain would be a tough, hard decision, but it would be a way out of persistent hardship and poverty.
COLOUR HIM FATHER
On February 27, 1952, my father reached the age of 41 years old. He had up to that point fathered five children. I was his firstborn of three boys in a well-guarded marriage to my mother, a devout, second-generation Seventh-day Adventist Christian woman who directed the choir and played the organ at the Mount Carey Church. She had insisted on my father's conversion from his worldly ways and his baptism into her faith - before she married him.
Despite our hardships, Mama would entertain no talk of my father wanting to migrate to Britain. If he brought up the subject, she would quickly, even angrily, cut him off. She was seeing what migration to Britain was doing to families. Only a few of the men had actually sent for their wives and children, which they had promised to do.
A small number from within the Church had even gone over and started new families. More than anything else, though, my Mama felt deeply that our soft, gentle father could not handle the perils of England. As things got more desperate, she pledged to work even harder at turning her hands to things she did inside the home to bring in sustainable income.
My father, with no means for a sustainable livelihood, anguished every day over the deprived circumstances of his family: over his long-suffering wife; at the long hours she spent, late into the night, working at her home-baking business in order to make ends meet; and over his inadequately cared-for children, the firstborn of his threesome frequently having to barefoot it for some distance to government primary school.
His frank assessment of the situation brought him to a chilling decision point: He'd leave his wife and children to seek work in England so he could send home funds to support them! He began hatching a secret plan that he discussed with no one except in letters to our Uncle Windsor (my mother's brother-in-law), who had left for Britain in the original 1948-50 Empire Windrush migration. He would reveal his plan in the fullness of time when it would be pretty much fait accompli.
Uncle Windsor was encouraging my father to come up to Britain, even though his letters did not exactly glow with praise. The tone of his letters could be summed up in words that predated by a decade emigre dub-poet Linton Kwesi Johnson: "Inglan is a Bitch" - a daunting, unwelcoming, gruesome country.
Hardened in his younger years by cutting sugar cane in Cuba, and as a labourer in Venezuela's oilfields, gruff-talking Uncle Windsor worked outdoor in Britain. In bone-chilling cold, he relaid trestles for Britain's bombed-out railroads. He was in his 50s. The work was hard, his letters said, but employment and the money were sure.
"All you need to do, Allan," the senior Uncle Windsor counselled, "is make sure your [British] passport is current and that you bring with you a reference letter, preferably from a past employer. Come up first, by yourself, and you can bring up Eleanor (my mother) and the children later."
Read Part Two next week. Kamal Headley assisted in the production of this column.
- Bernard Headley, PhD, is a retired professor of criminology, UWI, and professor emeritus of sociology and justice studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, Illinois. He is co-founder of the National Organisation of Deported Migrants. Email feedback to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.