‘Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.’
Though it has nothing at all to do with West Indian immigration to England, the opening line of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God always springs to mind when I picture the S.S. Empire Windrush nudging her way into the Tilbury docks, with passengers in their Sunday best craning over the railings, anxious to see this place they’ve loved for so long without ever setting foot in it. The reasons for coming might have been as plentiful as the people on the decks, but we know that among them was the desire to help with rebuilding England after the war, as well as the fiercely held conviction that they too were British, and entitled to be here. The Windrush had all of their wishes on board.
The English people greeted the West Indians with suspicion, bewilderment and, in many cases, outright racism. Each side had to get to know the other and, in the process, had to re-invent themselves. Luckily, among those who came to England shortly after the Windrush were Sam Selvon and George Lamming, two of the finest writers of the 20th century. They were the chroniclers of their generation; in London, they had the access and opportunity to be published and, together with their counterparts, to put West Indian literature indelibly on the map.
The arrival of a newcomer is a classic trope of storytelling because it forces change as well as introspection. The disembarking of those early post-war immigrants marked the beginning of a major shift in the so-called Empire, as well as the beginning of a new phase in the West Indian project for reclaiming of independence, identity and self-respect. For this reason stories of the era have long made for prize-winning, bestselling and illuminating reading.