Windrush: Triggering memories and intergenerational traumas
By Audrey James
Featured image credit: Mervyn Weir
22nd June 2023 marked the 75th anniversary of the SS Empire Windrush’s arrival at Tilbury Dock. The ship was carrying over 1,027 passengers from the Caribbean, including approximately 539 passengers from Jamaica, where I was born. England at that time, and for decades later, was known to these Commonwealth citizens as the ‘mother country’ and ‘motherland’. The ‘Windrush generation’ (1948 – 1971) were invited by the mother country to come and help rebuild the motherland after the war.
Many of the individuals arrived as children, were educated through the school system, worked, paid national insurance and tax for at least 40 years only to be told by the Home Office that there was no proof of them being legal in the UK. The ‘Windrush Scandal’ only reached the headlines years later, in 2017, when it publicly emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were from the Windrush generation, had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. In 2018, it was revealed that the Home Office had destroyed thousands of landing cards that had the names and arrival dates of all migrants.
For approximately the first 30 years of arriving on these shores, finding a suitable home to live in was hard. Many properties for rent had signage in the windows that read “No Blacks, No dogs, No Irish”. Just looking at the order of those words, is of interest to me, black and Irish people are considered and viewed in the same category of dogs, and I guess it’s the psychodynamic psychotherapist in me looking at the unconscious communication. When black migrants did find a home, the living conditions were dismal, and opportunities limited. Vacancy boards outside workplaces had signs that read “No coloureds”. Some years following the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, organised by Paul Stephenson, the Race Relations Act of 1968 sought to protect legal rights by making it illegal to refuse housing, employment, or public services to a person on the grounds of colour, race, ethnic or national origins in the UK. However, it was still ignored by many employers, leading some migrants to take legal action and others choosing not to due to the further difficulties it would cause to them.
In highlighting these historical events it’s important to add that migration of black people to the UK began long before the Windrush arrivals and goes as far back as the 15th century. Many black migrant men helped in the war efforts of World War I and men and women from the Caribbean served in World War II.
In his book, I Can’t Breathe: George Floyd and the Legacy of Racism Mervyn Weir writes:
We, who left home in the west Indies
to rebuild Britain after the war;
we, who proudly served in that war,
we, were now at war with
a government that deemed us enemies of the state.
The Windrush generation,
now beyond their sell-by-date
and surplus to requirements
after a lifetime of loyal service,
now discarded by a policy
declared racist by the courts.
But that didn’t stop the demeaning
deportations of people who have
only known Britain as home.
The children of Empire stabbed by the motherland.
Their ‘indefinite leave to remain’
ripped up like the family torn apart
and dumped in detention centres;
some deported and left to die
like vagrants on strange streets,
a long way from home –
unable to breathe.
Many would have been traumatised by their experience. I think of my own parents, particularly my father, who to this day cannot speak of the difficulty he experienced, the most he can say, “it wasn’t good, it wasn’t good” and, as a psychotherapist, I notice the pain in his faraway look and his uncomfortable posture as he sits in his chair and repeats those three words to sum up something that cannot be talked about. To do so, he runs the risk of defrosting the pain of the past, and inflicting it, afresh, onto his 91-year-old self. Whilst I, his daughter, not the psychotherapist in me, would welcome hearing his accounts, I choose not to cause him to remember the pain, but allow him to keep it frozen in time.
Along with arriving with excitement and hope, unbeknown to them at the time, the Windrush generation were ushering in intergenerational trauma. I think about the ‘barrel children’* like myself, who experienced disrupted attachment as a result of being separated from parents and left behind in the Caribbean, often under the age of one, with grandparents or aunties becoming the main caregivers. In my case and for many others, I thought they were my parents.
Attempts to reunite happily with biological parents were often unsuccessful, which meant yet more trauma and loss. Trauma and loss, not only for the children left behind, but for the parents doing the leaving, the grandparents and aunties who became surrogate parents who had to let their surrogates go, and the left child, like me, who had to leave and be reunited with parents and siblings (born here) she didn’t know she had, in a country that was strange and where people would treat her differently because of the colour of her skin.
And let’s not forget the trauma of the parents who were excited to be reunited with their children, only to find out the children were not excited to see them, did not know who they were or who pined for their surrogates back home.
In the 1980s I decided to apply and pay for British citizenship when the opportunity arose. Unbeknown to me at the time, this led me to be protected from revoked settlement that followed. I encountered many individuals who weren’t fortunate in this way – for one friend, who suddenly became ‘not legal,’ his whole world was destroyed overnight.
We are a generation who have been traumatised and for whom therapy could be extremely helpful, so that something beyond unbearable might start to be expressed and so begin to be processed.
Fractured, broken, disruptive attachments can make it hard for individuals to form relationships, as they are afraid of experiencing the broken, disruptive relationships again. As a therapist I see how individuals repeat the abandonment they’ve experienced – by leaving relationships before they are left, or becoming fearful of commitment and thus emotionally unavailable – without necessarily being aware that this is playing out in their relationships. Trauma gets passed on through relationships as well as intergenerationally, through their children.
The Windrush experience will be celebrated by some and commemorated by others. For many it will be bittersweet. Even in its naming, blame has been shifted, which the psychotherapist in me once again observes. Using Arthur Torrington’s words, “this should not be the Windrush Scandal, but the Home Office Scandal”.
Psychodynamic Psychotherapy is an effective form of therapy to help individuals explore and think about these traumas in their past. It creates a safe space in which to begin to process the trauma that they have experienced as well as the intergenerational trauma passed down to them. By speaking of these incredibly difficult experiences it can then be possible to move forward with a sense of having been, at least partly, released; furthermore, it makes it more possible that we do not continue to pass the legacy of the trauma down through the generations still further.
I would like to say a huge thank you to Mervyn Weir for allowing me to use his original artwork in this blog. You can see more of his work here.
And I would like to salute Arthur Torrington CBE, for his significant and continued work as a researcher and archiving the histories of Caribbean people in Britain, and his work as Director and Co-Founder of the Windrush Foundation and Equiano Society.
If you want to find out more about Windrush you can watch these programmes on iPlayer (if you’re in the UK):
or read the following resources:
Explore 1,027 individual landing cards representing each passenger who arrived on the MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks on 22nd June 1948.
*Barrel Children refers to parcels and, later, barrels sent to children who were left behind. These barrels contained gifts and essentials, from parents in the UK.