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Leave the Empire Windrush at the Bottom of the Ocean: In Conversation with Gus John

Gus John is an award-winning writer, education campaigner, and lecturer. His work spans the fields of education policy, management, and international development. Since the 1960s, John has been active in issues surrounding education and schooling in Britain’s inner cities, and he has worked in several universities including the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, the UCL Institute of Education, the University of London, and Coventry University. He is a respected public speaker and media commentator, working both domestically and internationally as an executive coach and consultant.

In 2018, a committee hosted a church service at Westminster Abbey, memorialising the 70th year of the arrival of the Empire Windrush. The service’s advertisement stated that ‘those arriving on the Windrush in June 1948 were seeking adventure’, as if, as John describes in his book, ‘they had collectively become bored on the plantations…and decided to head to Britain for “adventure”’.[1] In 2023, elaborate plans were made by the Windrush Anchor Foundation to retrieve the Empire Windrush anchor from the bottom of the ocean and restore it as a national monument. The following interview addresses Gus John’s thoughts on the matter.


CJLPA: Professor Gus John, thank you very much for being here today. You have recently published two incredible books, Blazing Trails and Don’t Salvage the Empire Windrush, both of which have stirred up quite the conversation in the UK. As today we will be discussing the latter, could you please begin by telling us a little bit about your background and what prompted you to write Don’t Salvage the Empire Windrush?


Gus John: Thank you very much for having me. Well, I was born in Grenada in the Eastern Caribbean and I came to the UK in 1964 to study theology at Oxford. It soon dawned on me, however, that I couldn't have been further away from the gospel, particularly in terms of the Catholic Church’s role in imperialism and colonialism. I had some dogmatic conflicts with the church as an establishment, so I became a Marxist and left! I, instead, got heavily involved with the Black communities in Oxford as children were seeing some pretty hard days in the schooling system. Children who had parents from Jamaica were particularly affected because they were speaking the Jamaican language (patois) which the education system did not classify as a language. Those children were being made to feel that they were imbeciles, so I tried to ensure that Caribbean children received their entitlements to quality education.


In 1966 I joined with some parents and students, including some students from Oxford, and we started the first Black supplementary school in Cowley Road, Oxford. We ran homework classes for young children and we were giving them an understanding of themselves and an understanding of what was going on around them, even what was happening to other Black people around the world. We had to build communities of resistance to systemic racism, marginalisation, and social eugenics practices—practices that were being used to train teachers to have low expectations of Black children. We had to actively resist these practices and basically mobilise Black parents to defend their children’s right to quality education. Since then, I have been very active in building communities of resistance and Don’t Salvage the Empire Windrush is an extension of that work.


CJLPA: The name Windrush holds a deep-seated significance in the UK, yet anyone who speaks of or hears it conceptualises Windrush differently. What would you say is the common Windrush narrative and what are the implications of that narrative for those a part of or descendant of the Windrush generation?


GJ: Most people refer to Windrush but they do not refer to the Empire Windrush. The Empire Windrush is the actual name of the ship that a group of Caribbean people boarded in Jamaica in 1948, which later docked in England. The name Empire Windrush was given to a ship that used to belong to the German navy. The ship was called the Monte Rosa and between 1939 to 1945 it was used by the Nazi regime to transport troops from one part of Europe to another. When Britain took its spoils of war after World War II, it also took ships, hence the Monte Rosa became the Empire Windrush. After the war, the Empire Windrush was used to transport demobilised soldiers from the Caribbean back to their homes as it did in 1947 when it made a trip to and from the Caribbean. This 1947 trip, however, is a trip that nobody talks about.


Before 1948, there were at least 500 ex-soldiers who had been demobilised and returned to the Caribbean from Britain. Along with the Empire Windrush, there were two other ships—the Ormonde and the Almanzora—that had made that trip to and from the Caribbean to transport these soldiers. In 1948, the Empire Windrush was coming back from the Caribbean and it had loads of empty space. Figures quote that there was space for 1027 people. When the boat got to Jamaica, they put out advertisements stating that colonial subjects should come to Britain via a one-way ticket for 28 pounds. This prompted many people, not just from Jamaica, to scrape the money together—a lot of money in those days—and board the boat.


Among the passengers was a man named Samuel Beaver King, who had been in the Royal Air Force during the war and wanted to go back to Britain. King did not like the conditions he was returned to in Jamaica—lots of poverty and worker unrest. The British colonial administrators in Jamaica were being very brutal in putting down worker uprisings and King was sure that he did not want to raise his children in a colony. But then, King also had a rather peculiar notion of making the Empire Windrush as iconic as the Mayflower. If he had any understanding of the Mayflower, what it was, where it came from, and what it has done in Virginia, he would not have wanted to make the Empire Windrush as iconic. Yet, in any event, King began collecting the names and addresses of the 500 or so people on the Empire Windrush to begin a narrative. Now there is nothing wrong with King collecting these names and wanting to make the Empire Windrush like the Mayflower, but he and the subsequent Windrush narrative had no right to suggest that their arrival on that boat represented a new chapter in terms of Black people within Britain.


Additionally, the Windrush narrative does not focus on the fact that these people were coming from the colonies to the United Kingdom. They had a history, a colonial history, prior to that ship. And frankly, all this glorified talk about coming to the ‘mother country’ to help rebuild after the Second World War is a lot of romanticised nonsense. Why these people were having to leave the Caribbean and why they had to leave Britain after the Second World War to be transported back to the Caribbean was because of Britain’s history with racism. Britain has an impervious past which is why we as Caribbean people ended up in the Caribbean in the first place. The true native peoples of the Caribbean were brutally exterminated and those areas were later populated by our ancestors who were brought there forcibly in the hulls of some stinking slave ships. We were made to work as shackled labour. That’s where the story of Windrush began and people tend to forget that.


There is this notion that these Caribbean people came to Britain because they answered the call, but there was never any such call. There were material conditions of their existence that prompted them to get on that boat. Well, correction, at one point Britain’s labour recruitment people did reach out to the Caribbean. London Transport needed lots of workers because in the 1950s white workers were striking for better wages and working conditions. The strikes were crippling the whole system so the higher-ups were determined to go abroad and find labour to break those strikes. No one acknowledges that those Caribbean people who were brought in as labour were used as tools to break strikes—no, these people are seen as patriotic citizens of the United Kingdom coming to support the country. And it is interesting that if there had been a greater degree of class collaboration between white workers in this country and workers across the Caribbean then the situation could have been very different, but it was in the best interest of the British government to put racism at the forefront of people’s minds. The British elites made every conceivable effort to break whatever links were being developed between the trade union movement here in Britain and in the Caribbean. It was politically convenient for Britain to cast us as ‘dark strangers’. In other words, the conflation of race and immigration was a deliberate policy on the part of successive governments. All of this culminated into a misconstrued Windrush narrative that ignores the history of the people who came, detracts attention from the ghastly things the [British government] is doing in the name of immigration, and neglects the realities that were and are faced, not just by Caribbean people, but various racial and ethnic groups in the UK.


CJLPA: I do not want to take for granted what was taught in the Caribbean as our history versus what was taught in the UK of Caribbean history. Could you please explain why Britain was considered the ‘mother country’ for those boarding the ship, as opposed to the Caribbean countries that they were leaving behind or the countries in Africa from which their ancestors were taken?


GJ: Colonialism was immensely successful. The notion that Britain was the mother country was a notion that Britain itself encouraged. There was an erasure of African spirituality, African languages, African cuisine, and African belief systems for the superimposition of Christianity. I, for one, grew up on a diet of Jane Austen, Edgar Allan, Poe, WE Johns, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and all of those people. I only discovered Caribbean literature when I came to Britain—George Lamming, Sylvia Wynter, and CLR James. Those people were quite extraordinary and it opened my eyes so bright, but unfortunately when you are totally imbued with this kind of colonial ideology you learn to believe that the only value you have is what somebody else confers upon you.


People were nurtured to become Black British, really. When we’re talking about being part of the United Kingdom and its colonies, it really is about seeing Britain implant itself in those places. Slave owners were running plantations, determining who lived and died. They were extracting wealth and sending most of it back to Britain. We were being taught, not with materials from Africa or Asia after our so-called emancipation, but with materials from Britain. That type of behaviour was very, very British.


After all these years, people are still enthralled by British colonialism because they are told that they are supposed to be stupid. So, if you are successful, that is a matter of celebration because you’re not supposed to be bright and successful. Let’s remember that there emerged a class of Black middle-class people who were aping the white middle-class and had no respect whatsoever for ordinary Black working people. It’s still the case now, people are so enthralled with becoming part of British high society. It reminds me how I was joking with a friend a couple of weeks ago about these people who are wanting to rescue and retrieve the Empire Windrush anchor to jazz it up so that it becomes some major national icon. What I would love to do is salvage and restore the entire ship. Let the government give them some £50,000 or even £100,000 and stick them back on that ship to take them back to the plantations because that is where many of them seem to be headed.


CJLPA: Correct me if I am wrong in saying that Windrush is used as a kind of wall, where in front of the wall stands the common narrative of trailblazers happily coming to help the ‘mother country’ and behind that wall are all the histories and atrocities that do not get told or are strategically buried. If this is the case, what are some of the things that people need to know about what is behind that wall to set the Windrush narrative straight?


GJ: Yes, well first it is ridiculous to suggest that the 500 or so passengers on that boat were the only ones to have a drastic impact on the UK when there were other boats that came en masse between 1949-1960.  In fact, in 1962 when the British government enacted the Commonwealth Immigration Act to restrict immigration, there was a spike in numbers from around 56,000 people in 1961 to 125,000 people in 1962, all travelling to the UK to try and beat the immigration ban. Thus, it was not just the 500 people from the Empire Windrush who had to fight off racism and the government, and they were not the only ones to change the political landscape of the UK. It was hundreds of thousands of people. Furthermore, when the Empire Windrush or any other boat came, they were not coming to an all-white society. There were many Black and Brown people who had already settled here by 1900 and to say that Windrush was the beginning of Black people settling in Britain is ahistorical, nonsensical, and colonial.


There are also many people who believe that the only people who come from the Caribbean are those of African extraction. So, in places like Trinidad and Guyana where 50% of the population are descended from South Asian indentured labourers, these people are never taken into account in the Windrush narrative. It is also preposterous to say that the few Caribbeans on the Empire Windrush rebuilt Britain considering the economic contributions of people from South Asia, West Africa, and the Far East. They too have been subjected to brutal and restrictive immigration policies but they never get mentioned.


We, unfortunately, share a common experience of the vilest racism within this country—two nasty, brutal, murderous trends. One was Paki Bashing, where people who looked like they were from Pakistan, irrespective of where they may have come from, would have their homes incinerated, petrol thrown on their belongings, and excrement put in their letter boxes. The second was Nigger Hunting where police stations in Black communities would nonchalantly announce that ‘we’re going nigger hunting tonight’. All of that is within the lifetime of the government spreading a Windrush narrative that celebrates the ‘trailblazers’ but ceases to recognize the wrongs that these trailblazers faced or the wrongs that many other races and ethnicities have faced. The government gives £100,000 for Windrush Day yet our elders are still being killed because their medication has been removed and they can't go to the doctor because they have been told by the Home Office that they are not documented. All of these things continue to happen around us.


CJLPA: In your book, you speak of the erection of a monument in Waterloo Station that is to symbolise a family gallantly making the journey on the Empire Windrush. This monument shows a mother, father, and their daughter coming together, however, in your book, you state that this is a very false representation. Why?


GJ: That monument plays into the mythology and does not accommodate the reality. To put it bluntly, it’s too tidy. The monument depicts a nuclear family with a sense of security going out into a welcoming, hospitable environment but the reality could not have been worse for these people. That journey and their arrival was steeped in loss, mental distress, and racism that was completely shocking to the passengers. The level of discrimination they faced in housing, in employment, as they walked the street was ghastly. This treatment of Black people led to the major riots in West London in 1958. Then to crown it all, in 1959 Kelso Cochrane, an Antiguan carpenter who had damaged his hand at work, had gone to the hospital to get patched up, left to go home and was set upon by white racists and killed. Being Caribbean, we had this view of Britain as a place of sophistication, so no one could believe that they could be walking down the street and be killed for the colour of their skin.


Moreover, people did not often come with their children or as a nuclear family—they often came by themselves or took along other people's children who could afford to send them. This is one of the reasons why in this hostile environment, there have been so many people who found it difficult to prove who they were when they came. It is because thousands of them did not come with their biological parents. The Empire Windrush journey was not a tidy transition from A to B as that very romantic monument tries to depict.


CJLPA: What I hear you saying is that the Windrush narrative is an erasure of histories and truth similar to other colonial narratives. But it can also be used as a tool to divide as it did with white and Black workers in the onset, and how it separates Black Caribbeans from Africans, Asians, and even Asian populations from the Caribbean. Do you believe that these divisions are intentionally done to impede us from acknowledging our common struggles and acting collectively?


GJ: I believe it is intentional and what I find alarming is that there are so many young people who are genuinely struggling with their identity in this country. This is not helped by further divisions. Let me give an example of what I mean. Recently on this Black and Asian Studies Association platform, I had to take issue with one doctor who was advertising an online course run by somebody from the United States. It was about children, schools, upbringing, and identity formation and what alarmed me was towards the end of this advertisement, there was a line saying ‘strictly African families only’, and in brackets it says, ‘only people who have high melanin compositions’. I thought to myself what on earth is this?


In the education charity I run, we are as much concerned with mixed heritage children being excluded from school as we are about Black children, particularly Black boys. Quite a number of those Black children have white mothers so what good does it do to discuss Black children’s identity formation when the white parents of those Black children have no place there? Over 55% of Caribbean males have white partners and over 39% of Caribbean women have the same. The largest growing group within society are mixed heritage children. The demography of Britain suggests that if these barriers are not broken down, if we don’t support white, Asian, Caribbean, African, and mixed heritage children of the global majority working together across ethnic, class, racial, and sexuality divides then there will be horrors to come.


CJLPA: Thank you so much Professor Gus John, I just have one more question for you. What do you see for the future of our society?


GJ: Deep down, I wish I could be hopeful, but I’m not so sure. People are very reluctant to call out systemic racism for what it is. They believe that by demonstrating patriotism to King and Country they stand a better chance of getting on in this country, but I also believe and hope that that is just a generational thing. More and more people accept these things uncritically but they need to understand how stupid and ahistorical it all is.


If I had the resources, I would want to start a movement in the country that imagines democratic participation other than these established parties. While the government tries to recruit more and more of our people into their ranks—ie the growing Black middle class—we need to assemble the young people of every race and ethnicity to have some serious conversations about the state of the nation. About what all of that means for their generation. We have to find another way and equip young people to believe that there can be another way.


CJLPA: Thank you very much again for joining us today Professor Gus John, your insights were magnificent.


GJ: You are very kind, thank you for having me.


This interview was conducted by Donari Yahzid. Donari is a Fulbright Scholar and graduate of the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies. In addition to working as an editor for the CJLPA, Donari is a researcher working within the intersections of social movements, land rights, and international development.


[1] Gus John, Don’t Salvage the Empire Windrush (New Beacon Books 2023) 4.


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