Caribbean migrants who came to the United Kingdom after World War II and before 1st January 1973 shared the status of Citizens of the UK and Colonies (CUKCs) and came to be known by the late 1990s as the Windrush Generation. Between 1962 and 1973 hugely complex layers of immigration and citizenship legislation gradually removed the right of CUKCs and Commonwealth citizens to enter and settle in Britain. Although those who had been settled in the UK prior to 1st January 1973 – the date when the 1971 Act came into force – were granted indefinite leave to remain (ILR) or in some cases right of abode, official records were not systematically kept of those who had rights to such status. Further to that, the onus to prove they were legally entitled to remain in the UK was placed on individual claimants rather than the Home Office, as one would ordinarily expect, by Section 3(8) of the 1971 Act. Many, who’d arrived as British subjects, were unaware that changing legislation had affected their settled status. And while they were entitled to register or naturalise as British citizens, at the time, there were no far-reaching or foreseeable implications for not doing so.
As Whitehall enforced a ‘hostile environment’ in the mid-2000s on those suspected of being illegal immigrants, Windrush generation migrants and descendants who lacked documentary evidence of their settled status encountered seemingly inexplicable difficulties. Some were forced out of work and/or from their homes. With the introduction of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, growing numbers were threatened with or subject to detention and, or deportation. Caribbean diplomats had contacted the Foreign Office as early as 2013 to express concern that some members of the Black-British Caribbean community were being wrongfully accused of illegal immigration status. While the Windrush Scandal finally came to a head during the Caribbean Heads of Government Meeting (16-18 April 2018), it is clear the British state had been alerted over a long period of time to the devastating impact of the policies not just from senior diplomats but also from MPs and different quarters of civil society including from Windrush victims and their advocates; charities, lawyers, trade unionists, the media, community activists, and religious organisations.
The Black Cultural Archives (BCA), responded to news of the Windrush injustice with a public meeting on Saturday, 28th April 2018 and offered regular on-going free legal surgeries – led by immigration specialist legal firm, McKenzie, Beute, and Pope – for people affected by the scandal. Paul Reid, the former director of BCA had noted that while they were responsible for ‘collecting, conserving and exhibiting’ histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain, they had also emerged out of a symbiotic relationship between culture and activism. This tradition of self-help continues and has been central to the approach of his successors, Arike Oke and the current Interim Managing Director, Lisa Anderson. The Institute of Commonwealth Studies, like Reid, recognised that the Windrush Scandal marked an ‘important moment in British history’.
The changing nature of the legal definitions of Commonwealth, colonial and British citizenship are of key interest to the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICwS), as are the histories and contemporary concerns of the Commonwealth diaspora communities in the UK. The 3-year AHRC-funded project, The Windrush Scandal in a Transnational and Commonwealth Context which commenced in July 2021 thereby aims to produce a scholarly examination of the so-called Windrush Scandal within a fully transnational framework and give proper consideration to the agency of a wide variety of official and non-official actors from both sides of the Atlantic and the role of the post-colonial and Commonwealth contexts of international relations. The project speaks to a strong academic interest in oral history as a means of recording the perspectives and experiences of the Black-British Caribbean and wider Commonwealth communities. The key outputs of the project will include 60 major interviews, 30 with members of the Caribbean heritage community and their advocates, and 30 with Caribbean politicians and diplomats. It aims furthermore to enhance the University’s engagement with the British-Caribbean and wider Commonwealth communities in the UK by bringing academics, community activists and Windrush survivors together in an atmosphere of dialogue, exchange and sharing.
This means in addition to the extensive original research conducted by Dr Juanita Cox and her colleagues – Professor Philip Murphy, Dr Rob Waters and Dr Eve Hayes De Kalaf – Dr Cox has been provided with the opportunity to work an average of one day a week over the project’s three-year duration at BCA. This enables her to benefit from BCA’s invaluable research facilities including oral history collections and the expertise of the staff. It also provides the University with the means of ensuring the broadest possible dissemination of the project’s findings, with a special seminar – ‘History and Community Activism’ – which will be co-hosted by BCA. Dr Cox’s research also involves the identification of existing but disparate country-wide oral history sources: an initial survey conducted by the ICwS in 2019 had confirmed the existence of personal histories on the ‘Windrush Generations’, deposited in a wide variety of academic, community and personal holdings. A catalogue of this material – to be listed on the project website – will significantly help to contextualise and support community histories, and to highlight the wealth of the material being gathered outside the academy. We hope the accessible catalogue will contribute to the work already being done by the BCA while providing an important bridge between the academic world and the many researchers outside the academy who have been active in this field for decades.
Excerpts from the 60 oral history recordings will be hosted on a dedicated section of the Institute’s website, and preserved in their original form on SAS Space, with additional copies in the University’s Senate House Library (SHL). The audio recordings will be accompanied on the project’s web presence by a selection of primary documents from British government archives and individual Caribbean country repositories, expressly to underline the interplay of the domestic and international dimensions of the unfolding Windrush scandal. The oral history interviews themselves will be of immense value as primary source material to academics seeking to decolonize the curriculum in fields as diverse as political science, international relations, sociology, public policy, and public health research. We hope too that it will be of key interest to the diverse users of the Black Cultural Archives and the communities that it supports.
This article was originally published on the Black Cultural Archives website and can be read here.
All views are author’s own.
Juanita Cox gained her PhD in 2013 from the Department of African Studies and Anthropology, University of Birmingham, and is a winner of the prestigious RE Bradbury Memorial Prize. She was a former Associate Fellow of the London Metropolitan University, where she lectured for three years in Caribbean Studies and Black British History. She co-founded the ground-breaking series Guyana SPEAKS in 2017, an education and networking forum, which has become a key monthly event in the calendar of the London-based Guyanese diaspora.
In 2019 she worked on the ‘Nationality, Identity and Belonging: An Oral History of the Windrush Generation and their Relationship to the British State, 1948-2018’ project at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies and is currently working within the same institute on a three-year AHRC-funded oral history project, ‘The Windrush Scandal in a Transnational and Commonwealth Context’.
She is also a trustee on the board of the Oral History Society and a proud contributor of poetry to the international anthology of writing by women of African descent, New Daughters of Africa (2019).